Why Does Philippines Tourism Lag Behind Other Southeast Asian Countries?

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Saw an article the other day from a Filipino politician, Manila Rep. Amado S. Bagatsing, that really impressed me. The Manila Representative was wondering why the Philippines lags so far behind its other Southeast Asian neighbors in annual tourist arrivals. Mr. Bagatsing's speech before Congress which I read in the Manila Bulletin  November 29, online edition,   questioned why Singapore (11.6 million visitors in 2010), Indonesia (7 million), Thailand 15.8 million), Malaysia (24.5 million)  and Vietnam (5 million) had more people visiting those neighboring countries than the Philippines.  2010 tourist arrivals for the Philippines: 3.5 million. DSC

The article stated that Representative Bagatsing, chairman of the House Committee on Games and Amusement, cited four of the largely unexploited competitive advantages of the country as follows: 1) The Philippines has a warm, friendly and English-speaking population which allows foreign tourists to communicate easily and find their way around; 2) interesting cultural resources; 3) rich natural resources; 4) and a low cost of living in the country.

The representative went on to make the following remarks in his speech: “Getting the worst airport standing in 2011 is a nightmare. Descriptions pertaining to Terminal 1 sound like – ‘bombed-out ruin,’ ‘bribery and corruption is rife and the scams start the minute you walk off the plane,’ ‘lines insanely long’ and ‘four attendants hassled me for a tip.’”

“On the recently-declared a pocket open skies policy – are we really dead-serious to make this work or will this be another lip service policy? Where are the actual applications for more flights and seats from foreign airlines? Foreign airlines are actually pulling out due to exorbitant taxes and airport fees.”

He also noted the various successful ad campaigns of the other countries, such as "Malaysia, truly Asia, "Amazing Thailand," and "Incredible India."

The representative also called on the Aquino administration to swiftly take definite steps to protect tourists from harassment and criminal elements in order to realize the country’s target of six million tourist arrivals by 2016.

Mr. Bagatsing makes a lot of sense and brings up some excellent points, and I hope someone  in the Tourism Department listens to him. With all the friendly and warm English-speaking Filipinos, beautiful natural resources, and cheaper cost of living, there's no reason the Philippines shouldn't be able to reach that six million goal by 2016.

I wonder if the perception that it isn't safe to travel in the Philippines,  that our State Department helps foster with their travel warnings,  doesn't hurt Philippines tourism? It's really unwarranted in my opinion. Never have had any personal safety issues in over two years of living here, and I've traveled in Manila, Cebu, and ride the jeepney extensively in the  Iloilo City area where we reside. Our subdivision streets are just as safe, if not safer, than any streets I've traveled in the States. Well, Representative, my hat's off to you. Hopefully, the powers to be take your advice to heart. 

Author: The Kano

POST AUTHOR: "THE KANO" aka "THE CRUSTY OLD EXPAT." Dave DeWall, "The Kano", is the Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of "Philippines Plus" in publication since August 2009. He is also the CEO of Lizard Poop Productions and author of the best-selling guide book "The Philippines Expat Advisor." Dave moved to the Philippines in July 2009 from Central Illinois with his lovely wife of over 18 years, "The Sainted Patient Wife." The couple reside in a rural province in Western Visayas, Guimaras. The small island province is said to have the sweetest mangoes in the world. They do not have any children but are the proud owners of eight active canines, including a Belgian Shepherd called "Killer" "Killer" has bitten five people in the last two years along with one goat and a carabao. "Killer" doesn't like strangers. Or goats. Or carabaos.

28 thoughts on “Why Does Philippines Tourism Lag Behind Other Southeast Asian Countries?

  1. If the Philippines really wants to increase tourism, they should ask some foreign tourists and expats living there what changes they would like to see. It would be a good way to avoid another “Pilipinas Kay Ganda” campaign.

    1. That “Pilipinas Kay Ganda” campaign was a disaster, Lance. I have to tell you that when we did have a TV the commercials the representative talked about in his speech from the other countries were really well done and successful in my opinion.

