Bad news about a country usually affects potential visitors’ travel plans, so it’s understandable that Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo is concerned about the spate of negative reports on the Philippines. In the past months the reports have focused mainly on the bloody war on illegal drugs, with the occasional beheading of foreign captives by the Abu Sayyaf thrown in.
The reports have made the country a hard sell to potential travelers, Teo told Filipino journalists who covered President Duterte’s recent visit to Thailand. Her request to “tone down a little” the reports on extrajudicial killings must have been spurred by the sight of so many foreign visitors in Bangkok.
Thailand is a top tourist destination in Southeast Asia, drawing an enviable 32.6 million foreign visitors last year. Compare this with the Philippines’ 5.9 million – already a record for the country – and any tourism secretary will feel despair.
The Duterte administration, however, cannot expect the foreign media especially in free societies to ignore the execution of thousands of suspects within just eight months into a new administration. Especially when many of the deaths are clearly cases of summary executions, with the victims’ hands tied behind their backs and their heads wrapped in plastic and packing tape. And especially when anti-narcotics cops are accused of abuses, including kidnapping and murdering a South Korean.
The impact of such grisly reports can be eased by genuine measures undertaken to prevent more abuses and bring perpetrators to justice. The national police promised a kinder, gentler war on drugs. If its “Double Barrel Reloaded” delivers on this promise, the negative reports can still be reversed.
Beyond the negative reports, the Philippines also has a lot of catching up to do in terms of tourism development. Compared with its neighbors such as Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, the Philippines suffers from inadequate tourism infrastructure and poor air connectivity.
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Except for a few destinations such as Boracay and Palawan, most of the country’s natural attractions, which can compete with the best in the region, are underdeveloped for tourism. Even if the reports on extrajudicial killings die down, many other problems prevent the country from realizing its full potential as a tourism destination. The tourism chief can focus on these problems, which call for a coordinated approach among several agencies. The drug killings aren’t the only reasons why the country is a hard sell.