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Executive Talk

The leading man of Philippine tourism speaks, sort of

Nelson Alcantara, eTN editor-in-chief  Jul 15, 2011

Recent developments, like the establishment of a tourism board are more than the usual news for Philippine tourism and kidnappings of two American citizens in Zamboanga, have brought the Philippines back into international spotlight. With the exception of last year’s hostage drama involving Hong Kong tourists, not since Richard Gordon’s ubiquitous approach as tourism secretary in the early- to mid-2000s has Philippine tourism generated this much attention. Well, at least this is true in terms of coverage on eTN.

The abovementioned events make this an opportune time to publish the interview I conducted with Philippine’s new tourism secretary. The below conversation took place in May at the Philippine Department of Tourism’s head office in Manila, Philippines. Some of the information are outdated, but are presented anyway because they offer an insight on how Philippine tourism’s main man plan to execute his version of his country’s tourism.

Please state your name and your current position in Philippine tourism.
ALBERTO LIM: I am Alberto Lim, secretary of tourism.

How long have you held this position, sir?
LIM: Since last July 2010.

How did you get involved in tourism?
LIM: I’ve been in the industry since 1980, the travel trade as a resort developer and operator. I also ran an airline.

Which is called?
LIM: Inter-island Transvoyager, Inc.

Inter-island Transvoyager, Inc.?
LIM: It’s a small airline.

What other experiences have you had in travel and tourism?
LIM: I’ve been president of the Palawan Tourism Council, and the Eco-Tourism Development Council, and the Southern Tagalog Tourism Council, among others.

I’ve been to Palawan. Has the accessibility of the Underground Cave improved?
LIM: When did you go?

I was there in 2008.
LIM: The road is cemented now. It takes an hour to get there.

Would you consider yourself a travel and tourism expert?
LIM: Well, I’ve had the experience. I have had more experience than any previous secretaries assuming the job.

Secretary Durano took an introverted approach to tourism in that he focused more on regional tourism, whereas his predecessor, Richard Gordon, was very dynamic in that he attended conferences by the UN World Travel and Tourism Council (UNWTO), the International Institute for Peace through Tourism (IIPT), and he even took on the role of Pacific Asia Travel Association chairman. What is your version of Philippine tourism?
LIM: You have to do both; you cannot just do one or the other. I think it is unfair to characterize Secretary Durano as introverted, because he also promoted internationally, maybe not to the same extent as Secretary Gordon did. It’s just a matter of emphasis. But, I think we have to do both. Domestic tourism is the backbone of tourism, so we have to double that. It’s not all international visitor arrivals, although that is the primary measure of success. And in the short time we’ve been office, we have already surpassed all previous efforts.

That’s impressive. So are we going to be seeing you more at UNWTO conferences and other international trade functions? I believe that then Secretary Gordon was in line to become a member of the UNWTO Executive Council, which would have been a very big deal for the Philippines.
LIM: Well, it’s a big deal, but I think one has to pay attention to the job at hand. Spend too much time on international councils, you won’t get the work done.

He was able to promote WOW Philippines, which was the big campaign that he came up with. Many were impressed by it; the international community praised him for it.
LIM: Really?

As far as I’m concerned, that was the…
LIM: Well, you know, according to the ad companies, his own ad companies, he had to fix that right away with ”More than the Usual” [campaign] because it [WOW Philippines] wasn’t working in many countries. It works here in the Philippines; people still say that is still a very successful campaign. But in reality, it doesn’t work in Japan, it doesn’t work in Australia, it doesn’t work in Germany, it doesn’t work in many countries, because the connotation of WOW in those countries is different from the connotation here [in the Philippines].

There were acronyms [in the WOW Philippines campaign] that were specific and as far as I know, he received accolades for them. When he presented at various exhibitions, WOW for “Wear Our Wares” makes sense. To that extent, it was successful.
LIM: To that extent, but he didn’t achieve the same success as Amazing Thailand, Incredible India, Malaysia: Truly Asia.

It took years to build “Amazing Thailand” as a brand.
LIM: Well in fairness, he didn’t get a budget, because we don’t get the budget now. But I’m letting you know that you ask the brand experts, it didn’t work. It doesn’t work.

So what is Philippine’s current branding tagline?
LIM: We use “WOW” in certain markets where it works like in China; it works in China. It works here in the Philippines. But in Australia, we use “So Much, So Near.” In the US, we use “Explore Philippines.” In Japan, we use “Premium Resort Islands Philippines.” You see in Japan, the connotation of WOW is “Wow Mali” [Wow wrong]. See that’s the transliteration.

