Whenever I tour people around the historic capital of the Philippines, I couldn’t avoid but feel confused and overwhelmed by the many things we could do to improve the state of tourism in our capital, and likewise, in all the other parts of our beloved tropical archipelago. Congested roads, poorly maintained heritage structures, the lack of interest and knowledge on the part of the locals and the seeming mediocrity prevalent in many crafts can really dissuade both the tourist guide and the tourist from pursuing tourism in the Philippines.
How many of us have felt duped by the calesa driver or frustrated by the pricey but flimsy souvenir? How many of us have felt nervous riding a cab in certain parts of the city of Manila? How many of us have been inconvenienced by airport or seaport inefficiencies? How many of us have feared using provincial buses?
Alas, how much potential revenue is lost in unvisited heritage sites? How much is lost in corruption as well as city traffic?
But one question I really pose, along with others, is how far has our Department of Tourism worked/intervened in making sure that money not only trickle from top-to-bottom but actually be generated at the bottom level?
First, there is the effort in constructing airports, highways and bridges as well as encouraging the establishment of 5-star hotels and resorts from private businesses/firms. Indeed, who wouldn’t be overjoyed by having a Shangri-La hotel on an island like Boracay? Well, maybe, the natives! And also, cultural workers as well as anthropologists. Beneath the luxuries that come with such a hotel comes the exclusion and displacement of small people: the eradication of cheap facilities for backpackers or tourists on a budget, which are sources of income for small people, the disappearance of small eateries as well of other “informal” trades such as massage services by blind folk, etc. It would be nice, even perfect, if such 5-star hotels train and employ these small people. But of course, instead of spending their money on the training of these people, they’d rather pay marketing people to advertise their hotel. Duh.
Secondly, there is an undeniable pressure from both the private and public sectors for traditional craftsmen to produce crafts that number in thousands, and cost as little as possible. I saw this phenomenon in Kidlat Tahimik’s Turumba last year during my Survey of Social Theories class. Compromising quality, character and passion, the production of crafts that are consumed in large numbers are no longer made with the same spirit and reverence as before. Of course, we would want to uplift the lives of the small craftsmen but how could this be possible if they lose their own character and at the same time, suffer in the hands of the apathetic middle-men who thrive in our country.
The government must intervene here. I do not exactly know how but maybe technical assistance, small monetary loans and patronage can work. The government’s agencies too such as the National Commission on Culture and the Arts and the Department of Tourism, in partnership with local governments as well as private cultural groups, should work together for an integrative process of preserving and updating the dynamics behind the production of these crafts such as woven mats, baskets, papier mache toys and for me, more importantly, edible treats. These crafts should be mapped, promoted, protected and patronized.
Lastly, efforts by cultural workers and tourism leaders should be accessible and welcoming not only to tourists but to all Filipinos, most especially the majority of the population. If we want to highlight and protect what is our own, then we should first cater and educate our countrymen. If we who are educated proudly proclaim that our travels here and abroad are great educational experiences, then what more for the uneducated? Imagine how tourism as well as cultural preservation inspire and give hope to a person languishing in hunger and social insecurity? I bet if you take a street urchin to Boracay, he/she might feel a bit better.
Of course, that is “impossible” to many, many Filipinos.
But there are ways of bringing tourism and heritage to these people.
Take for example the activities prepared by the group of beautiful cultural heritage doyenne Bambi Harper during the month of May, known as Philippine Heritage Month. Instead of holding exclusive Filipiniana dinners or regional food expositions in 5-star hotels, some activities can be held, for example, at the heart of Quiapo in Plaza Miranda or in the streets of Tondo. Fishermen could be featured for their trade in an exposure trip to a fishing town. Likewise, the media can do a lot of help in promoting Philippine tourism and heritage if it airs more shows like that of Susan Calo-Medina’s Travel Time and commercials that promote different natural and man-made sites, gastronomical Filipino creations and traditional values and celebrations. Filipinos should begin opening their horizons, and rouse themselves up from their pedestrian mentalities of ignoring cultural events even if these are free. Why, even among the middle-class, there pervades a sense of disinterest for fine music, food and art!
Actually, there are already quite a number of efforts to make cultural celebrations or affairs more accessible. European cultural institutes such as Alliance Francaise de Manille and Instituto Cervantes de Manila hold film fests that are either free or cheap (cheaper than some cheaply made Hollywood zombie film!). There are concerts in Paco Park and even the CCP, which are totally free! Questions now arise as to how organizers can attract people to “exploit” such beautiful things. Again, maybe, it’s a problem in venues. Why would poor Juan de la Cruz, even by knowing that the concert is free, “dare” climb the imposing ramp of the Cultural Center of the Philippines?
What would he wear? What would people say? How would they look at him? Such are valid concerns for the small Filipino, side-swept and forgotten even by people who try to promote a heritage he can relate to but seems to reject him and his lot.
There is a great call to democratize tourism and cultural heritage in the country. It is not only follies of the rich and the eccentric to engage tourism and preserve culture. Filipinos, be they rich or poor, should have a say in the decisions and campaigns to promote and conserve our country’s heritage. Of course, who are we to deny the rich in their important role of hosting grandiose parties and balls that raise to world standards Philippine hospitality and entertainment. At the same time, who are we to say no to their dreams of building internationally-competitive hotels and resorts?
The primary concern though of integration for sustainability’s sake should be present and influential. We do not want our cultural treasures exploited and over-used. Likewise, we want our waters to remain clean, our animals safe, and our beliefs respected. We want our suman to taste world-class but without it being packaged in such a way that we no longer remember it’s suman in the first place.
We want to check-in into a hotel that would remind me that “hey, I am in the Philippines!”
We want to celebrate Heritage Month not only along with scholars and experts but with every kind of Filipino.
We want to visit places in the Philippines without being confronted “Pay up! This is a private business!”
We want to the Philippines to be loved, visited and re-visited by foreigners, balikbayans, and of course, Philippine-residents as well.
We want fellow Filipinos, more than any other nationality, to be the ones who would propel our tourism and enable it to become robust, lively and sustainable. We don’t need open skies nor extremely exorbitant hotels. We need a sustainable, enjoyable and inspiring kind of tourism, a tourism that will bring out the beautiful smiles of Filipinos, and our supposed penchant for hospitality.