Less "Fun", More Challenges

Tourism in the Philippines after Super Typhoon Haiyan

Tourism is a booming industry in the Philippines. This trend has been running for a couple of years now, making this Southeast Asian republic one of the rising stars in the global tourism industry. In 2012 alone, the number of visitors increased to 4.3 million from 3.9 million the previous year, contributing around 5.9 per cent of the country's 195 billion euro economy. With its promotional slogan, "It's more fun in the Philippines", the government in Manila has embarked on an ambitious target to increase tourist arrivals in the next three years to ten million. But then came super typhoon Haiyan.

On 8th November last year, the tropical storm ravaged the central Philippine islands. It is considered to be the strongest storm ever recorded to hit landfall and brought destruction to an area as large as Portugal. More than a million homes were destroyed, about 6,000 people were killed, and hundreds are still missing.

With all its beautiful beaches, enchanting places, and friendly people, the country unfortunately lies in the so called Pacific “Ring of Fire”, where natural catastrophes like typhoons, earthquakes, and tsunamis frequently occur. In fact, just a month before Haiyan struck, the island of Bohol – a popular travel destination – was hit by a powerful earthquake bringing major damage to its historic churches and even natural landmarks like the Chocolate Hills, a major tourist attraction. And then barely weeks after Haiyan struck, a tropical depression brought floods to Davao City and nearby provinces, a region which also has a big tourism industry.

Vulnerability of the tourism industry

Climate experts predict that because of global warming, the country will likely experience more severe natural catastrophes, like flooding and storm surges similar to the one brought by Haiyan, as the Pacific Ocean warms up. This warning brings additional instability and vulnerability to the industry.

Aside from footages of destroyed houses and dead bodies brought by Haiyan, the media also showed stranded tourists either anxiously waiting to go home or making themselves useful by helping the emergency and relief efforts of the locals.

Understandably, images like these broadcasted to the whole world resulted in prompt cancellation of tourist bookings immediately after the typhoon struck. People don't want to go to destinations where their hosts are living in misery, where infrastructures are either under reconstruction or not working at all. But even in areas not affected by Haiyan – like Boracay, Bohol, Cebu and Palawan – resorts and tour operators there are feeling the pinch, with cancellation rates reportedly as high as 30 to 40 per cent.

Clearly, the country badly needs revenues from its tourism industry now more than ever. The government estimates the rebuilding costs to reach a staggering 2.1 billion euros, an amount which the highly-indebted Philippines do not have. In the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan, the country's Department of Tourism issued an appeal to foreign tourists to continue visiting the country in the hope that their visit will speed up reconstruction efforts.

But three months after Haiyan, many affected areas still do not have power lines, people are still living in tents, and many resorts in small islands which are heavily dependent on tourism are still to begin reconstruction.

Another challenge is how to market tourism again, after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake and a category 5 typhoon hit it one after the other in a span of just one month. Filipino tourism officials understood that to promote the country as a “fun” travel destination after these two major natural disasters is anachronistic, if not insensitive.

Making tourism fit for the future

But beneath the change of marketing slogan, the Philippines has to answer fundamental questions as to which way their tourism industry should go, what kind of tourism they really need, and who their target markets are.

Instead of going into mass markets like everyone else in the region, the Philippines has a better edge by focussing on alternative, small-scale, but high-quality tourism. Aside from alternative foreign tourists, there are about ten million Filipinos in Diaspora who not only regularly send money which keeps the country's economy floating, but also go home regularly for family visits. If the Philippine tourism industry can offer them holiday packages suited to their needs, they will certainly be more enticed to spend part of their vacation away from the homes of their families and friends.

In fact, the Filipinos in Diaspora are not only a huge potential tourist market, they are also potential investors in reconstruction, in rebuilding the country's tourism industry, and in making tourism in the Philippines more resilient to disasters. Unlike foreign tourists who might travel to the country just for “fun”, Filipinos living and working abroad will patronise the industry not only for leisure but as gesture of solidarity to their country of origin as well. After all, they are not called the country's modern-day heroes for nothing.

Jack Catarata studied Political Science and Social Research in the Philippines. He is the Chair of the Philippine Diaspora Network (PhilNetz e.V.) based in Bonn. With help from the German Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit – Center for International Migration and Development (GIZ-CIM), PhilNetz e.V. is promoting investments of Diaspora Filipinos in Germany in so-called “Green Economic Development” projects in the Philippines, among them in the tourism industry.

(TW 74, March 2014)