      As far as local tourism goes, Guimaras, where my asawa and I lived until recently, has some beautiful beaches and Guimaras Governor Dr. Nava is doing a lot to promote the island. Hopefully the new visitors center that is being erected at the Jordan Wharf there will be able to draw more tourists. Guimaras has really got a lot of beautiful beaches to offer and I would love to see it promoted more.

  2. I agree with Lance.They need to clean up manila and other cities,look at the poverty when you leave the airport,they need to repair the roads.thailand hotels are a better deal for your money and they have there hotels better set up for tour packages.open up the PI to investment by people that know how to atract the people but the rich dont want that and that is why it wont change,

    1. Good input, Wane. Cleaning up Manila would be a massive undertaking, but any improvement would be positive. I don’t how much foreign investment they will be able to draw since the Philippines has been recently noted as one of the worst countries in Southeast Asia to do business with.

  3. I have a slightly different take on this subject. I really believe one of the reasons that tourism lags is “word of mouth”. All that most Americans really know about the RP is what they have heard from young sailors that pulled in for a week or two into Subic or Olongapo. That and movies like Flight of the Intruder (great movie). Few know about the true bueaty of the islands. If the RP would spend some tourism advertizment dollars and compete with places that do advertise………well we will see

    1. You’ve got a good point, Scott. The average person that’s never been to the Philippines has no idea how beautiful this place is. So many great beaches and places for scuba diving. Combine that with the warm and friendly Filipino people. Explore the provinces and islands outside of Metro Manila. Life is completely different out in the province.

  4. You can forget getting folks from the WEST coming to the Philippines to vacation. Just too far. Japan would be a great place to start spending some pesos on Philippine Tourism. They love golf and are willing to spend the big bucks to play. Just come here and spend, spend, and spend some more. It can be done if you have the right target. But will the Philippines ever be safe? That is to be seen.

    1. Good point, Gary, Back in Guimaras where we just moved on of the local beaches always had a lot of Chinese and Japanese tourists. Our nearby Iloilo City has the oldest golf course in the Philippines. But the right target is indeed the key, but can the Tourism Department get it right this time? Hopefully.

  5. Gary has a good point about trying to draw the Japanese. We have a few Japanese friends and the big draw for them is not only the low prices but the abundant seafood. If you ever notice what the Japanese visitors are carrying back home you will always see food items. Part of the problem is the negative perceptions that the media is always presents. Remember good news is no news. Only the bad is of interest. There is also a huge bias towards Mindanao. Whenever there is a report of trouble on a remote island it is always labeled as Mindanao. There was a bar association convention here in General Santos City and the Attorneys from Manila said they were afraid to come here. When they did they were pleasantly surprised and many said they planned to come back. The perception that they had due to the media was a dirty lawless place. Instead they found a clean vibrant city with clean water, six malls, abundant food at lower prices. Their only complaint was a shortage of lodging and that has improved since then. There should be a push to provide accurate information.

    We were recently contemplating a trip to Thailand. One thing that I noticed was that they have tourist police not only to keep the pervs in line but to assist travelers. This might be a good program for the Philippines. The airport in Manila seems to have a handle on the aggresive taxis now. They have set rate taxis that you prepay to your destination. They are a good deal and take the stress out of fighting the driver to turn on the meter.

    1. You’re right, Tom, you guys are taking a bad rap. There is an extremely huge bias towards Mindanao as you stated. By all the media reports you would think someone is ready to kidnap you the minute you arrive and later chop off your head with a bolo. I think people have enough common sense to stay out of the specific island or area where there is trouble, but don’t label the whole of Mindanao as dangerous. That’s just not right and hurts your local tourism. I’m glad the attorneys from Manila discovered the true picture.

      Tourist police for the airport sounds like a good idea. It’s something that should be considered. We used a fixed rate, coupon taxi, during our stay in Manila this past May, and had no problems whatsoever, but we were using the domestic terminal. Great input, as usual, Tom, thanks.