It’s a cultural thing?
LIM: It’s a cultural thing, the transliteration is “Wow, they did something wrong.”

Well, from my perspective, the WOW campaign worked in events such as the World Travel Market in London [the second largest travel trade exhibition in the world] and ITB Berlin [the largest travel trade exhibition in the world].
LIM: Well, it has always been used.

It is still being used.
LIM: Yes, but it doesn’t have the impact.

So why are you using it in London and Berlin still?
LIM: Berlin, we do want to re-do it.

I asked Secretary Gordon, Chairman Gordon now [for Red Cross Philippines], to attend this year’s World Travel & Tourism Council annual summit in Las Vegas. He mentioned that he was interested in going, so I facilitated a way to get him an invitation. Do you know WTTC?
LIM: I’ve heard of them.

They are comprised of one hundred executives from the top one hundred most influential private organizations in global travel and tourism. They’re holding their yearly summit in Las Vegas this year. Last year, it was held in Beijing, China, and the year before that it was held in Florianopolis, Brazil. Next year, Tokyo, Japan, will be the host. Upon my arrival in Manila [in early May] and after meeting with Chairman Gordon and seeing that he was interested in participating, I managed to have WTTC send him an invitation letter in about two or three days after our initial meeting. When we spoke on the phone last, he asked me if I invited somebody from the Department of Tourism (DOT) and I told him that I hadn’t. He then said he was going to inform your office because it makes more sense for DOT to show up. I’m not sure if he has done that.
LIM: No, he didn’t.

That makes me look stupid to the World Travel and Tourism Council, because I requested for them to send him an invitation.
LIM: Well, you’ve asked the wrong guy.

But he also mentioned that he was going to contact your department, he didn’t do that?
LIM: No, he didn’t do that.

Would you be interested in going?
LIM: Yes, if I am invited.

Okay, I will relay that message over to…
LIM: If it’s private sector, then there really [is] no goal for the pubic sector.

The president of Mexico has signed on to speak, the tourism ministers from Mexico and South Africa are attending, so is Ted Turner.
LIM: Well, these are influential speakers. You know, it might be a meeting of the private sector. They invite, of course, big names to appear.

WTTC is now an ally of the UN World Tourism Organization. There are specific initiatives that they are working together with. The summit itself has become a public and private event.
LIM: I think I met the president recently in Beijing.

David Scowsill?
LIM: Yes, Scowsill. He might have written me, but I have yet to review the correspondence. I think he might have written me, and I’m not sure whether I’ve accepted his invitation, but I definitely met him in Beijing.

Right, he’s very new. He took office following the departure of Jean Claude Baumgarten.
LIM: Definitely, they are private sector. So if we’re invited not as participants but as guests, I’m not sure.

From what I know based in my communication with WTTC, they will consider the Philippines as a possible speaker for Japan, which is the venue for next year’s summit. They are unable extend the speaker invite this year due to time constraints. What Philippines can do at this year’s summit is to join in during the roundtable discussions.
LIM: That probably is the appropriate [action].

This is the only option since there is such a short amount of time to put in a request for you to speak.
LIM: I have yet to review the letter that they may have sent.

[Editor’s Note: Secretary Lim was interviewed on May 10, 2011, which was seven days before WTTC’s Las Vegas summit. Neither Lim nor Gordon ever responded to our follow-up emails. Evidently, the Philippines did not participate at this year’s edition of the WTTC’s yearly summit: ]

Security is a major concern for tourists visiting the Philippines. Is there really cause for concern?
LIM: What do you think?

I am asking you as the new secretary of tourism. I have my personal views, but they are irrelevant to this interview.
LIM: The perception is that it [Philippines] is a dangerous place. It may be. We have a history, most recently, and Mindanao still has insurgency ongoing. But the stories are probably overblown; the majority of the country is peaceful. Our problem here is that there is a low awareness of the Philippines. Despite of all the work done over the last 40 years, the awareness of the Philippines is still low, and that we have to address. Whatever awareness it is, the perception is bad news. It’s the war in Mindanao, the incidents that have happened that hit the headlines. Our own media here, being very free, publicizes the not-so flattering news. The big job is to change that image.

