Last week, the Department of Tourism (DoT) announced that foreign arrivals breached the 4.1 million mark in the first semester of the year, an 11.43% increase from last year. It expressed confidence that it would meet its whole year target of 8.2 million visitors.
Without taking away from the success of the DoT, we should also look at how our arrival performance compares with that of our neighbors. Doing so will provide context on how well we are doing and a sense of how big the market truly is.
Let us not even consider the region’s big three — Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore, whose tourism programs are highly developed. They play in the 20 million to 40 million visitor range.
Within our neighborhood are Vietnam and Indonesia since we all share the same infrastructure challenges, albeit to varying degrees. For this year, Vietnam is working towards welcoming 18 million visitors, a 15% increase from its record last year. Indonesia is targeting 20 million visitors, but this is unlikely to be attained since it failed to reach its targets for two years in a row. Analysts believe that 18 million is a more realistic number for them.
The Philippines is 10 million visitors short in comparison. This only means we must grow between 20 to 30% annually to narrow the gap.
For the longest time, infrastructure bottlenecks impeded the development of our tourism industry. The lack of airports and access roads to connect ports to tourist destinations made it too difficult, if not too expensive, to navigate our islands.
The good news is that the infrastructure gap is slowly being filled. In the last three years, 962 kilometers of new roads were built to connect ports to tourism destinations while two brand new international airports were inaugurated in Mactan and Panglao. On top of this, 27 domestic airports were either expanded, renovated, or night rated.
The effects were immediate. Forty new flights have been added to connect Mactan, Panglao, Palawan, Davao, and Clark, directly to cities like Tokyo, Dubai, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, Macau, Singapore, Seoul, and Taipei, among others. This translates to more than 1.6 million inbound seats.
The route development team of the DoT wants to get Australian and New Zealand carriers to call on Philippine airports. They represent a huge, high spending market. Fifth freedom rights (the right to carry passengers from Australia to the Philippines and onwards to a third country) have been awarded to Australian carriers as an incentive.
By next year, a second terminal in Clark and the new Bicol International Airport will come online. This will be accompanied by some 2,250 kilometers of new tourism oriented roads across the country between 2020 to 2022.
With the many developments going on, infrastructure bottlenecks will become less of an issue in the years to come. No doubt, our arrival numbers will improve as a result of it. In fact, to aspire for 10 to 15% growth is too easy. It is already a given as new infrastructure will naturally foster the growth. The DoT needs to stretch its targets.
Growth must accelerate to double the usual pace to play in the same league as Vietnam and Indonesia within a decade. It is possible. But it would require a rethinking our market positioning, marketing strategy, and size of promotional investment.
Without doubt, the “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” campaign put us on the global tourism map. I chalk up its success to four reasons. The first is that the slogan itself was also the brand promise and more often than not, that promise was met. Second, it was a marketing campaign that stood out for its vigor, color and energy. It was a stark departure from the ambiguous campaigns used by our neighbors (eg. Wonderful Indonesia or Amazing Thailand). Third, the Filipino people adopted it as their own and used it in their social media feeds with great frequency. Fourth, promotional budgets were well spent with ads appearing on international cable channels, billboards in key cities, and banners on buses and subway tubes.
The “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” campaign gave us a good kick start. It took us from 4.27 million visitors in 2012 to where we are today. That’s an annualized growth rate of 10%.
But times have changed and so must our marketing campaign. We must now work on distinguishing the Philippines (as a tourism product) from the rest of the region. We must bring to light how the Philippine experience is different from the rest. The prospect of unique experiences is what will compel travellers to choose the Philippines over the likes of Vietnam and Indonesia.
One might argue that the Philippines has the best beaches in region, if not the entire planet. Others may say that the Philippines is fairly competitive in adventure, night life, and eco-tourism. Aren’t these selling points sufficient?
The reality is Nai Harn beach in Thailand and Nusa Pedida beach in Indonesia rate higher than Boracay and Palawan on Trip Advisor. My point is, our beaches, gorgeous as they are, are not the only game in town. Other destinations, like Bali, offers a more holistic product that includes an Indo-Hindu experience on top of beautiful beaches. Hoi An in Vietnam showcases its Kinh, Bach Viet, Han Chinese and French heritage alongside the beaches of Da Nang.
The competition is intense among the tourism products in the region. We must step-up our game if we are to get our fair market share. This is where cultural tourism comes in.
Cultural tourism pertains to a traveler’s engagement with a country’s culture, specifically the lifestyle of its people, its history, its art, food, architecture, religion and other elements that shape its way of life.
I count cultural tourism to be the most powerful sub-category in the tourism spectrum as it provides context to the experiences, sights and sounds of a destination. It is what makes a destination unique, interesting, and remarkable.
The Philippines is unique in that it is the only predominantly Catholic country in the region with a strong Spanish heritage. Our Hispano-Malay culture, with all the frills that come with it, is what makes us different. Unfortunately, this facet of our culture has not been exploited in the way it should on a marketing perspective.
Jose D. Aspiras got it right when he used the arts as his main marketing tool when he was tourism minister back in 1973 to 1986. I still recall how the Madrigal Singers, the Bayanihan Dancers, Pitoy Moreno and his fashions, as well as Nora Daza and Glenda Barretto and their cookeries were made ambassadors of Philippine culture.
The move served three purposes. Not only did it paint a colorful, exotic, and romantic picture of Filipino life to the world, it made the Philippines stand out as a rich cultural destination. More importantly, it gave the Filipino himself a sense of identity. It fostered national pride.
Of course, the use of cultural ambassadors is no longer applicable these days what with the advent of the internet. Still, the principle remains the same. The different facets of our culture should be the main context in which we sell our beaches and other tourist spots. Again, beautiful beaches, without cultural context, are a dime a dozen.
We need to compete at a higher level since our neighbors have all stepped up their game. Not to do so will leave us further behind. Cultural tourism will give us the legs to run the race.
Andrew J. Masigan is an economist.