MANILA — The Philippines is aiming to double tourism revenues in six years while avoiding the mass-market route taken by some of its Southeast Asian neighbours, the country’s new tourism minister said.
The archipelago of more than 7,000 islands boasts some of the world’s most beautiful white-sand beaches but annual tourist revenues are a paltry 2.25 billion dollars, Tourism Secretary Alberto Lim said in an interview.
“We want double that, at least,” said Lim, a former high-end resort developer who was appointed to President Benigno Aquino’s cabinet on June 30.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand estimates that its country will earn 430 billion baht (13 billion US dollars) from tourism in 2010, but Lim said “I’m not sure whether I would like to emulate the Thai model.
“I would like to go for quality tourism and just make up for the lack of (tourist) numbers in revenues,” he said.
“Unbridled tourism is also bad because the environment suffers. So we are very careful about the type of tourism we want. The people who come for culture, history and nature, maybe we can receive them.”
While insisting backpackers were still welcome, Lim noted that they did not spend a lot, adding that “they leave waste.”
The timeframe for doubling revenues is the six-year term of Aquino’s presidency.
Just over three million tourists visited the country last year, down 3.9 percent from 2008 as tourism worldwide retreated amid the global financial crisis.
By contrast, tourist arrivals in Thailand, the industry leader in Southeast Asia, fell only 2.68 percent to 14.15 million last year, according to Thai government data.
Lim said the Philippines tourism industry had terrific potential, despite large areas of the south remaining off-limits to foreigners because of Muslim insurgents’ penchant for kidnapping.
He insisted the Philippines had fine-white beach sand superior to anything that its neighbours could offer.
“The beaches in the Philippines are better than Indonesia or Thailand,” he said.
However, there were many areas that needed to be improved to lure the high-paying tourists.
Improving air access and customer service, educating rude and at times dishonest taxi drivers, building good link roads and developing niche markets were some of the new government’s strategies, according to Lim.
“We’ll make them (tourists) stay longer, enjoy the Philippines and so to do this we will have to improve the product that we offer,” he said.
Lim’s first priority is to open up Philippine skies further.
He pointed out that there were three times as many flights between Japan and Thailand as between Japan and the Philippines.
“Access creates investments, investments create hotel facilities and that will also lower prices,” he said.
While government spending for the tourism sector rose during the past nine years of then president Gloria Arroyo’s administration, Lim said the money was not targeted well and often rewarded supporters of the government.
“A problem of the past administration was the president, to keep herself in power, had to spread the budget thinly over different areas,” he said, citing instances where airports were built where they were not needed.
Lim singled out nature tourism as one niche sector that, aside from scuba diving, had not fulfilled its potential.
Lim also said that the Philippines should maximise its potential of being an English-speaking nation.
He said the Philippines should be able to attract more medical tourists who felt comfortable with English-speaking doctors and nurses.
“They (Thailand) may offer better medical service, but people are anxious, right? They want to know what’s happening to them,” he said.
Lim also said that, while Philippine tour guides may speak English, they required more training and taxi drivers needed to improve their manners.
“Taxi drivers can speak English but there has to be some courtesy.”
Few visitors also got to experience the country’s rich cultural heritage since there were not that many museums to put artefacts on display, he said.
“We have so many beautiful artefacts that are sitting in warehouses. It’s really almost criminal that they go to waste, and they are deteriorating. We should get museums in the old style, operating in the old city,” he said.
Meanwhile, attractions like the white-sand beach of Boracay island were suffering from overdevelopment, and the 3,000 year-old rice terraces carved from the mountainsides of Banaue town in the north were crumbling, he said.