Tourism: is our "low hanging fruit" bearing well?
Photo: Rise in Tourism as a percentsge of GDP (Phil. Statistics Authority)

Travel agents attending a briefing of Hongkong based airline Cathay Dragon in Davao City listen with excitement as the carrier completes their briefing on the coming launch of a direct Davao to Hongkong flight scheduled on Oct. 28.

Pia Partoza Montano, a travel agent and head of Davao`s tour operators association is excited with the prospects of this flight, the city`s first direct regular air link to China since local budget carrier ended its flights to the southern Philippine city in 2008.

"The city is ready to accept more foreign visitors. We are excited since will have more options when we travel not only to Hongkong but other destinations in Asia, USA, Europe, Australia, New Zealand," Montano says, noting the expected volume of visitors from both countries and how this will make the route a viable one.

Her enthusiasm is shared by the City`s Tourism and Operations Office that recorded a total of 208,645 tourist arrivals during the recent Kadayawan festival last August despite Martial Law in effect over the city and island .

This recent surge in Davao City reflects the potential of other locations which were once not considered prime locations for tourism, unlike the popular island of Boracay which was recently declared closed for rehabilitation following the discovery of high coliform levels in many of its beaches. The closure elicited protests from many quarters warning of a massive drop in tourism revenues due to cancellations to the well known island.

Recent tourism statistics, however, dispel the fears. The country`s Department of Tourism has reported that despite the closure of the island announced three months prior, half year foreign tourism arrivals to the country increased by almost 10 percent when compared to the same period in 2017.

This raised the GDP contribution of tourism in 2017, contributing 12.2 percent to the economy. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, the share of Tourism Direct Gross Value Added (TDGVA) to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2017 amounted to PhP 1,929.3 billion at current prices, higher by 24.2 percent than the previous year’s record of PhP 1,553.7 billion. The sector by itself employed 5.3 million in 2017, higher by 0.9 percent compared to 5.2 million in the previous year.

Current Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo Puyat has indicated a clear desire to use tourism to reduce poverty, which means focusing on areas not often served, and not just the popular destinations.

Many attractions are located in areas far from cities, the incomes often contribute to regional growth, as tourists spend on local hotels, restaurants and sightseeing activities, boosting rural incomes.

Being a former undersecretary of agriculture, she champions farm tourism as a way to raise countryside incomes, placing her in a unique position to help tourism spread to various regions creating new wealth for local communities.

In her May 29 , 2018 speech at the Senate, she emphasized thay the "Duterte administration believes tourism is an important driver of the economy. It is expressed in our 10-point socio-economic agenda highlighting the promotion of rural tourism. Tourism is a priority sector expected to reduce poverty and inequality.

Challenges to boosting further growth

Nonetheless, boosting tourism further from this years achievements is faced with challenges inherited from past governments, such as poor rural infrastructure.

In an article by industry observer Andrew Masigan in his Sept.17 column in Business world, the lack of infrastructure in many rural areas is cited, as facilities that can cater to large volumes of high spending foreign tourists, such as terminals and stopover areas for cruise ships are needed. Such facilities can receive thousands of tourists.

Likewise, many airports are still in the process of obtaining night rating to enable tourists to maximize their stay by landing or taking off in the evenings.

DOT has wide support from stakeholders

Despite these challenges, many tourism stakeholders are buoyed by the results of the increased numbers of arrivals, and the support that their sector is getting by way of a supportive Secretary with an agenda for the regions, which can enable higher local growth, increase rural incomes and employ more.

Masigan notes that the Department of Tourism has a "sensible roadmap" and competent personnel for the task. He wrote that it has "all the components in place to achieve its goals."

With a new Secretary at the helm, and many local areas getting direct regular flights from abroad, the growth of tourism from low hanging fruit to major economic growth contributor is likely to continue as opportunities spread to the regions as new destinations are discovered and promoted.