Marketing The Philippines as a Travel Destination
By Consul General Paul Raymund Cortes
“It’s been Asia’s best kept secret,” he tells me. And I silently wonder back:” Yes, a secret we’ve long been whispering to the whole world for so long.” I looked away, pondering on the loud musings of a “concerned” Philippines fan, the ails of our tourism industry reasserting itself on my consciousness at the heels of Dubai’s famed Annual Investment Meeting and the Arabian Travel Market. It’s always more fun and it does seem that we’re having fun watching our ASEAN neighbors’ tourism statistics skyrocket way past ours. In our huddles with officials from the TIEZA or the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority, an agency whose mission is to lure global investors to our local tourism infrastructure, we decried the dearth in world-class facilities in the Philippines that could accommodate the waves of humanity who believe in the country as a top-notch tourism destination. Southeast Asia lures millions of tourists with their famed tourism strategy and arsenal of glossy attractions. Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia fly in some 20 – 25 million visitors per year while we welcome some 5 million tourists annually. No wonder we’re called a secret.
Some 20 years ago, as a young foreign service officer in Central Europe, I was amazed by how local Hungarians knew of Thailand or Thaifldi, like everyone was looking forward to its beaches – its perpetual sun. Then newly-constructed West End Mall adjacent to Budapest’s NyugatiPalyaudvar or West Train Station and other malls across the cityhad food stalls that featured Thai cuisine. Extremely popular were noodles they called Thai piritotteszta, which my Thai colleagues said did not remotely resemble Pad Thai, but for some reason, these food establishments baptized it Thai for marketing’s sake. In contrast, every time I met a local, they most often did not know where the Philippines was, what our products were, or what the Filipino could contribute to the world much less even thought of ever visiting the Philippines. I argued that maybe it was because it was barely a decade since the Iron Curtain was lifted and their reintroduction to the rest of the world was still in its infant stages. But that would not explain why Thailand and Indonesia were immensely popular. This may have incited me to be fiercely competitive about marketing the Philippines and anything Filipino, knowing deep inside that the rest of the world simply has to see what we can offer and they’ll then realize what it is they’ve missed out thus far.
Obviously, they’ve done something right. There is so much we have to learn from our Thai brothers about marketing and branding the country. Our neighbors get it. Malaysia’s Truly Asia tag hogged precious CNN airtime and I recall exchanging notes with Tourism folks back in Europe about how it all boils down to budget and finances. Clearly, they have outspent us in all aspects – tourism flyers, liaisons with local travel agencies, promotional capability, you name it. Their campaigns lord over TV, radio, print, and even on the web and social media and we all know that those cost a ton of money but when most businessmen would say “money begets money,” you see first-hand what could have been as far as marketing ourselves was concerned.
Marketing The Philippines as a Travel Destination
But for us in the diplomatic service, what exactly does marketing the country entail? Often, this boils down to participation in tourism fairs; local exhibits; or cultural presentations which feature native music, art, and dance. These endeavors naturally feed on appropriate funding but we’ve always been expected to come up with the grandest and most alluring pavilion or booth using the least amount of finances, you know the proverbial making do with what little one has. And when the others have outspent and outmaneuvered you, you reboot and re-strategize to find ways. The Philippine Embassies and Consulates General in Europe and in America are intensely pro-active as far as tourism promotion is concerned. I have never been posted to the Asia-Pacific but I would imagine the presence of Tourism Attachés there would make marketing campaigns as vigorous and intense as our posts in Europe and America. Thus as a result, the top sources of our tourist arrivals are from Northeast Asia, the US, Australia, Canada, the UK, and Singapore. Tourism arrivals from this side of the earth, contrastingly, are scant and measly. Notwithstanding Dubai’s role as the international aviation hub of the world, including quite a number of flights from Dubai to the Philippines, not too many fly to our famed beaches and stunning sunsets from or through Dubai. That, folks, is a travesty that must be corrected.
At a recent Filipino community event in Sharjah, I spoke of how we as a people should synergize our efforts at promoting our dear country. It was Philippine cultural day and obviously the crowd of around a thousand was mostly Filipino, a few local Emirati government officials, some technical crew were South Asians. How superb it would have been if we were able to entice many more of the UAE’s 200 ethnicities to our cultural events, never mind if the language would make it a little inconvenient. Their warm embrace of our songs, dances, music, paintings, food, fashion, and our innate creativity would do much more than any pavilion or booths at those international tourism exhibits. In my 22 months in the gem of the Middle East and in the years I spent in Europe and America, I’ve figured that when others are interested in us as a people, they become convinced that the place where it all began couldn’t be so bad. In fact, it should make them feel compelled to visit the birthplace of the Filipino spirit. When they believe in the uniqueness of what we are as a people, seeing the place where our soul mushroomed should be worth the long-haul flight to the edge of Asia.
Great marketing – bad product and weak marketing – amazing product, I’ve read many business articles providing samples of both and it’s sad where many categorized our tourism promotion campaigns. We will most probably never outdo the efforts of our neighbors but in our perennial lament of the lack of finances to come up with a spirited tourism strategy, there can be no way the rest of the world could beat a marketing campaign that is focused solely on the Filipino. We need the whole world to fall in love with us and mark my word,they will come.
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