PHOTO: The coastline of Coron, Palawan, Philippines. (Photo via Caryl Joan Estrosas on Flickr)
Despite graphic media coverage and criticism from the international community, President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody “war on drugs,” which has left more than 6,000 people dead, seems to have had little effect on tourism in the Philippines thus far. Still, the country is in need of a boost if it wants its growth in the travel and hospitality sectors to stay on track.
There will be a chance to divert media attention away from the violence when the Miss Universe pageant is held in Metro Manila later this month. The county has had a year to get ready to showcase its best attributes (Miss Philippines won the crown last year, so tradition dictates that her home country hosts this year’s event). Tourism officials are banking on a boost in the wake of the globally televised event on Jan. 30.
The island nation’s tourism industry has been heading in the right direction, but there is little room for error.
Foreign arrivals topped six million in 2016. That is admittedly modest compared to the region’s tourism leaders, but it shows a steady year-on-year rise, and it beat projections by about 100,000 arrivals. The Department of Tourism claims that there are plans in place to increase the number of international arrivals to 12 million by the end of Duterte’s term in 2022.
This increase of international arrivals goes against the trend of past “wars against drugs.” In 2003, Thailand saw a significant drop in overseas tourists during an aggressive campaign sanctioned by then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The same criticism of extra-judicial killings dominated the media coverage then. The number of international arrivals to Thailand was cut in half from one million in January of ‘03 to 0.5 million in April of that year. The numbers did rebound after that and today some people think that the 2003 campaign to deal with the country’s drug problem was ultimately successful.
A similar drop in arrivals has not yet occurred in the Philippines. If it does, it could be much more devastating to their travel industry than Thailand’s 2003 slump was to its tourism sector.
One of the reasons for the continued growth in tourism is that much of the violence in the islands has taken place in the poor areas of the country, which are, in practice, no-go zones for tourists. There is little evidence of death squad drive-bys or police shootouts in places like Boracay and Palawan. Though the Miss Universe pageant will take place in Metro Manila, the contestants, many of whom are already in the country, are touring and taking photos in some of the most popular resort areas.
Why could Miss Universe prove to be vital for tourism promotion?
The problem for the Philippines is this: other countries in the region are also seeing an increase in the number of international arrivals. Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand continue to be more popular destinations, while Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar are rapidly rising towards this first tier of tourism. Any country who makes a misstep at this point could find themselves left out of the coming tourism boom.
On paper, it seems like the Philippines should be outpacing these other competing countries. Most of the population is fluent in English, which, despite China’s growing influence, remains the main international language of communication in the Asia Pacific. There is an abundance of stereotypically beautiful beaches - something that the Miss Universe organizers will no doubt attempt to showcase to the media - and a lack of crowds compared to more popular “tropical resort” destinations in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.
At the same time, the Philippines has major infrastructure issues and a problem with corruption that has hampered improvements. The country is also prone to typhoons and struggles with both crime and terrorism.
Duterte remains popular in the Philippines because people think he is delivering on his promises to tackle crime and corruption by any means necessary. Fixing these problems could be great for the tourism sector. However, at the same time that he is promising to handle these problematic issues, Duterte is making headlines for statements that would, quite frankly, make Donald Trump blush.
The question is whether his actions, both on camera and in his aggressive and violent policies, will undo the positive image that the country can build through things like hosting Miss Universe and making infrastructure improvements.
Like it or not, the pace of development of other destinations in the region means that the fate of the tourism industry in the Philippines will probably be decided before 2022, which is when Duterte and his administration leave office.