  6. GenSan is a great place to visit! Of all the cities that Meriam wants to live in Tagum City is number 1 on her list. GenSan is number 2. There are no other cities on her list. There are other cities that she would live in but she wouldn’t be happy. I think Mindanao is the best island in the Philippines to live.

    1. We’re hoping to visit Tom and his asawa in GenSan, Gary, once we get all of this furniture and stuff we need for our new place bought. Sounds like you’re having a good time in Mindanao. That’s great. 🙂

  7. The main reasons tourism doesn’t pick up in my opinion are to do mainly with the airport and customer service issues. On my first visit back in 87 it took over an hour to get out of the airport which looks pretty much the same then as now. I found out on later trips that my cab driver had taken a long, money making route to the hotel. The hotel, an international one, with a great name in the US was worse than terrible. And speaking of hotels/resorts, some legally charge a higher rate to foreigners than citizens which is not a great selling point.

    1. When we arrived in the Philippines on July 2009, Tony, the immigration lines were horrendous. I’m sure it took us over an hour to get out of the airport, also, but we were fortunate to have our brother-in-law who picked us up. If you want to avoid a taxi that seems to lose their way, try the “coupon” taxi stands which have a fixed rate.

      During my first visit to the Philippines I stayed at the BayView Hotel across from the United States Embassy. Great place, reasonable rates, and fortunately they did not charge me that “foreigner” tax, which, as you stated, is perfectly legal in the Philippines, but something I avoid like the plague.

  8. i dont think its the airport,phils is a poor boy place to go,whats to offer here diving, girls,look around then what,many like to candy coat the phils,i dont see Dave do that,its true the men here dont like white man,its dirty nasty here,so corupt,its safe here if you dont get out and drink around common people or walk streets late at night..i find it interesting here because the way it is,the guys here are very violent,we have no rights here..the laws dont work for white man here,i see many change for the better new busineses going in,some places cleaning up,i have gave money paid hospital buy clothes phones meds,help for kids school,dental,and much more, but if i stop to give im the bad guy..hehe,then if you need rescue,pnp ar army..not good,i have travel alot here interact with people i speak fact not opinion,if walk around the people smile but whats really in their mind,as soon as my baby is born we well go to usa i own a house there,send my wife to collage,set them up there im old i dont want my baby to grow up here..the grills on windows guards everywhere tells the true story.it breaks my heart to see the poor little kids here that cant go to school and have rotten teeth. but they keep having more kids.. be safe and enjoy all..

  9. The airport does have it issues, but they seem to be slowly working on it. I doubt the airport has an impact on first time travellers though. In my opinion, it comes down to awareness. Better tourism campaigns would really show people the beauty, affordability and security that the Philippines provide.

    1. I think a better tourism campaign would help, Allen. Although the airport is the first impression I got during my first visit in January 2000 (and it was a scary one, I have to tell you), I would hope people could look past NAIA and discover what the Philippines has to offer. Just as Harry noted, there are two sides of the coin here. It’s not a perfect place by any means and is not for everyone. But if the Tourism Department would get their act together and stop stealing logos from the Polish tourism department, maybe tourism could change for the better.

  10. Allen: The airport is ranked as the worst in the WORLD! Most of the CR’s there do NOT even have running water or toilet paper in the ones that do have water. The first impression is the lasting impression. A light rail should be built to Clark Air Base. That would do wonders for the Philippines. Manila has many wonderful places to see, the airport isn’t one of them. 🙁

    1. Here’s what Gary is talking about, this from the Inquirer Global Nation: Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia), particularly Terminal 1, now ranks No. 1 among the ‘Worst Airports in the World,’ said “The Guide to Sleeping in Airports,” an interactive website that gathers reports from various reviewers.

      Naia 1’s ratings worsened from the website’s 2010 assessment that it was the world’s fifth-worst airport and the worst in Asia.

