THE Philippines has, inarguably, some of the world’s best beaches and islands. Palawan and Boracay are often on top of the world’s best and must-visit lists. Yet, somehow it has lagged in international tourist arrivals compared to its Asean neighbors. In 2017, based on official figures, Thailand had 35.38 million international visitors, Malaysia had 25.9 million, Singapore 17.4 million, and Indonesia 14.04 million. In 2017, only 6.6 million visited the Philippines, though it was a slight increase from the 5.97 million who visited in 2016. According to the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), travel and tourism account for 4.2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product generating 1.2 million jobs (2015).
Travel and tourism competitiveness
The Philippines ranks 79th out of 136 countries in the World Economic Forum Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index (2017), five notches down from its previous ranking. The country is fifth out of the eight Asean countries included in the report. Singapore ranks 13th, Thailand 34th, Malaysia 26th, Indonesia 42nd, and Vietnam 67th.
The Department of Tourism (DoT) adopted the destination strategy, wherein the “tourism industry is totally reliant on its natural attractions as the motivation for tourists to visit.” However, it recognized that natural attractions are not strong enough to bring in significant numbers of tourists, citing “infrastructure inadequacies, limited investment in product, insufficient accommodation, medium to low quality product and inadequate airlift.” Beyond Cebu and Boracay, “little investment has taken place in recent years in the Super Region’s tourism sector.” Thus, it recognized the need to move to an “investment-driven strategy” to achieve its projected tourist growth. For 2018, the DoT targets 7.4 million tourist arrivals.
The DoT also launched farm- and faith-based tourism programs to attract sector-specific foreign and domestic tourists. Farm tourism showcases the best crops of the country (e.g. durian, pomelo, banana, and cacao), while faith-based tourism highlights the country’s “religious diversity.” These are significant endeavors, but perhaps the Philippines has tremendous potential to achieve more in the niche tourism of adventure and gastronomic travel.
The Adventure Travel Trade Association defines adventure travel as “any tourist activity that includes physical activity, a cultural exchange, and connection with nature.” Geographically, the country is blessed with remote, isolated, and exotic locations, with mountain ranges and bodies of water suited for physically challenging outdoor activities. For example, canyoneering in Cebu will keep your adrenaline pumping, from the starting jump to sliding in natural rock formations, swimming underwater, and rafting at Kawasan Falls. Or swim with whale sharks in Oslob, and conquer the rapids in Cagayan de Oro. In Bohol, extreme and eco-adventure tours will take you on a free fall, swing, rappelling, caving, spelunking, or bike zipline in the Chocolate Hills. Closer to Manila is the day hike in Rizal. Or you can trek the mountain ranges of Sierra Madre, Mt. Apo or Mt. Pulag, then proudly buy a shirt marked, “I survived the Akiki Trail.”
UNWTO Secretary General Zurab Pololikashvili said gastronomy is a “growing driver for tourism; it’s central to any tourism experience and a major element of intangible cultural heritage.” To travel mainly motivated by the local food specialties and exotic beverages, works well with Filipinos who love food and food trips. This will drive domestic tourism. With Spanish, Malay and Chinese influences, Filipino cuisine is indeed a melting pot of flavors.
In Palawan and Aklan provinces, there’s the tamilok, mollusks found in wood submerged in mangroves. In Bohol, there’s the crispy chichaworms, deep-fried cultured super worms flavored with sugar, salt and chili powder. If you’re not that adventurous with food, fresh seafood dishes in the Visayas would be sufficient. In Manila, there’s balut and internationally known chicken adobo. And halo-halo in Pampanga, bagnet in Ilocos, bachoy in Iloilo, and lechon in Cebu.
In recent years, Philippine cuisine has increasingly gained international recognition. Andrew Zimmern, host of “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” on the Travel Channel said, “Filipino food will be the next big thing in America.” Also, the late Anthony Bourdain, the host of CNN’s travel and food show “Parts Unknown,” said that “sisig is perfectly positioned to win the hearts and minds of the world.”
Finally, to gain more visitors, there remains the need to improve the country’s tourism service infrastructure, safety and security, environmental sustainability, and ground and port structures. National branding highlighting regional specialties and cultural heritage tours also needs to be strengthened. The Philippines is where you can indulge your senses, and your cravings, as well as commune with nature in the care of the renowned Filipino hospitality. The strength of the tourism industry is its people. Hospitality comes naturally to Filipinos—making a visitor feel that he or she belongs and is a part of the community. Indeed, the Philippines is the best place to be.
The author earned a Master in Public Administration from Harvard Kennedy School and a Master in International Relations (with merit) from Victoria University of Wellington. She took her bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of the Philippines.