Given the archipelagic nature of the Philippines, tourism was identified early on as a low-hanging fruit with great potential to boost the economy. All that was needed, it was believed, was to build roads to provide access to the country’s pristine beaches and other destinations and prod the private sector to put up hotels and other infrastructure there.
The tourism industry had been growing slowly but surely, and foreigners now have more choices than just the old reliables—Boracay, Cebu, or Davao. But now tourism in the Philippines is seriously facing a different kind of threat—the feeling among foreign visitors that it is not a safe destination, as a result of the crisis in Marawi City and the resulting declaration of martial law on the entire island of Mindanao, which has yet to be lifted after more than a month.
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Foreign media have made much about the issue, linking the Marawi crisis to the international terrorist group Islamic State. This is something that the government and the private sector should counter, because if the international community and foreign media lump the Philippines together with Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other troubled spots, tourists can hardly be expected to make a beeline for it. And it will be hard to convince them that Marawi is far from many other tourist destinations here.
Aside from the availability of infrastructure and other facilities needed by tourists, safety is a major concern among foreigners when choosing their travel destination. The government cannot let the international media portray the Philippines as another Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan where extremists hold sway.
This early, travel agencies are expecting a decline in tourist arrivals and earnings in May and June even after the Philippines posted a 12-percent growth in arrivals during the first three months of the year. Their expectation was fueled by negative developments affecting the tourism industry. In April, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, France and New Zealand issued travel advisories warning their citizens against traveling to Central Visayas because of serious threats of kidnapping by terror groups. The following month, the United States, Canada and Australia issued a second advisory against traveling to Palawan because of potential terrorist activities.
Hotels and resorts in the Visayas are bearing the brunt of the fallout of the fighting in Marawi. Travel agencies and online travel agents have reported canceled reservations, citing concerns about the Philippines’ peace and order situation as the main reason.
A group of travel agencies has called on the government to “contain” the conflict in Marawi in order to pave the way for the lifting of martial law in Mindanao. The Philippine Travel Agencies Association (PTAA) has pointed out that the continuing imposition of martial law on the island could scare away potential tourists, and that perception is its biggest concern right now especially among those who have yet to visit the country. Indeed, the mere mention of “martial law” can scare tourists away.
There is also a need for a dialogue among the stakeholders of the tourism industry. The PTAA has suggested a stakeholders’ meeting to discuss the various issues currently affecting the industry. Both the government and the private sector should come together soon to formulate a short-term plan for the tourism industry for the rest of the year and 2018.
The crisis in Marawi has to end soon and martial law lifted if the Philippines’ tourism sector is to recover. No amount of public relations can paper over the protracted fighting between the Philippine military and the Maute extremists. (Side Note: We don’t understand why the Department of Tourism had to bother thinking of another slogan to lure visitors to the Philippines. Indeed, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? The DOT could have avoided the embarrassment that attended the launch of its new slogan.)
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