How to be a tourism billionaire

Tourism is the world’s biggest and most exciting industry. Last year, more than a billion tourists spent over $1 trillion gallivanting around the planet. The top 10 destinations, according to the United Nations-affiliated World Tourism Organization, are (1) France, (2) the United States, (3) Spain, (4) China, (5) Italy, (6) Great Britain, (7) Turkey, (8) Germany, (9) Malaysia and (10) Mexico.

Bottom dweller. Note that among the 10 topnotchers are two of our Asian neighbors. China had 51 million visitors who poured in $39.7 billion into the Chinese economy, and Malaysia had 23.6 million visitors who spent $30 billion –much more the remittance of $18.7 billion of all our OFWs last year. I am not surprised by the Chinese performance but the big wow is Malaysia.

Among the bottom-dwellers was the Philippines with 3.5 million visitors who spent $2.49 billion. The tourist attractions of Malaysia are similar to ours. But it received almost 10 times more tourists and earned 10 times more dollars than us. If we can replicate just half of the Malaysian performance, our economy will boom. And perhaps, our people need not go abroad to find jobs.

How can the Philippines become a tourism multi-billionaire? Our Department of Tourism pinned its hope on its “action-oriented” National Tourism Development Plan (NTDP), which aims to “attract about 6.5 million foreign tourists and generate 2.9 million new jobs in the next five years.”

Without preempting the new tourism secretary (Ramon Jimenez), I think any tourism program should consider at least five basic things: (1) product, (2) transportation, (3) accommodation, (4) facilitation, and (5) marketing.

Stress the positives. On the first, our “product,” I think we should learn to capitalize on our “positives,” like our naturally hospitable, smiling and English-speaking people; and the very reasonable prices of our food, hotels, shopping and entertainment. We need to stress our multi-culture heritage and natural attractions like beaches (nothing in the world beats Boracay).

We have to attend to basic infrastructures. Let’s improve the Manila airport pronto; it is the worst capital airport in Asia. Let’s solve the Piatco imbroglio that has lingered for over 10 years now. If San Miguel can create a miracle in the Caticlan airport as the gateway to Boracay, we can do it anywhere.

And let’s plan long term for the Diosdado Macapagal Airport in Pampanga. It may be “far” from Manila, but so are the huge Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur airports. Yet, with proper rail and freeway links, these new international gateways are admired everywhere. Did you ever wonder why cruise ships practically ignore our country? Well, let us provide better facilities for them!

And we need to improve our negatives, like our peace and order in certain areas. Let’s not bring tourists where we cannot assure them of safety. In tourist havens, let’s have visible tourist police. Let’s improve our vanishing sidewalks. One of the first things tourists do is to walk around their hotel. Can that be done in Manila where sidewalks are used as garbage dumps, repair shops and parking lots?

Review open skies policy. On the second item, transportation, almost all our tourists arrive by air. And yet, we still have a confusing air policy. On April 3, I wrote on “open skies” and will not now repeat my thesis. Suffice it to say that no country in the world succeeded in its tourism program by sacrificing its national air carriers.

Perhaps, at a distant past when Philippine Airlines did not have sufficient capacity, it made sense to think of open skies. But now, PAL’s capacity has been greatly improved. And we have new carriers, like Cebu Pacific, that can fill whatever capacity gaps there may be.

Aside from international carriers, we need to review our domestic air links, shipping lines, tourist buses, taxis, and our crude railroad tracks. Years ago, the DoT was advertising the Banaue Rice Terraces. The big question was: How do we get there?

Facilitation refers to government formalities, like visas, immigration, customs and security checks. Our ragtag Manila airport is one of the few in the world that still charges an “airport terminal fee.” Melvin Cruz, a successful Filipino hotel executive in the United States, sadly told me recently that cruise ships avoid us because of difficulty in dealing with immigration and customs personnel.

On accommodation, we have great hotels here that charge reasonable rates. But we need many more hotel rooms of the kind and price range that complement the NTDP’s aim to double our tourist arrivals in five years. It is not easy to build hotels. We need feasibility studies, visionary entrepreneurs, resources, time and stable government policies.

Finally, our marketing must be synchronized with our product. If we decide to sell mainly beaches, then we need to find foreign tourists who want them. We cannot sell beaches to mountain climbers or to non-swimmers. Also, the world is a huge market. We need to segment it and focus on the tourists who want our attractions.

Marketing programs take time. Foreign tourists plan their vacations years before they undertake them. Big tour wholesalers take three years to include new destinations in their programs. This requires consistency and constancy in our marketing campaigns. “Malaysia truly Asia” was trumpeted for over five years before it took root. Let’s take lessons from other countries. Let’s be consistent and coherent in our marketing campaigns.

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