The Philippines remains a tourism laggard in Southeast Asia because of poor infrastructure support. It is well-known for its pristine beaches, spectacular diving sites and friendly people. But transporting foreign tourists to famous local destinations is a big challenge.
Foreign tourist arrivals in the Philippines have steadily risen each year, but not enough or even close to match those of our Asian neighbors. The Philippines remains outside the top 10 tourist destinations in Asia, with China, Japan and Hong Kong easily emerging as the most favored tourist destinations.
Here in Southeast Asia, the Philippines ranks sixth in foreign tourist arrivals in 2019 with 8 million visitors. Thailand led the list with 39.8 million foreign tourists in 2019, followed by Malaysia with 20.1 million. Vietnam registered foreign tourist arrivals of 18 million, while Singapore logged 15.9 million.
Indonesia is ranked fifth with 13.6 million arrivals while Cambodia at seventh place is closing in on the the Philippines with 6.7 million. The Philippines clearly has a lot of catching up to do with its foreign visitor arrivals of 8 million last year.
Bringing in more foreign tourists to the Philippines is not an impossible task. The Philippines could soon be among the top 10 destinations in Asia amid government’s efforts to modernize major airports and seaports, and build more roads that will make major tourist spots more accessible to foreign visitors. The government has little choice but to promote local tourism sites and improve the infrastructure network. Tourism is one industry that directly creates jobs and makes a major impact in the countryside.
A sharp increase in the number of foreign visitor arrivals will require the construction of more hotels and resorts, especially those in rural areas, to accommodate the guests. More foreign tourists will force the government to upgrade the country’s airports and seaports, and the higher number will eventually trickle down to the local community.
But we must first get our act together and identify our priorities. The infrastructure gaps in many island destinations in the country have limited the overall tourist experience, competitiveness of the destination sites and the attractiveness to investors.
The P10-billion allocation for the tourism sector under the proposed Bayanihan to Recover as One Act to fund the construction of toilets, roads and other infrastructure projects is the first major step to reinvigorate the industry. The proposed allocation of P10 billion to the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority under the bill is noteworthy. Infrastructure investments have a high multiplier effects on the economy. They give an immediate solution to the problem of providing jobs to many of the tourism industry’s 5.7 million workers, who have lost their jobs temporarily or permanently as a result of the economic crisis triggered by the global pandemic.
Tourism sites, for instance, need basic infrastructure such as water sewerage systems to preserve the ecological balance in one particular area and keep tourists coming back. We must not forget “over-tourism” in the case of Boracay Island that had to be closed for at least six months in 2018 to pave the way for its rehabilitation.
Senator Franklin Drilon, however, is ignoring the long-term benefits of basic infrastructure projects. He supported the position of the Tourism Congress of the Philippines and other major industry stakeholders that are clamoring for “direct aid” in the form of loans to the affected businesses.
Bailing out private businesses through public funds as Mr. Drilon favors, instead of building basic infrastructure projects, is bereft of industry foresight. Tourism infrastructure is not limited to construction of public toilets. It can include rehabilitation of tourist destinations and facilities, boosting digital infrastructure, and improving drainage facilities, power and water supply. The tourism recovery efforts should be holistic.
Why Mr. Drilon opted to listen to the big industry players rather than to the ordinary tourism workers is perplexing. Placing the “funds for assistance” under the exclusive control of the Department of Tourism will not guarantee support to the tourism enterprises or workers in the informal sector.
The senator himself had pushed for a grand and major infrastructure project in Iloilo, like the construction of the Iloilo Convention Center (P800 million) and the Iloilo International Airport (P8.8 billion).
Senator Drilon knew that the construction of tourism infrastructure can provide long term benefits to a particular city or province. Since the completion of the Iloilo Convention Center in 2015, visitor arrivals in the city had reached 1.24 million in 2018 from just 627,000 in 2013.
The Philippine tourism sector will surely play a major role in the economy because it directly generates jobs. But the nation will always lag behind our Southeast Asian neighbors if we continue neglecting infrastructure support.
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