      The ranking of Manila’s international airport was based on reviews of travelers who complained, among other things, of ‘safety concerns, lack of comfortable seating, rude staff, hostile security, poor facilities, no (or few) services to pass the time, bribery, being kicked out and general hassles of being in the airport.”

      I think a light rail system to Clark would be a great idea, Gary, and I also agree with Allen that better tourism campaigns would help. But that airport? Yep, it does have some issue.

      1. …..“The Guide to Sleeping in Airports,” …….. hmmmmmmmm. I can speak to that first hand. Had the great (dis) pleasure of spending 19 hours in NAIA in September of 2009. Was stranded their during the Ondoy typhoon. I slept on the floor (on a cardboard box). The ground was damp in the terminal – thank God for the cardboard that I found near a trash can. There were bodies laid out everywhere – sleeping. The electricity was out – no lights. Unfortunately I had very little cash on me – not enough for the 750 peso terminal fee (I believe it was 750 – it’s all a blur now) and not enough to eat. I tried calling my girlfriend (at the time – wife now) to let her know that I had made it out of Cagayan De Oro (CDO) finally (after a 6 hour wait in that tiny airport) and made it to Manila and later realized that I got charged $45 for each of the 2 calls I made from the airport pay phone. I was starving and exhausted. I tried to use the ATM’s but they weren’t working. I went to the security office to see if they could let me through to the departing gates without paying the terminal fee, or if they would accept a credit card. I was told to use the ATM’s and replied that I had tried them already and none of the international ATM’s were working. The head of security came with me to try the ATM’s again and once he realized that I wasn’t lying, flagged a taxi for me and told him to take me to an ATM in town and bring me back. The taxi driver was surprised when I told him after a few minutes of driving that I had no money on me to pay for the ride – we’d better be able to find a working ATM. He had a very concerned (pissed off) look on his face and I said “don’t worry if we don’t find one, I’ll rob a bank to pay you”. He smiled and we eventually found one. He took me back to the airport. I paid him, bought some food, and paid my terminal fee. It eventually took me 60 hours to get home. My flights went from Cagayan de Oro, Manila, Guam, Hawaii, Houston, and Shreveport).

        1. What a nightmare, Paul! Man, that’s an experience at NAIA that I’m sure you’ll never forget. Yeah, those departing terminal fees you have to pay are a pain. I know my own asawa was charged some extra fees when she left NAIA to join me in the States after her Spousal visa was issued, back in November 2000. I was furious when she called me from LAX and told me of the additional fees the officials at the Manila airport had ripped her for.

          Quite a story with the taxi driver and the head of security. You’re very fortunate. I’ve personally found most of the security guards and police officers here to be very helpful and friendly for the most part, but it doesn’t sound like your cabbie was too thrilled. Thanks for sharing that story. It was a great one.

  11. When i came back to the states i stood in line just as long as i did in naia and this was in las vegas.The only difference was the vegas airport had carpet on the floor.

    Also the agents in vegas were rude acting all holy and actually pulled me aside and questioned me about my dvd camera,asking me if i had any pictures of girls on it that could get me in trouble.This wasnt my first trip back into vegas from overseas and they act this way before.

    They took my dvd camera and asked if they could watch some of it and i said go ahead so they did,all the while staring at me to see if i would sweat.

    As long as the plane lands safely in manila i am happy and i always get nice treatment from the airport staff in manila,just dont be a dickhead and act like since you are a tourist your crap dont stink.

    If you are a male then you know you will be back because we all know why we came in the first place.If you came here and i am speaking of western tourists on a family vacation and no one in your family if philippino you will never come back.Only die hard divers who do their homework will come here to dive and then chase the girls later.Again i am talking western tourists.

    I love the place and i hate it,thats why l lived there for a year,came back to the usa and am coming back to live in iloilo in 2012,i love it more than i hate it.

