Can–and will–the Philippines finally capitalize on tourism?

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on July 24, 2011

If I ask you to imagine Thailand, what comes to mind? Most likely temples, the giant lying Buddha, a spicy exotic cuisine, the emperor, world-class beach resorts, and perhaps the Patpong night market. How about Hong Kong? The magnificent skylines on both sides of the bay, the dragon city, aisles of tiangge-like stalls, Repulse Bay, the cuisine of course, and Victoria Peak. Now think about Malaysia, the ubiquitous “Asia, Truly Asia” campaign, the Petronas Towers, laksa, and quaint Malacca’s shops.

Each of these countries benefit from distinctive, compelling visual images—brand attributes—that describe and define their contrasting attractions. Now the question you’ve been waiting for: Describe the Philippines.

You get the picture that’s not there, I assume. While it is true that each of the countries I described above has the benefit of compellingly distinctive attributes, they have worked hard to communicate those attributes to travelers, with profound results. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, almost 16 million tourists visited Thailand last year despite its myriad political upheavals, broadcast throughout the world. Revenues from tourism were $20 billion.

More than 20 million tourists visited Hong Kong last year, generating $23 billion in revenue. Hong Kong has had its own issues to deal with, also political and mostly concerned with democratic rights, including pressure on chief executive Donald Tsang to institute democratic reforms. But whenever a case of flu is reported, the twin nightmares of 1997’s bird flu epidemic and financial meltdown come to mind. An outbreak was reported earlier this year.

And then there is Malaysia. The sensational, politically-inspired trial of opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has generated hugely negative perception of its government and judiciary, and the transparency with which they pursue their mandates. In recent weeks, videos of brutal police crackdowns on demonstrators—alarmingly similar to those we see across the Middle East—have been seen by hundreds of thousands of viewers on YouTube.

Yet Malaysia expects to exceed the almost 25 million tourist arrivals it saw last year, which generated about $18 billion in revenue. The point? Each of these countries has significant challenges to marketing their tourism industry. But they haven’t let those challenges get in the way of their success in tourism. While there are many factors involved in that success, at the core is their strong, abiding country brand identities.

Last year, the Philippines came in near last in terms of tourist arrivals and tourism revenue among Southeast Asian countries, ahead of Cambodia. The Philippines saw 3.5 million arrivals generating just $2.7 billion. For most countries, tourism is a numbers game. Each Philippine visitor spent around $770 each compared to $726 for each visitor to Malaysia, which is said to focus on high-value, family-oriented tourism.

Smaller, more developed economies succeeded, however, in attracting higher value tourists, perhaps because many tourists are actually businesspeople attending conferences and exhibitions. Each visitor to Singapore spent about $1,550 in 2010, while the average visitor spend in Hong Kong was $1,140. It’s worth mentioning that these countries have built Asia’s best conference facilities.

Last week, Department of Tourism Secretary Alberto A. Lim announced in an investment forum that “The National Tourism Development Plan is hot off the presses.” According to Lim, the plan is being reviewed by the “economic cluster,” perhaps in an effort to avoid a repeat of the debacle the department’s early branding initiative—which featured a concept “borrowed” from Poland, a tagline in Filipino, and a website easily mistaken for a porn site—quickly spiraled into.

For this new plan to succeed, it must replicate the success the Philippines’ neighbors have had defining and communicating their country brand identities. Quoting from a World Bank report, the GlobalSource Partners think tank earlier this month said lack of a brand name—along with other tough but manageable issues—remains a high hurdle to accelerating growth in tourist arrivals.

But there will always be hurdles. The difference between the Philippines and its neighbors is not that the Philippines has hurdles and its neighbors do not. The difference is that the Philippines’ neighboring competitors haven’t pointed to those issues to justify failure. The only real handicap the Philippines has is that for decades successive administrations have refused or simply been incapable of transforming challenges into opportunities.

We’re about to see the second effort by the Department of Tourism to emulate the region’s runaway success in attracting visitors. The Philippines can do it. But will it?

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand. Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com and follow him on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn.). Copyright © 2011 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)

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