Wish you were here

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 March, 2005, 12:00am

Tropical islands galore, white beaches, gorgeous dive spots, majestic mountain ranges, lush tropical forests, hot springs and waterfalls. On top of that, a vibrant, fun-loving culture. Today's mystifying question is: why isn't the Philippines a tourism superpower?

Last year, 2.2 million tourists visited the country, a pathetic figure compared to tiny Singapore's 8 million visitors, or Hong Kong's 21 million. Even Disneyland Paris regularly gets 12 million, which is particularly mortifying considering that the Philippines definitely has the edge in cartoon characters (just look at our Congress). And anyone who has tried a Manila jeepney knows that our rides are more thrilling.

Lonely Planet calls the Philippines Asia's best-kept secret, saying that the country is on the 'wrong side' of the South China Sea. Actually, we are pretty much on the wrong side of many things in Asia. Our food is not spicy, our culture is not Confucian and our religion is nowhere near Buddhist.

Anyway, tourism has never taken off here. In the early 1980s, things were so bad that the government took to counting Filipinos with hyphenated names visiting their relatives as 'tourists' - even then the total never exceeded one million. It got to the point where at one convention, the tourism minister sobbed that 'Magellan was our first tourist - and they killed him'. This was an interesting twist on history, which holds that the 16th century explorer was the first of a wave of bloodthirsty conquistadors who sailed into these islands bent on rape, pillage and conquest.

While countries like Singapore - basically a small, featureless island - have made something out of nothing, the Philippines has gone in the opposite direction, frittering away its advantages. No government has ever managed the simple task of arranging efficient public transport links to the national airport. Consequently, visitors have only two options: 'expensive', or 'God help you'.

Other countries deluge visitors with maps and guides. Here, you have to hire private investigators to find information desks or brochures.

To top it all, hotel prices are steep, perhaps because operators pass on the cost of doing business in a corrupt, inefficient environment. At any rate, to pay top dollar for staying in a resort, only to have it raided by terrorists, is not the description of an idyllic holiday.

The Philippines hosts the Asian Institute of Tourism, but the industry's service ethic remains spotty and disorganised. Have no doubt on the score: Filipinos are excellent service-sector workers - you can find them as concierges in Venice, bellboys in Washington or casino employees in Macau. Good luck finding them in Manila.