An expat citizen’s critical but constructive view on Philippine tourism

Infrastructure is the key to tourism.
It enables a lot of things, but still not enough of it. As an expatriate citizen who has come back and forth over the past twenty years, I cannot say things improved much. Admittedly, some new highways and skyways, but overall, facilities remain woefully deficient and unable to keep pace with growth, economic and demographic.

Still, significant improvements can be done simply by enhancing the systems that manage and operate transportation and logistics. To my mind, the key problems involve: clarity, connectivity, and cleanliness.
Clarity. Take taxis at NAIA (Ninoy Aquino International Airport) 3. Signs indicate these are outside at ground level, but all one sees there are airport taxis. Regular taxis are located upstairs. This is downright deceptive, since one must proactively inquire as to where the regular taxis are. (And sometimes, card-carrying airport officials brazenly lie and pretend that none are available, before ever-so-kindly directing you to the airport taxis.) Travelers should at least be presented with the clear option. In this sense, NAIA-3 is even a step backward from NAIAs-1 and 2, where regular taxis are queued up in plain line of sight from the exit. Meanwhile, buses, jeepneys and other public utility vehicles have nothing more than confusing hand-painted signs that list destinations. At terminals, there should be maps that illustrate the routes, so prospective passengers can make independent assessments.As for the Metro Rail Transit, would it be too difficult to refurbish the cars with the automated systems that announce or indicate the next stop? Considering there isn’t even adequate rolling stock to run trains at proper intervals, perhaps this is indeed the case. But it only further highlights how Manila’s metro system is visibly antiquated, and annoyingly opaque.

Connectivity. The biggest obstacle is the absence of an integrated, comprehensive scheme that incorporates all the various existing systems into a coherent network. Consider NAIA, and its scattered, poorly-linked terminals. Contrast this to much of Greater East Asia, where a single, large complex in the capital is the norm (Hong Kong, Singapore, Beijing, Suvarnabumi, Incheon, the list goes on). Or there is a truly functional ground transport system, like in Tokyo, for moving between Narita and Haneda. Whereas in Manila, any transfer between NAIA terminals is a sure hassle, typically managed only through prearranged pick-ups and plenty of time allowance for traffic. Considering that all the NAIA terminals use the same airfield anyway, perhaps there is some way to devise transfer routes that allow passengers to stay on airport grounds and avoid the traffic outside.

Cleanliness. No, not talking about uncollected garbage and dirty lavatories — though again, compared with the rest of the region, these really need to be addressed as well. Rather, I’m referring to the integrity of the personnel and agencies tasked which administrating these systems. Already I’ve alluded to the mendacious (and price-gouging) behavior of the “authorized” airport-taxi dispatchers, but examples of dysfunction abound. What can one say when one observes Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) traffic enforcers stopping cars right in the very middle of the road? Thus causing more traffic!

Granted, at NAIA, at least gone are the days when one might feel obliged to leave some dollars tucked behind one’s customs form, but then again, there are still scandals like tanim-bala. Unfortunately, such problems reflect a perverse and pervasive institutional culture, and can only be rectified through firm and thorough reforms. This, clearly, is a political problem, and it can only be dealt with politically.

As one novel once asked? (What is to be done?) The title of a novel by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, and quoted by many others, notably Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov-Lenin.

How then to generate momentum for the planning and funding that can address these problems?

Whether or not things are truly “more fun in the Philippines,” the numbers are up for in-bound visitors. This can be a positive, noncontroversial area for building consensus on future policy planning directions. For who is going to openly oppose tourism development?

Yet further tourism development requires infrastructure!

So, perhaps policy advocates and strategists can explore how to invoke tourism and engage tactically with specific aspects in order to ensure that new investments and projects are carefully crafted and targeted to deliver positive externalities for other sectors. Or as an American movie line put it: “If you build it, they will come,” (Field of Dreams).

So instead of arguing for infrastructure for its own sake, it may be more practical to adopt an indirect approach. If the leadership cannot be persuaded to invest for long-run returns, perhaps they may be lured to urgency by the prospect of tourist dollars and won. In effect, pandering to the greed of the politicians. Or to rephrase theoretically: aligning a long-term economic agenda with the existing incentive system, in order to facilitate acceptance by the status quo.

So, what is to be done? An embedded infrastructure policy, with all the attendant benefits for industry and other sectors — presented via a tourism development plan.

To be clear, this is not an endorsement of tourism as some “carrier industry” that can carry the broader economy by generating both the backward linkages — necessary to consolidate domestic value chains — and forward linkages — to new innovations and sectors that would propel the country forward.

To my mind, there are no established historical examples of a developed country that transformed its economy by deploying tourism as the pivotal, dynamic sector — even for raising the initial revenues (as a kind of “primitive accumulation”) for reinvestment in actual productive areas, like manufacturing or information technology.

Nevertheless, tourism can assist industry by serving as a complementary sector that facilitates political justification and support for the large government spending required for infrastructure and other critical investments.

Eric Demafeliz is currently doing voluntary work for Action for Economic Reforms (www.aer.ph) He is a young development professional with experience in the United Nations system. Previously based in New York and Rome, he worked with the Food and Agriculture Organization on its advocacy and partnership programs.

This article was first posted on BusinessWorld last February 23, 2016.
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