Philippine tourism: Held hostage again?

When Philippine President Benigno Aquino III formally declared 2015 as the year to visit the Philippines, I thought “right on!” 

Having spent nearly four years living in the nation while serving as the US Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank and then returned many times as a board member of humanitarian organization Community & Family Services International, I have long felt that the beauty and charm of the nation deserved much more attention.

From Batanes to Baguio to Sorsogon to Siquijor and Cotobato, I have seen the breadth of the country and all it has to offer travellers to and within Asia.

On March 30, Aquino signed Proclamation 991 declaring 2015 as “Visit the Philippines Year.” And indeed the nation will get some very high-profile visitors, expected to include US President Barack Obama, when the APEC summit comes to Manila this November.

Against this backdrop, I was saddened to hear the recent news of a return to violence and kidnapping. As of Thursday, September 24, two Canadians, a Norwegian and a Filipina were still missing after having been kidnapped from a tourist resort on Samal Island, near Davao City. 

The news brought back memories from more than a decade ago of kidnappings by the Islamist separatist group Abu Sayyaf and others. The deaths of hostages in the Dos Palmas kidnappings in Palawan in early 2001 dominated headlines some 15 years ago.

Now, from Manila to Bangkok, questions are being raised again about how safe is travel to Southeast Asia.

Thailand – the leading Southeast Asian destination for visitors – continues to investigate the bombing of a revered religious shrine in central Bangkok. The August bombing, which injured more than a 100 and killed 20 people – many of ethnic Chinese origin – led Hong Kong to raise its  “Outbound Travel Alert for Bangkok to red. “Residents intending to visit Thailand (Bangkok) should adjust their travel plans and avoid non-essential travel, including leisure travel,” said the official Hong Kong government news release.

Other nations still have travel warnings or advisories in place for Bali and other Southeast Asian destinations, well after the September 2001 terrorist attacks which devastated the travel and tourism sector for some time.

Arrests and investigations continue to play out as to who was behind the Bangkok bombing, and whether an "international terrorist group" was involved. Regardless, steps will need to be taken on fundamental traveler safety and security issues. This is as true in Thailand as it is in the Philippines. And such steps must be taken not just for tourists, but also for a nation's own citizens.  All lives matter, tourist or resident.

Greater connectivity

So, what more can the Philippines and indeed all the nations of Southeast Asia do as a region to keep travel and tourism as a key economic contributor to local businesses and communities? 

The 10 countries that comprise the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, have committed in the past to a vision of “responsible, sustainable and inclusive tourism development." The need for greater connectivity of Southeast Asia’s diversity of destinations also will be underscored in an “ASEAN Tourism Strategic Plan, 2016-2020” to be launched at the 2016 ASEAN Tourism Forum to be held in the Philippines. 

But ensuring greater information sharing and other steps to ensure visitor safety is also critical. Policy makers also should recommit to three broad steps to ensure that Southeast Asia remains competitive, individually and collectively, and safe as a destination. 

First, ASEAN member nations must work to build greater flexibility and segmentation into their efforts.  The ability of hotels and tour operators, among others, to adapt is critical particularly as the visitor mix evolves. Meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions may well come to the forefront for some destinations. The growing numbers of Chinese tourists and the need to tailor marketing and outreach efforts to their needs, just as has been done for Korean and Japanese visitors in the past, is one clear trend that can be leveraged.  

Chinese travellers already now make up about 25 percent of all foreign visitors annually to Thailand, and their presence is being felt across the region. More than 4 million visitors from China traveled to Thailand in the first half of this year alone, and those numbers were expected to grow, prior to the recent bombing.  

The Philippines too must be prepared for growing numbers but also a shifting makeup of inward bound visitors' home countries. The aftermath of the killing of Hong Kong tourists taken hostage on a bus near Rizal Park in 2010 as well as tensions between China and the Philippines over territory in the West Philippines Sea led to drops in Chinese visitors to the country.

Second, all 10 nations of ASEAN must continue to invest in their product offering. This must include finding funds for the maintenance of existing destinations as well as the establishment of new ones.  While not every nation will have the resources of a Singapore to fund landmark new attractions such as the city-state’s award-winning Gardens by the Bay, investment and a supporting regulatory environment is critical to ensure continued competitiveness.

The need for resources for both development and maintenance also is best addressed by partnership with and involvement of the private sector. Development of a corruption–free, enabling environment for business to succeed must be a clear priority.

The recent “2015 Formula 1 Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix” is just one example of a corporate-supported travel attraction and how public and private sectors can work together. And as hotels and restaurants must reinvest in their properties, so too must government-owned attractions, from national parks to state-funded museums and airports.

And third, all of ASEAN must recognize that the region’s sustained attractiveness will be driven by its residents and the services they provide – and then act accordingly.  At the heart of Southeast Asia’s attractiveness as a destination must be its people – more than buildings or beaches, no matter how historic or attractive. Educational investments must follow as well as access to capital, with clear metrics for success.

Community involvement

For emerging destinations in particular, this focus on human resources and capacity building is as critical as any focus on building core physical infrastructure. 

Community involvement also will be important to build support for nascent travel and tourism efforts and to help ensure tourism dollars stay in the community. Even the richest of ASEAN’s member states also must address the issue of human capital as higher paying industries draw people away.

Even amid terrorism worries, Southeast Asia’s attractiveness as a destination rightly endures. Tourism can more than survive. It can continue to thrive, attracting growing numbers from Hong Kong, Mainland China, Japan, Korea and elsewhere.

Many visitors to the Philippines can attest to this – that it is indeed “more fun” in the Philippines. But beyond the brand campaigns, a focus on strengthened security and basic law and order will be fundamental to the sustained growth of any ASEAN member state’s tourism sector, including the Philippines'. 

Vigilance and preparation are key. From Metro Manila to the islands of Mindanao, lessons must be learned and acted upon if “Visit Philippines Year” is to succeed this and every subsequent year. – Rappler.com

  

Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC.  Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.