How do you plan to dispel these misconceptions if, as you put it, they are coming from internal? Don’t you need to address this first?
LIM: That’s part of the solution, but we cannot tell the press what to do. So, it’s a matter of bringing out the good news through good public relations work, creating events, bringing in the journalists to see for themselves what the situation is, bringing in tour operators, and also given our resources, we need some advertising, too, into the mix. The problem is we don’t have the resources. We have to rely on other programs such [as] inviting tour operators through invitational[s].

Let’s talk about the hostage incident on August 23, 2010, from your perspective what happened?
LIM: Well, it’s a failure of police work. They bungled it, and we had to fix it.

What is now the status of this case?
LIM: The Hong Kong government is still not happy with the results. They still have not lifted its black advisory, although we already have satisfied their conditions. In fact, I made a quiet trip to Hong Kong and talked to the chief executive officer. He was quite happy and expectant to see that the things that we said would happen did actually happen. We did cooperate as far as the inquest was concerned — we put up a solidarity fund, we cooperated to the fullest extent. These things become [a] political issue.

You are basically saying that the incident has marred the Philippine government’s relations with Hong Kong?
LIM: It has damaged the relationship. But the visitors continue to come in spite of the advisory, not to the same extent.

What percentage was the drop?
LIM: It was greater than 50% immediately, but then there was a recovery in December 2010. In fact, we increased the arrivals over the previous year. But it has not recovered fully because of that advisory. So, we are still looking forward to a change in status... It may take a while for the wound to heal.

Understandably so; there were people killed. Since we are talking about travel advisories, how do you feel about them?
LIM: Governments are tying to protect their citizens, so it’s a matter of… it’s normal to issue travel advisories. It’s based on whatever information they have. Will it be accurate or based on faulty intelligence? But, that’s their job. In fact, I was shown an advisory by a large country and they even advise their citizens on roads, accessibility, peace, and order, what to avoid. That’s all part of their function.

The argument in global travel and tourism forums such as at UNWTO conferences is that these advisories are generally not specific enough. Do you feel that this is the case?
LIM: Yes, I also commented in the latest Pacific Asia Travel Association conference that governments should make it an effort to review regularly whether the advisories are still in effect. Because sometimes they declare a place and forget to lift [the ban] after the conditions have changed.

What is the Philippine government’s response to the food and energy crisis?
LIM: Such a big question. Well, increase production, as far as food is concerned, increase productivity of the land, open up more areas. As far as energy is concerned, there’s nothing we can do. This is an international price set by the laws of supply and demand. We can only mitigate the effects on our citizens. That is why we respond with Pasada [program] that will help the transportation sector. We have also delayed the increase in transportation fares, so the government is subsidizing the light rail fares very heavily.

Being that tourists are consumers of energy, UNWTO secretary-general Taleb Rifai says we need to make sure that the needs of the local population are met first before tourists. Do you agree?
LIM: Yes, of course. Tourism, after all, is for the local community. If it damages the local community, then it’s not worth it.

Is there a movement towards pushing eco-tourism in the country?
LIM: There is a movement towards a more responsible tourism. Eco-tourism is such an overused word. I don’t like using it. Responsible tourism is responsibility to the next generation, responsibility to the local community, responsibility to the environment, that’s the proper use of resources. There has to be a balance between the needs of the community and the potential income that tourism can bring. Tourism is not an analoid bonanza; it comes with costs. Some of those costs include degradation of the environment. I come from a background where we had a triple bottom line - we took care of the environment first, we took care of our people first before we took care of our bottom line. That’s why I am fully aware, we actually coined the term responsible tourism, this was in Palawan, where we believe that the environment needs to taken cared of first, because this is the very attraction that tourists come for.

There’s a lot of misconceptions about eco-tourism. But in Jordan, there is a hotel called Feynan Eco-Lodge, which uses minimal energy and utilizes natural resources. Other than the bathroom using electricity, candles light the rooms at night. The hotel generates its power through solar panels, which guarantee hot water for guests, staff, and locals. This property, for me, is the best execution of what eco-tourism is—minimal use of energy and use natural resources as much as possible. Are there such establishments like this in the Philippines?
LIM: Well, there’s one called Isla Naburot, but it’s not a very widely-applicable model, because tourists can expect minimum level of comfort. It’s good for campers, it’s good for nature tourists who go out into the wild, but that’s not an internationally accepted standard.

How about poverty alleviation through tourism?
LIM: Tourism creates jobs. That’s a no-brainer.

How does the Philippine government feel about climate change?
LIM: Tourism cannot answer for the all the ills of the society.

But there is a tourism perspective to climate change.
LIM: Well, we want our hotels to be green. We want them to conserve the environment, not to overuse the water… change their bed sheets and towels not too frequently, if it can be avoided. So, that is up to the supplier with the cooperation of the consumer.

