Philippine tourism: Rhetoric vs reality

There is “rhetoric” and then there is  “reality,” and sometimes the distance between the two is not a line but a wide abyss.

During the first half of 2016, the United States, Australia, France and New Zealand issued travel warnings to their respective citizens about coming to the Philippines. While these warnings usually were something like “avoid travel to the Southern Philippines,” as usual, the public perception was “avoid travel to the Philippines.”

The decline in tourist arrivals continued until after the national elections, with a large increase in July 2016. But then, the trend reversed sharply to the downside, perhaps in response to the negative rhetoric about the Philippines, as President Duterte changed the nation’s foreign policy focus and reacted strongly to any foreign government criticism of his administration. The international press also reacted strongly—and negatively—to Duterte, and they started casting the Philippines in a bad light.

However, October 2016 saw an increase in arrivals until January 2017, which saw the largest monthly number of foreign tourists coming into the country since records have been kept. At the beginning of the year, the Department of Tourism (DOT) was looking at a target of 6.5 million foreign visitors in 2017.

In May the Marawi siege started, and the controversy and extremely negative international reaction and publicity to the government’s war on drugs were in full bloom. While still at historically high levels, monthly arrivals showed a constant decrease through June 2017.

The DOT reported that international arrivals reached 4.4 million from January to August, up 10 percent year-on-year. That was not a bad performance. The DOT had projected the average number of monthly arrivals in 2017 at 541,600 (6.5 million divided by 12 months) and the eight-month average was 550,000 (4.4 million divided by eight months).

We know that rhetoric impacts—or should affect—reality. If governments are concerned about safety conditions for their citizens, then arrivals would be lower. That is the rhetoric. In October the United Kingdom issued a travel warning. However, the arrival numbers from the DOT showed something different. The overall trend of foreign tourism is up.

Arguing that Philippine tourism is just a shadow of our regional neighbors is valid, but does not change the reality that we are still seeing an increase.

According to a recent statement by Tourism Undersecretary Rolando Cañizal, South Korea accounted for 24 percent of foreign arrivals. The largest number of tourists is coming from North Asia, including China, Japan and South Korea. The United States is still number two, but this may be because of the balikbayan Filipinos holding US passports.

However, in spite of the sometimes-rocky relations between the Philippines and China, arrivals from China are up 35 percent in 2017. While not a large player in our tourism market, arrivals by Russian citizens grew by 27 percent.

The conclusion might be made that those countries that know and understand the Philippines are not put off by the negative rhetoric, understanding the fact that the Philippines is home to multiple cultures and traditions that continue to draw international interest. As a result of the most recent tourism numbers, the DOT has raised their estimate of total arrivals for 2017 to 7 million. Let’s hope that becomes a reality.

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