    1. Been to McCarran many a time, Scott, when I used to visit my folks back in Vegas. Of course, since I was not coming in from a foreign country, I never had any problem with security except for one time when I kept setting off the alarms. They couldn’t figure out what was causing it. I joked that it was the “metal plate in my head.” (Yeah, how many times have they heard that one?) It was the metal toe guards on my cowboy boots. I would have been ticked off if they would have treated me as they did you, but you handled it better than I would have.

      And yes, I’ve always been treated respectively by the staff at NAIA just don’t like all the people yelling at you outside trying to get you to take their taxi service. Be glad to visit with you when you arrive in Iloilo. If there’s anything I can do to help you out, just let me know.

  12. The Philippines has a lot of issues. Everyone knows what they are, airport, crime, poverty, pollution, etc. Plus the bus killings and Malag massacre made international news. Other countries have the same issues, but with marketing and a nice transport, many of the issues can be hidden.

    It wasn’t that long ago that Thailand – Bangkok, was and parts still are a very seedy place to visit. But a new airport, rail and advertising have done wonders. Singaporeans will gladly travel to Bangkok (preflood) for bargain shopping and great food. Only reason Singaporeans will travel to Manila is for the girls and golf. Most who are in to diving can at least bypass MNL and go straight to Cebu. But diving industry wont drive numbers. For Westerners who are travelling 10+ hours, Phuket, Phi Phi, Krabi are have better marketing and thus visitors. Most western travellors are on a package tour and want to get the most for the money. You can arrange a tour to take you to the above, plus KL and Singapore. Philippines is just too far away for some. Plus no one really wants to transit through MNL. So a tour company finds it hard to include on their package tours. Bangkok and Phuket have more allure than Manila and Palawan.

    Philippines cant fix their image overnight. It will take many years of hard work. Plus the other SEA countries are not standing still. Cambodia, Laos and now Myamar are improving politically and economically, plus I guarantee Thailand will be funneling a lot of money into post flood development so no country is standing still. Philippines will need to work twice as hard to even catch up.

    Unfortunately, the way the political system works, its difficult to have a government project that spans presidents. Many of GMAs programs, good or bad, were canceled by Pinoy. They next pres will do the same. There is little continuation of projects. One solution is the PPP, but its a slow go as well.

    1. Lots of good information, Don. Transportation is indeed a problem for visitors. Paul from Iloilo made a previous remark about how our Iloilo “International” Airport is not up to standards for accepting any international flights; it may take years if international flights will be offered, if ever. Just not enough options for international travelers, and like you stated, no one really wants to transit through Manila. It’s an enormous headache, and the conditions at NAIA and the recent bad publicity haven’t been helping matters at all. I agree with you, some of the PH’s neighbors also have problems with crime and other issues, but those countries do a better job of marketing. I lived in Vegas for a year. Vegas doesn’t want you to know about all the street crime and gangs, but do a good job of promoting the place. If you were a tourist, you would have no idea about how dangerous the city can really be. It’s all about the hype.

      The current political situation surely isn’t going to help matters any, plus some reports state that the situation with GMA might even be a reminder to some how deep-rooted and prevalent corruption is in the Philippines. I don’t have any answers, but think better marketing of the positive aspects of the Philippines sure couldn’t hurt.

  13. Dave – agreed. I understand that the marketing budget is tight. In any case, Americans and Europeans have no money to spend on vacations. Marketing should be towards Asia first.

    Singapore and Malaysians are relatively wealthy and if they would focus on the golfing and diving, that would bring in more than a few weekend visitors. I do know that a lot of Koreans do come down on Friday night and fly back on Monday morning just to get in a few rounds. Its only 3.5 hours to Seoul and Singapore. Forget about Kay Ganda and Jeepneys in the ads. Put some nice putting greens, dive spots and pretty girls on beaches. Have San Mig sponsor a tour. This will bring them in.

    1. Don, you should be running the tourism board, you’ve got some great ideas. You’re absolutely right, the Asian market should be targeted first. “…putting greens, dive spots and pretty girls on beaches…” how in the world can you beat that?

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