The second time around

Lest we forget, let me stitch together some  pivotal issues discussed at that “Economics Studies and Sustainable Tourism” conference held in Kuala Lumpur in the first week of October. This  academic exercise  was jointly sponsored by the University of Malaya and the CECON of the University of the Philippines.  One of the speakers was the eminent economist, Dr. Cheong Kee Cheok, whose  recommendations on sustainable tourism are valuable tools for all stakeholders of the industry.

Dr. Cheong called tourism  a double-edged sword. While it  promotes economic growth, it can also have dire results like  environmental degradation. Tourism is a magnet for foreign reserves which, if not properly spent, can bring about inflation. Tourism is a trigger for infrastructure projects and the improvement of basic services,   but over-building and over-constructing, if done without proper planning, inevitably results in  congestion.

Though tourism has multiplier effects, it impinges on traditions and endangers both tangible and intangible cultural heritage. From the point of view of visitors, tourism is a harbinger of understanding and appreciating different  cultures, but  the locals are faced with unmitigated commercialization. One may argue that tourism enhances the sense of identity of the  natives, but that can  breed an  over-dependence on tourism.

Speaking as an economist, Dr. Cheong  underscored the importance of deploying “the correct economic tools” which implies a thorough  understanding of the factors that drive tourism. He said that the “policy environment”  is primordial. There should be norms,  regulations, and organizational instruments that should develop and protect the  landscape and other physical assets of tourism destinations. Cultural heritage is an asset that should not be underestimated and conservation should always  engage the local population in order to  achieve urban-rural rebalancing. Cultural heritage is a lever for rural rejuvenation. Economics studies should  focus on the  role of tradeoffs, for instance, heritage conservation versus commercialization, and on   studies of about favorable and adverse factors,  financial sustainability and analysis of stakeholders. He gave examples of tourism development in the People’s Republic of China-Lijiang, Yunan, Rizhaw, Shandong — as well as cases of heritage degradation in Malaysia — the candi of Muyang Valley and Kota Gellange, a relic from the Sri Vishaya empire.

The second round of “Economic Studies and Sustainable Tourism”  will be convened in  Tagbilaran, Bohol, which was one of the anchor destinations promoted by the Department of Tourism under my watch. Bohol is a magnificently multifaceted destination where one can enjoy sun and sand as well as intangible and tangible cultural heritage and the bounties of Mother Nature.

After writing about the last conference,  I received a very incisive  letter from  Mr. Ibrahim Faizal which I will share with the participants in Bohol. Mr. Faizal was, until recently, the chairman of the Airport Facilitation Committee of Maldives.  He  read the keynote speech I delivered at the University of Malaysia where I made reference to the Boracay clean-up and “Open Skies,” a bitterly polemical issue when I was Secretary of tourism. Mr. Faizal said  that in the past,  tourism in Maldives was all inbound as few  of the natives could afford to fly and  that was why sustainable tourism was the criteria from the very start. To the Maldives government, the national interest is  paramount to that of  any airline whether local or foreign, government-owned or private. It also harnessed all government agencies related to tourism, for example,  the Airport Facilitation Committee and  the Ministry of Tourism (of course) and instructed these to work together and cooperate with industry representatives and stakeholders.

In Maldives’ case, the “openskies” policy ruled early on for obvious reasons,  the more tourists,  the better  for the economy and the country; advantages continue to outweigh   the interest of the local airline. Mr. Faizal  said tourism will thrive only if you can fly tourists from point A to point C by passing through point B. It can be argued that the Philippines is different because the Republic of Maldives is much smaller in comparison; it has only 1,200 islands mostly coral, sandbanks, and atolls, of which only 200 are inhabited. Mr. Faizal says that the Philippines being such a vast country, the only way tourism can expand is to make regional hubs in Cebu, Davao, and Laoag.

During his last visit to Davao, he heard that  there are plans to develop the Davao airport, but his experience tells him that it is not going to help much with tourism. It is  the  wrong location for there are no industries close to Davao that could sustain an airport, economically. An airport cannot  live off the airline or the passengers alone.  I am looking forward to Bohol, the jewel of our 8 anchor destinations. I lament the destruction of its colonial churches during an earthquake, but a number have been rebuilt.  I hope tourism has not converted Bohol into another Boracay.