Thursday ∗ 14 Mar 2013

Tourism and the poor Filipino face

In January, the Department of Tourism (DOT) celebrated the 6.09% rise in the number of tourists to the Philippines. That’s 25,000 more people who have come to visit this country where everything’s more fun. That’s 436,079 tourists who landed in good ol’ Pinas in January alone.

It gives me goosebumps. Far from the good kind.

Because it would take an amount of delusion to think this all good, and only the naïve would think those numbers equal to development or change. This is not to dispute those numbers, neither is it to question those online surveys that say Boracay is the Best Beach in Asia. This is to ask questions borne of actually traveling this country, and observing tourism on the ground.

This is to ask: have you heard of the “poor Filipino face?”

In Puerto Galera for the recent Malasimbo Music and Arts Fest, a group of British nationals were as excited as we were to go and see Jimmy Cliff. In the jeep that would bring us from the beach to the concert site, the group were taking photos of themselves, and prompted to do a wacky shot, one of the Englishmen did a version of a sad face in place of the expected. Asked what that face was, he said: “It’s the poor Filipino face.” His side of the jeep then proceeded to do their versions of the poor Filipino face, one even putting out his hand as if begging for alms.

Certainly I could’ve raised a fuss and called that group of British nationals racist. After all, nowhere in the It’s More Fun In the Philippines campaign does it say that this country is poor, and neither does it point to things that are sad about this country. Better sense of course told me that this DOT campaign – as with any other – is the total denial of the existence of poverty, if not the refusal to admit that fun can only be had by those who can afford it – locals and foreigners alike.

And I get it, DOT Secretary Mon Jimenez is an advertising guy. He is selling the nation as product, no different from Jollibee Chicken Joy. His concern is only that more foreigners come to visit, and spend their good money on travel packages prepared for them. The great thing about his campaign is that it engages with nation on tunnel vision. It is its greatest failing, too.

I tend to think that the more we deny the fact of poverty, the brighter the light shone on its normalized existence.

Government rhetoric will have us believe that tourism means jobs and improved lives, where economic improvement will trickle down to even the underground economy, and all of us can be happy. The DOT itself believes that a major part of tourism is the nation being unified behind a sense of identity, which in this case is the idea that it is more “fun” here.

Yet any tourist who comes in would see that alongside those beautiful beaches and fascinating festivals are the hands of hardworking Pinoys who are at the lowest rung of that ladder, barely able to make ends meet no matter how large the tourist population.

These Pinoys of the service sector, the janitors and receptionists, the waiters and boatmen, ponyboys and masahistas, are the lifeblood of the tourist industry. These kind and hospitable Ates and Kuyas are the ones least appreciated, the ones who are least affected by whatever success there might be for a tourism program. These Pinoys are proof of that great divide between the upper classes and the working class in this country, the wealthy Pinoy capitalist and the underground economy that is unstable and unreliable.

To imagine that It’s More Fun in the Philippines will mean improved lives is to believe that the manong waiter will at some point own the resort he works in, or that the manang who offers massages on the beach for P200 bucks will at some point own a patch of beach land to do her business in. This tourist industry doesn’t even give them job security at this point, what of financial independence?

But these are things that DOT doesn’t concern itself with, glossing over the factors within nation that are related to tourism and the influx of foreigners. Going all tunnel vision on delivering its promise of fun, what this campaign falls back on is existing infrastructure that is really only beneficial for the wealthy, assuring them of more profit. There is no promise to the struggling and impoverished Pinoy worker.

In fact, this idea of tourist money trickling down is about as false as the notion that prostitution and every other injustice that the influx of foreigners fuels, aren’t connected to tourism at all.  Or are not problems that DOT need be concerned with.

In an interview with DOT Secretary Mon Jimenez for Rogue Magazine in January 2012, soon after the It’s More Fun In the Philippines campaign gained ground, I asked him about the prostitution of our women and its relationship with tourism. He said no, prostitution exists because of poverty. It is sad that it exists, but it is not the DOT’s problem. He rejects that this is the image that the country has.

Because, you know, simply rejecting a perception makes the truth behind it go away.

Recently, the National Competitiveness Council (NCC) released the results of the 2013 Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), which lists the Philippines as “the most improved country in the region, ranking 16th regionally and 82nd overall.” Yet the more interesting assertion here is this:

“One of the key improvements identified for the Philippines was the prioritization of travel and tourism. The country has significantly raised its rank from 70th to 15th. The country now ranks 1st in the world in terms of government spending on the industry, as compared to its 63rd place in the 2011 report.”

Which is to say that this government is spending on making sure that the class divide is one that grows wider by the day. It is spending on making sure that the rich capitalist gets richer, and that the working class he employs works even harder, lest they lose their jobs to the next person in line – and there is a long line. Poverty is not tourism’s problem, and so it cannot care about children begging for food in the streets of Manila, or the destitute bowels of Boracay and Puerto Galera. Prostitution is not tourism’s problem, never mind that a study has shown that 40% of foreigners go to the Philippines precisely for that, and it is would be crazy to think that this would raise our women from poverty.

Which is to say that spending as it has on tourism, this government also assures us of one thing: that the poor Filipino face will continue to exist. Because tourists might be having fun here, but they aren’t blind.

Posted in: bayan, gobyerno, kawomenan, komentaryo, lugar, produkto, sa kalye

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