By Ana Maria Villanueva-Lykes
I once met a vagabond from Belgium who went from one country to the other, hawking her exquisitely handmade jewelry. Her dirty hair was tied up to reveal a pretty sunburned face, the face that looked like it had seen many places. But my assumption was quickly challenged with her straightforward question. “Where is that?” she asked when I told her where I’m from. “The Philippines. In Southeast Asia,” I said again, thinking she didn’t hear me clearly. She replied with a puzzled look. To save us both from embarrassment, I said, “It’s close to Thailand,” and moved on.
Unfortunately for the Philippines, this is not a singular incident. For some reason, our country remains as several tiny dots in the tourism map. Those who wish to explore Southeast Asia would quickly pin Thailand for the beaches, Indonesia for the culture in Bali, and Hong Kong for the shopping. As a country of over 7,000 islands, we have more than just beaches, culture, and shopping to offer. The Pearl of the Orient Seas has a treasure chest of gems overflowing, stunning or maybe even more brilliant than the finely cut jewels of our neighbors. A UK travel website claims the Philippines as “Asia’s undiscovered gem.” Yet we remain dulled like an unpolished precious stone.
On one hand, this can be an advantage, especially to travelers who prefer places that are not as heavily choked with sightseers. Many backpackers tout the Philippines as uncharted territory, their legendary hideout, and they’d like to keep it secret, the way The Beach in the novel of the same title was said to be. Ironically, it is said that the beach, which Alex Garland wrote about in his novel supposedly set in Thailand, was actually inspired by the beaches of Palawan.
We can’t blame Garland for keeping Palawan as his secret paradise. Neither can we hold territorial travelers culpable for the fact that we have yet to reach our tourism potential in spite of what we have to offer. According to the UN World Tourism Organization, the Philippines’ share of the whole Asia and the Pacific region was at 1.7% in terms of international arrivals in 2008.
It’s easy to blame the government for our country’s every failure. So let us point accusing fingers at them for a moment, drawing light on the fact that there is not enough effort to make tourism a national policy priority. We can also hold our leaders responsible for not creating enough incentives for foreign investors. According to former Economic Planning Secretary Gerardo Sicat, we are making progress in terms of tourism, but still lagging.
Poor infrastructure is one of the major reasons why we are still behind our Southeast Asian neighbors and not in tourism alone. The Department of Tourism is making waves with different advertising promotions, especially with the recent “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” campaign, but if we are to invite visitors over, we need to make our place more accessible and give our guests a pleasant stay with more world class establishments for high flyers and more budget friendly accommodations for backpackers.
But many regulations hinder the entry of big foreign hotel investors. “A major impediment here has been the constitutional provision against land ownership and the equity restrictions pertaining to land in corporations. Associated businesses tied up to these provisions have impeded a vibrant growth of the tourist sector over the years,” explains Sicat. Next door, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Indonesia are enjoying a steady influx of travelers because their laws are more accommodating to foreign investors in the tourism sector.
We could write an entire paper on the government’s failures to boost the country’s tourism, but while we’re pointing fingers, we need to remember that we too are responsible for promoting our country and welcoming guests. And those of us abroad are also ambassadors of our nation. We are after all the face of the Philippines, but somehow we have blurred our cultural identity. It is not that we have little pride for our motherland, but because we have become so adaptable, we have weakened our identity as Filipinos. In the U.S. for instance, we have become so Americanized that to foreign eyes we are no longer so different and thus less interesting. Our capability to quickly adjust to our situation – perhaps based on our long history of oppression and poverty – has led us to blend in with our surroundings and have become one of them – Americans, Canadians, Europeans, etc.
Even our children no longer speak the native tongue. Not only has the tongue become more fluent with the English language, it has also become more inclined to international cuisine. Our palates have quickly learned to adjust. If the Chinese crave for dumplings, they don’t just make it, they build their own restaurant which eventually grows into a town. Where in the world can you find a Filipino Town? If a Pinoy craves for lechon, they quiet the hankering with a slice of pork roast.
We have also become overcritical of our country’s flaws. When we welcome guests into our home, there is always a little bit of that hiya involved. A plate of pansit is almost always served with “pasensya ka na sa handa namin” on the side. Abroad, this can be translated to “you’ll love it, but beware of the potholes and the pollution.”
One journalist even went as far as asking if we should even consider promoting at this point when our major cities are dirty and littered with beggars everywhere. Returning to our homeland, we are quick to compare and criticize. “The traffic is horrendous. Why can’t they implement a better road system like they do in Salt Lake City?” Back in our adoptive country, we talk about how wonderful it was to go home but we miss the efficiency of the foreign system. I too have been guilty of that many times. Perhaps when asked where the Philippines is, instead of just saying that’s it’s close to Thailand, I should add that it’s more fun in the Philippines than anywhere else. And I can name more than 7,000 ways.
(The author maintains a travel blog — www.anaviajera.com.)