Philippines’ warm hearts and smiles
Secretary of Tourism Alberto Lim discusses his country’s strategies to attract more tourists and why they should visit for more than just the sun and sand
The Filipino diaspora is the ninth largest in the world per capita, and in the U.S. OFWs comprise the fourth largest remittance market. What is your ministry doing to encourage their return?
Our undersecretary visited the U.S. in late 2010 and launched the Filipino Homecoming year 2011. We want to bring Filipinos home this year for big homecoming events. This year is the 400th anniversary of one of the oldest schools in the country and the 150th anniversary of our national hero, Jose Rizal. We wanted to coincide the homecoming year with these events.
In 2012, we also want to do a Visit Philippines year, but we need to build up to that because we lack the infrastructure and we need a higher standard of products, i.e. service delivery. Warm hearts and smiles are the strengths of the Filipinos but an international traveller also expects the food to be delivered to his or her table hot with the proper utensils. These are the standards you can’t take for granted.
We have to develop our product before we brand it: safety, information, variety, etc. I have to make people understand that the Department of Tourism is not just a marketing arm of tourism .We have to let tourists know what they are getting for their money.
What opportunities are available for investment and cooperation with regards to tourism?
There are a number of investments for infrastructure projects including airports in our priority destinations in the center of the Philippines. One of them is Bohol, which has very nice beaches, old churches, wildlife and coral reefs. We’re also going to extend the runway at Puerta Princesa, and Legazpi is an up and coming destination as well. You can swim with whale sharks there. These are the destinations we would like to develop.
How do you feel the potential for the retirement market and the medical tourism market is?
I think we are only doing about 10% of what Thailand is doing. Our medical people speak English, and that should be an advantage. Except the problem is that the people in the hospitals are saying that we need open skies.
If you are flying in from Europe and you need to stop in Bangkok, why would you change planes to come over to the Philippines when you can stay in Bangkok? It should be cheaper here, as well, so we should have a bigger segment than what we actually have today.
One can retire very cheaply here, and we need to start developing this segment of the tourism market.
You are a co-author of the Open Skies Policy, which would certainly offer greater accessibility to the country for air travel. For a country that receives 95% of people via aircraft on 7,000 airlines, this will obviously be of crucial importance.
When do you expect these reforms to take place?
They’ve already been done but they’ve not yet been implemented. There are a few organizational matters left to resolve, but it is still a good idea to draft a law so that when the next administration comes in the legislation is already there.
Clark is home to budget airlines, and people can fly out of Clark which is 56 miles from Manila for as little as $40-60 to another Asian capital. This shows how tourism has really grown with this policy. We are trying to replicate this policy in other secondary airports around the country, and I am sure that this is the key to development.
When you have more people coming in, they will need places to stay, so there will be more investment in accommodation, and then prices will come down because of competition, so it becomes a cycle.
The Philippines takes 1% of the total global revenue for MICE (meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions), last year bringing in $3 billion.
Yes, but it is a little disappointing considering we used to be number one. We started out in 1976 and we built a convention center, which used to be the largest in Asia, but now we have been left behind. It’s now small compared to what the region has to offer. But this is a private sector thing, and the government should offer incentives so that the private sector can come in and build exhibition and conventions centers.
We have an advantage as regards MICE in that we speak English, for example. People want to look for new destinations, and we are a tried and tested destination – it’s just that our facilities are not big enough.