Here’s something the President can be proud of: News of the appointment of Bernadette Romulo Puyat as Tourism Secretary was not only warmly welcomed but loudly applauded by the food community.
This is because in the past three years of Madrid Fusion Manila, Puyat proved herself not only as a passionate advocate for farmers and Philippine produce but also an effective organizer who saw and was able to align with former Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez Jr.’s vision of promoting Filipino food to the international community and helped make this vision a reality for both DOT and the Department of Agriculture (DA).
While she was not with the Tourism Department at the time, Puyat was able to participate in Madrid Fusion Manila by making the DA one of its sponsors, allocating to it a budget of several millions just to fly in produce and cooks from the provinces to showcase to the international community. She also set up a DA booth at the trade fair area and saw to the daily lunches of participants who raved about them being well executed and better than the lunch set-ups in Madrid Fusion in Spain.
She has been so passionate about promoting Philippine products to the international community in various ways. When this column broke the news that Madrid Fusion Manila was going to be canceled, she was so concerned she wrote a letter to Tourism and Promotions Board head Cesar Montano, copy furnishing no less than the President.
She also called me to explain how the decision would affect the DA’s role in the project. We were on the phone discussing DOT-related issues for over an hour (I told her later that I haven’t been on the phone that long since high school). It showed me how passionate she really was about projects like this.
It was in that conversation that I learned a fun fact: President Duterte himself participated in Madrid Fusion Manila on its first run in 2015. It was the first year of Madrid Fusion Manila and it was decided that the lunch for the international chefs, media and participants for three days of the event would be sponsored by the DA. There was a theme for each of the lunch fiestas: Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. For the Mindanao day, one of the sponsors was President Duterte, then Davao mayor, who generously flew in delegates, cooks and products from Davao, joining in the cause to promote products and produce from Mindanao.
In an interview exclusive to this column, Puyat says while her first priority is to be a living example of corruption-free leadership, she remains passionate about promoting our farmers and their produce.
“My first priority as DOT Secretary would be the marching order of the President, which is to make sure that there is no corruption and that everything is transparent in the department. Second would be the promotion of farm tourism, which is very close to my heart, being an undersecretary of the [DA] prior to my new appointment. We have been working with the DOT for a few years already for Madrid Fusion Manila, where we [have been promoting] various food and ingredients from various regions,” she says.
It seems it was this stint in the DA that best prepared Puyat for her newest role. “My experience in the field and in promoting local agriculture and fishery products would be an advantage to the DOT. Since we will be pushing for farm tourism in the DOT, my experience in visiting farms would help in crafting this program,” she says.
As undersecretary of the DA, she says she “learned the importance of getting to know your stakeholders first-hand in order to assess their needs better.”
She personally interacted with farmers to better understand their situation.
“I plan to practice this as well in the DOT by doing consultations with the stakeholders so that I can have a better understanding of the tourism situation in the country.”
Farmers and farm owners can now rejoice that Puyat will be their strongest cheerleader. “During my stint as DA Undersecretary, I have been encouraging people to become co-producers or someone who goes beyond the passive role of consuming and takes interest in those who produce our food, how they produce it, and the issues they face in doing so. Through the farm tourism program, we can make our tourists experience growing their own food, visit farms, meet farmers and fisherfolk, and educate themselves on our local/regional cuisines and cultural dishes to have a deeper appreciation of local food production, as well as the men and women behind them. I think this will be a relatively new experience for our tourists, and could offer more activities in their travels.”
“In my work [with DA], we promoted food products/ingredients from the different parts of the country such as heirloom rice from the Cordilleras, cacao, durian, marang, and pomelo from Davao and Cotabato, coffee from Negros, Batangas, etag from Sagada,” she says proudly. “It has encouraged our consumers to go local. With the increasing popularity of Philippine cuisine worldwide, we have noted that farm tourism could be an effective way of attracting tourists to our country. We hope to make farm tourism experiential, like making tourists plant/harvest their own food, visit farms, talk with farmers/fishermen, immerse themselves with the locals so that tourists would have a holistic experience of our country, especially the countryside.”
She also plans to promote culinary tourism.
“People are becoming more conscious of the food they eat, where they come from, and how they were made/produced … so it’s an opportune time for the Philippines, being an agricultural country, to promote this,” Puyat says.
She says culinary tourism can come in the form of farm tours, restaurant visits and events such as Madrid Fusion Manila. She believes the latter “seeks to position the Philippines as one of the gastronomic hubs in the world.”
And finally, we can now be sure that Madrid Fusion Manila will push through.
“The previous ones (Madrid Fusion Manila from 2015 to 2017) have proven that the event has not only promoted our food destinations, but also have helped in educating the public about the abundance and diversity of our produce in the country, as well as the contribution of our farmers and fisherfolk in feeding the nation. It has helped both our tourism and food industries by encouraging consumers to go local. Because of these outcomes, we are aiming to make Madrid Fusion Manila 2018 happen. With my new capacity as Secretary, I will see to it that all preparatory activities are completed without delay so that we can hold the event this year.”
I think it’s safe to say that the President chose well. I was also happy to learn that Puyat is also academically qualified, as she holds a Masters in Economics from the University of the Philippines.
She has this to say to President Duterte: “I would like to thank President Duterte for the trust that he has given me to serve as DOT Secretary. I will do the best of my capacity to carry out his vision of eliminating corruption in the government, and to implement programs that will boost the tourism industry in the country.”
The food community couldn’t be happier and we are all looking forward to a corruption-free DOT!
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