A post dedicated to my beloved country: Random ideas to place the Philippines on top of the tourist map

It’s really a shame that the Philippines is way behind its neighbors because tourists’ money is the best way to bring foreign money in. So much better than brain drain.

It’s not that tourism in the Philippines hasn’t picked up. Numbers have risen steadily at 10-20% over the past few years to 4.3 million tourist arrivals in 2012. My sister mentioned to me that groups and groups of Koreans started flocking to the Philippines. That’s a good start.

But if we compare that with Thailand, the Philippines pales in comparison – a staggering 22 million! Even Vietnam is ahead with 6.8 million in 2012.

So what should Philippines do differently? Here are my personal thoughts from my travel experiences. Department of Tourism, hope this gets to you.

1. More direct international flights please

Eveytime I try to promote our islands, every single foreigner asks this question: So how do I get there? After explaining that it requires taking a flight to Manila, then a domestic flight the next morning, then a boat, then a tricycle, they zone out. Why bother if Phuket and Bali offer straight flights? There are some friends of mine who overcame that hurdle and end up going back again and again, but we are at a negative competitive ground just because of this. I heard we started flying from Hong Kong to Caticlan (Boracay’s entry point). How about from Singapore? Bangkok? KL? I will consider visiting Boracay again if I can fly straight from Singapore. Cebu just doesn’t make the cut as a beautiful destination for me. If Palawan, Camiguin, Mindoro had straight flights I’ll be the first one to sign up. And no odd times please. I need my Friday night fly in and Sunday night fly out. Just how Bangkok, Bali, Penang, Jakarta, and Hong Kong do it.

2. Fix the local public transport system.

I am now in Phnom Penh airport killing time and if there is one thing I absolutely hate about PeaPea (my new nick for this city), it’s the ceremonial haggling with tuktuks. I am aware that anywhere around the world, cab/tuktuk drivers have the worst reputations relative to the rest of the population. But countries like Indonesia and Vietnam found a solution without spending billions of dollars on
an efficient MRT system. They
developed honest, professional taxi companies. It’s Blue Bird for Indonesia and Mai Linh/Vinasun for Vietnam. They’re efficient, honest, and convenient – call their number and the taxi comes right away. It makes traveling much more pleasant and removes the fear of being conned. Bangkok has a fantastic BTS system so that is not an issue.

3.Focus the marketing strategy on what makes us different

I agree that our beaches are one of the best in the world (so far I can only cite Maldives and Ta Chai/Similan in Thailand who can compare to ours), but a beach is a beach. A Spanish fort is a Spanish fort. And yes, only a person who has been to the Philippines will understand what friendliness and smiling really mean. We need a more controversial campaign that specifically mention what makes us standout.

Since I have an hour to kill, allow me to indulge on my crazy thoughts – here are some ideas for TV ads…

-When you need to ask something you don’t need a translator. Everyone speaks English. And no. You don’t have to stay in a five star hotel to experience that

-When we say swimming 100ft will let you see live corals and as many types of fish you can imagine in Coron, you will not be compromised with the yellow and black striped fish and fossilized corals in Thailand

-When we say white sand in Boracay we really mean white sand

-How Taal rivals Mt. Bromo

– And how Halong Bay’s water look dirty compared to El Nido. That’s what my Filipino friends tell me. I have yet to see for myself.

4. Promote our food

One of the factors influencing a person’s decision where to go is the food. Look at Bangkok and Hong Kong. But Filipino food is not as well known. People always ask me what Filipino food is. We have to be realistic that Filipino food will never be universally appealing, but there are some we should promote profusely. All of us know the saying, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” I would like to add the corollary: “The way to a tourist’s heart is through his stomach, too!”

What should we promote. I’m thinking…

– Mangoes. I’ve tasted it all. Nothing compares to the Philippine mango. And mango shake! Nothing compares to our mango shakes.

– Adobo. Our favorite stew. Need I say more

– Spanish delicacies. Just as Vietnam boasts of its French cuisine and their expertise of making French bread and pastries (they have the best croissants in Asia hands down. So Singapore, no, don’t blame your bad baking skills on humidity or ingredients. The Vietnamese do it well), we make the best Spanish delights in this part of the world – lechon, leche flan, ensaymada, polvoron, barquillos, paella, you name it. I tried them in Seville and ours are of the same quality. Everyone is aware that the Philippines is a former Spanish colony, but not a lot are aware that we have world-class Spanish food.

– Any other I missed?

And this goes beyond telling people about it. We have to consciously make an effort to export and promote these products so that they’ll look for the better and fresher version back home.

5.Capitalize on our colonial past

In the Southeast Asia region, no one has better Catholic churches or forts than the Philippines. If we highlight this, travelers in the region who do not have the time or the budget to go to Europe will check us out. Focus on our church interiors: Manila Cathedral, San Sebastian, San Agustin. Our forts in the north. The haciendas in Bacolod. The list goes on.

6. At the same time promote things we are exceptionally good at

Whether it’s music, art, fashion, there still a lot of opportunities to promote our talent to attract tourists. We are good at entertainment but we really haven’t promoted well. Korea did a really good job at this. Now everyone goes to Nami Island just because Winter Sonata was filmed there!

7. Local travel agents. Please organize day trips or even short trips to the must see places. Be innovative with the tours to make the sights more convenient and accessible.

A friend, who loves to travel as much as I do, went to Sagada and Vigan. He does not want to rough it and take local buses, understandable, but he complained he had to charter his own car and driver which costs a lot. What Vietnam does really well is creating scale to run group tours. Economical and way better than taking public transport.

Why not take a step further. Chopper rides to the Sagada and back. I would be the first to sign up. And nice luxurious accomodations. Not homestays. Then I don’t need to settle with the rice fields in Ubud.

8. Restructure PAL. Or just open up the airline industry. Seriously.

I had my worst experiences with PAL. Perhaps I was just unlucky. I heard Cebu PAC got better but I also
had my share of bump offs. I’d rather fly Garuda or Vietnam Airlines. How can AirAsia, Tiger, and Jetstar do it well and PAL couldn’t? My flights are always delayed, the staff are always dominated with grumpy staff, and once they had to put tape on the outlet where the mask drops off.

I bet there are so many ways which we can contribute. I’ll try to start doing my share by revisiting Philippine attractions whenever I can. To those who are in one way or another part of the government or tourism industry, I suggest you see how others are doing it. And make it even better.

Hopefully the next time I don’t need to change flights to get there.

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