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Save our tourist destinations

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Mapping The Future

Save our tourist destinations

12:58 AM May 15, 2017

In a span of one week in 2013, a couple of colleagues and I visited the most popular tourist destination in South East Asia, Bali, twice.

I must have traveled to Bali over two score times on business and holidays starting 1976. I had seen the tourism industry in the island grow to prodigious proportions, good for the economy of Indonesia but bad on the ecology of Bali and its outer islands, and on Balinese culture—the Balinese themselves are now a minority on their own island. I am happy to note this is now receiving keen attention, primarily by the native Balinese, and increasingly by global ecologists and tourism experts.

The worry over ecology and culture, the two most important legacies of this island to the world, has caused its governor to recommend to Jakarta to endorse its imposition of limits to further building and growth of tourism in the island. I read an article in an English language newspaper report in one of those trips to Bali that said the government of Bali wishes to limit tourists to 2.5 million a year, and a moratorium on more hotel construction for the next five years to allow a rethinking, re-planning and reconstructing of the whole island. The new plan will have the preserving of the Bali’s ecology and Balinese culture as the primary considerations.

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They recommended that Jakarta help the island of Lombok develop its tourism promise as an alternative destination to Bali. This was not altruism. It is enlightened self-interest.

What about the Philippines? Unless we bring to bear certain forces, banish the thought of our attracting 10 or more million tourists who, as they would in Bali, wish to return every year for many, many years.

In the trip I mentioned above, we met and spoke with some couples from Australia— Aussie men who married Filipinos—who have been visiting Bali once a year for 10 years now and hope to keep on visiting Bali while they can, and have no relatives in the island or elsewhere in Indonesia (or OFWs coming home for a visit!). Through their collective eyes, we gained a different perspective of our country.

Asked if they also visit the Philippines every year, the answer was, “Once every two years to see relatives …” Why don’t they extend their Bali visits to go to Philippine tourist destinations?

“Oh, we did,” said one, “but we were disappointed. Boracay, we visited twice but it is now crowded and dirty, and is expensive for the quality they offer. Palawan has some beautiful places but they are quite expensive, compared to prices you get in Bali. Bohol destinations are under-developed and the facilities for transport—the air and seaports for example, entertainment, native culture, food and health facilities are nowhere near what Bali has.”

Ngurah Rai International Airport, Bali’s gateway to the world, already with very good runways, underwent massive rebuilding. In 2014, the new terminal opened with thrice the capacity it had when we last visited. Aqueducts have been built to give the Nusa Pineda area direct access to the airport without passing through the “macet” (pronounced “machet”, traffic) of Legian, Sanur and Den Pasar.

The airport runways themselves will be lengthened to facilitate the landing of Airbus 380s and the extended Boeing 747-8s. In large measure, the desire of local authorities to put a stop to willy-nilly development for a period of time to allow for massive redesign and remodeling of the Greater Den Pasar Area (covering Kuta, Legian and Sanur) revolves around making mobility in the island better and to ensure that the beauty that makes Bali so alluring remains.

Clearly, many of the infrastructure that will make travelling and staying in any destination are dependent on government action or the resulting proliferation and willy-nilly placing of sites and the lack of proper planning by private enterprise traceable to government inability to act properly and decisively. Witness Tagaytay, Baguio and Boracay. It is also clear that many decisions are made solely by private investors.

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Hotels to suit all market segments’ needs abound in Bali (their rooms are offered at great discounts—50 percent—during low seasons, and they are much cheaper than similar facilities anywhere in the Philippines. We have Filipino friends and relatives who have stayed in backpackers’ hotels, three persons to a room maximum, that each have their own toilet and bath for $25 per night for the room. Similarly priced facilities in Boracay squeeze eight people to a dorm-type room on bunk beds! These rooms share common toilets and baths!

This time, our first overnight stay, we stayed in a conveniently located three-star hotel across a good and lively mall with a good beach behind it, with plenty of international level restaurants, for a room that cost $420 single occupancy, all in, including a good breakfast spread. On our second overnight stay, we got 50 percent off from a four-star hotel with its own beach and two large swimming pools for its guests, its own Balinese Spa, a slow 10-minute walk to the mall mentioned earlier, either by way of the beach or a main road, a great free breakfast spread, all for $142, single occupancy.

When I walk down the streets of the main tourist areas of Bali, there is a whole range of stores—from the expensive one selling luxury items, to holes-in-the-wall where the rule is to immediately bargain all offerings by 75 percent—offering a whole range of products, from the locally produced (genuine and imitations) to the imported.

Boracay, Bohol, Puerto Princesa, Davao City, Subic Bay, Baguio, Tagaytay and even Manila and Cebu have few to match these facilities feature-for-feature. Many of our new three-star hotels are still being built with sub-standard materials and dimensions, and fitted with obviously cheaper fixtures and fittings, and are not well maintained.

Many destinations do not have adequate support facilities, like a good range of after-hours entertainment including local culture-based entertainment, the range of cuisines to offer visitors, good supermarkets and convenience stores that offer international products alongside local products and produce, stores that offer a good range of high quality local arts and crafts, and adequate health and emergency medical care facilities.

Several years ago, Bacolod City lost its contract with Korean travel agents for golf tours after only two batches of Korean tourists precisely because of the above-mentioned failings.

Many of these failings are no longer government’s. They are the results of private decisions made by private investors. The desire to get quick returns on any investments, and spend the quick returns on personal luxuries at the soonest possible time, have prevented investments in truly globally competitive facilities and/or clusters of facilities that will last longer with good maintenance.

One can go on and on with the comparisons but I think the point is made that if the Philippines is to be a top tourist destination, more than just our government has to work hard at the right actions.

It will need us to work hard and smart at the right things and make short term sacrifices to ensure that the right facilities and the right events will be found in the places we offer people to get them to come and visit us repeatedly. Unless we do so, banish the thought …

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