Speaking of the environment, there is controversy regarding Typhoon Bebeng in that there are those who contend that the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) was ill-prepared and did not provide enough warning. What’s your take on this issue?
LIM: Actually, I was caught by Typhoon Bebeng. I left Manila on Saturday morning, they had warned us already that morning. Before it struck, there was at least a 24-hour lead-time. Maybe it could’ve been sooner, but it’s not as if it caught us by surprise. The lead-time probably could have been longer.

So are you on PAGASA’s side?
LIM: I am not on either side, I am just saying PAGASA gave the warning on Saturday; it struck Sunday, it hit landfall on Sunday. Now could they have given an earlier warning, like 48 hours? Could there have been more time to prepare the community? I am not sure. I don’t have the answer to that. All I am saying, from my experience, I knew about it. It actually affected my trip. I had enough warning. I couldn’t change my plans anymore, but there was a few hours’ warning. Maybe it should have been longer. Maybe those warnings, if you watch it in CNN, they are much ahead — 48 hours ahead before landfall.

I am hearing that there were bus crashes that could have been prevented had there been an alert.
LIM: It’s possible. You don’t judge an agency by one incident; you have to look at their track record. Maybe they were not as… they didn’t give enough early warning this time.

What was tourism’s contribution to last year’s GDP?
LIM: Around 6%.

Only 6%?
LIM: That’s a lot.

Other countries have posted higher earnings.
LIM: Like what?

Jordan, for one, I believe was at 14% [higher in 2010 than in 2009].
LIM: Well, it also depends on what the alternatives are. Do they have other industries? Do they have other services? For Jordan, I can understand it, it’s a desert, so what do they have to offer but tourism? For the Philippines, we could do a lot better, that is admitted. We haven’t done as well in spite of the fact that we started ahead of our neighbors. That’s why we are trying to change things around. We are trying to shake things up. The previous year, we did 3 million international arrivals in 2009; in 2010, we did 3.5 million international arrivals, a 17% increase, the highest arrivals ever in the history of Philippine tourism.

Double-digit increase?
LIM: Well, because it is a low base. But, you know, I am targeting a doubling of tourists in [the next] six years.

What’s your projection for this year?
LIM: Our official projection, which we created last year, is around 3 and a quarter million, but I am trying to shoot for 4 [million].

I am sure you’ll agree that foreign investment plays a key role in a country’s travel and tourism industry; what incentives are you offering those who may be interested in investing in Philippine tourism?
LIM: We have an incentives-giving body for tourism establishments including tax holidays, 6-year tax holidays, for tourism stakes. We have duty-free importation of capital equipment. Those are the bigger incentives.

Say, a foreigner is interested in investing, what is the protocol?
LIM: They need to come to the Tourism Incentives Enterprise Zone Authority, that is the incentives-giving body.

Did the [March 2011] Japan quake and nuclear crisis have an impact on the Philippine’s inbound tourism from Japan?
LIM: I think it has discouraged Japanese tourists from coming because of the loss of confidence; lack of confidence in their future affected their income. So, our numbers from Japan will have declined.

Have they declined?
LIM: Yes, it has declined slightly, not very drastically. It’s an important market, but it’s not going to break us.

You are shooting for 4 million foreign tourists; you are aware that there is a global economic meltdown? There’s a bit of a challenge. Is the Philippines seeing an impact from the [global] economic meltdown?
LIM: I thought the meltdown was in 2008, not currently.

It’s ongoing, there’s [economic] depression in the US; the unemployment rate is still very high.
LIM: Well, that has been there since 2008. In fact, unemployment has improved. We’re still having difficulties. The danger is whether we’ll hit a double-dip, but it’s not yet confirmed.

There is concern of child abuse here in the Philippines, hence the presence of ECPAT, which is seeking to protect children from sexual exploitation through tourism. Are you working with any watchdog organization, and if so, what initiatives does your government have in place?
LIM: I am not familiar with the programs that we have, but we do have a contact and working relationship with them through our undersecretary for tourism coordination.

Is Philippine tourism as good as it gets right now?
LIM: We are doing our best. Like I said, we’ve achieved unprecedented numbers. For the first quarter, [it] looks like we are going strong; we have [a] 13% increase over the previous year, which is already a good year. So, it looks like we are going to achieve our target.

The leading man of Philippine tourism speaks, sort of
Photo by Divina Ramos

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