It’s more funds in the Philippines

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Street Talk

By GREG B. MACABENTA

The Tourism Secretary is gone. Long live the new Tourism Secretary. She is Bernadette Romulo-Puyat. Puyat is as qualified as any that the Philippine government usually appoints to an important cabinet post.

First of all, she has pedigree. She is the daughter of former Senator and one-time Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alberto Romulo and a granddaughter of the late Carlos P. Romulo, who had more honors attached to his name than a military gala uniform. In the Philippines, pedigree counts.

Remember how we were all mesmerized by the prospect of having the son of heroic Ninoy Aquino and beloved Cory Aquino as President of the Philippines, after much-maligned but impressively-credentialed Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo?

Secondly, Puyat belongs to alta-sociedad. In our country, being to the manor born is mandatory for a lofty position, whether in government or private business. According to one news account, “In 2017 PeopleAsia honored Berna, together with 13 other accomplished women, by including her in our annual list of Women of Style & Substance…”

Who cares about Persons of High Intellectual, Technological and Scientific Achievements? Too dull and unglamorous (it should be pointed out, however, that Puyat graduated Magna Cum Laude at the University of the Philippines, but that doesn’t make her any less glamorous or stylish).

Thirdly, Puyat has served the government as Undersecretary of Agriculture in charge of administration, agribusiness, marketing and regional engagement.

Now, if that doesn’t qualify her for the post of Secretary of Tourism, I don’t know what will.

After all, Mayor Rodrigo Duterte was considered imminently qualified to become President of the Philippines because he rid Davao City of criminals, and Benigno Aquino III was considered imminently qualified to become President because his parents were Ninoy and Cory. So, there!

Fourthly – and this is very important in our country – she is a friend of the President. In fact, according to one news account, Duterte once described Puyat as his idea of “an ideal first lady” (eat your heart out Sara!)

The former Tourism Secretary Wanda Tulfo Teo had impressive credentials too, having owned a travel agency and having worked as a flight stewardess and, most of all, being a sister of the crime-busting brothers, Tulfo – presidential friends.

Unfortunately, Teo found herself unwittingly embroiled in a scandal that one pundit has described as “more funds in the Philippines.” So she had to resign.

Bernadette Romulo Puyat assumes the post of Secretary of Tourism burdened by a lot of baggage – but no burden could be heavier than promoting Philippine tourism. Ironically, the problem is not that there is nothing to say – or sell – about the Philippines. It is that there is so much to say about it, that two hundred advertising geniuses invariably end up with two hundred different ideas on how to market the country.

It is an axiom in advertising that “saying too much is saying nothing.”

Such has been the fate of Philippine tourism. There are so many things to say about our beautiful country and our beautiful people that Senator Dick Gordon, during his stint as Tourism Secretary and being never at a loss for words, could only come up with the expression, “Wow!”

Tourists are usually attracted to beaches and tropical islands (Hawaii and the Caribbean), shopping and bargains (Hong Kong), exotic cultures (India, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia), ancient traditions (Japan and Korea), ersatz tourist attractions (Singapore), raucous and sexy festivals (Brazil), history and royalty (Europe), and adventure (Africa).

The Philippine has all of these. So how does one promote this smorgasbord of attractions? Gordon summed them all up as “Wow!”

Frankly that’s the opposite of saying too much. But it’s also saying nothing.

But to Gordon’ credit, being the super salesman that he is, he made “Wow Philippines” work. And tourist traffic increased during his watch.

Ramon Jimenez, a much-awarded advertising and marketing person, faced the same quandary when he assumed the post of Tourism Secretary. What to say about the Philippines?

Of course, he also had such problems as poor infrastructure and airline regulatory restrictions, as well as the expectedly limited tourism promotions budget.

But, what to say about the destination of a thousand tourism pleasures?

The agency that Jimenez hired came up with an original expression, “It’s more fun in the Philippines.” That slogan was originally used in a Switzerland campaign, but the ad agency swore that this was purely coincidental.

I frankly thought that the “more fun” positioning was too generic. It could have applied to any tourist destination. None of the distinctive images that come to mind when one envisions going to India or Thailand or Hong Kong or Bali. Like Gordon’s “Wow!”, the expression Jimenez picked tried to say it all.

At any rate, after the usual kibitzing, the Department of Tourism pushed the campaign through – and it actually worked! Of course, much of the credit should go to Jimenez’s marketing savvy and the fact that, if one actually comes to the Philippines, one can actually have more fun!

And this brings me to the earlier pun about “more funds in the Philippines.” In fact, there are never enough funds allocated to tourism promotion. Every Secretary of Tourism, over many administrations, has had to deal with having a lot to say about the country and not having enough resources to say them with.

The situation being bad enough as it is, was made worse by Teo when she allocated P60 million of the scarce DOT resources to an action-cum-crime-busting TV show like Bitag (Trap).

Bitag has absolutely no relevance to tourism. Teo’s only rationale for buying into it was that the show was being produced by members of her family.

But to go back to new Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo Puyat. There is every reason to believe that someone with her credentials should succeed in her new job. She is conceivably well-travelled and only needs to put herself in the shoes of the intending tourist, to be able to envision what it is about the Philippines that can be most appealing to the most number of independent travelers as possible, given her department’s budgetary limitations.

Needless to say, while it would be nice to appeal to all prospective tourists, a limited marketing and promotions budget can only effectively target a limited segment of the huge tourism market. A choice has to be made.

Of course, as tourist traffic grows and more funds are generated, a broader and more diverse market can be targeted.

With due respect to Ramon Jimenez and Dick Gordon, whose marketing credentials are impressive and proven, neither “More fun!” nor “Wow!” adequately identifies that singular quality about the Philippines that a specific tourist segment would find appealing.

But Secretary Berna Romulo Puyat doesn’t have to take my word for it. On the other hand, neither should she take the word of young advertising geniuses who have not travelled enough to know what they are talking about.

I’m willing to bet that Puyat has travelled to more countries and knows more about travel and tourism than she does about agriculture. And if she did well in that former job, there is every reason to hope that she will do well in this new one.

Good luck.

(gregmacabenta@hotmail.com)

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