The best cuchinta is from Isabela. And the late world-renowned foodie Anthony Bourdain adored Philippine lechon.
It’s good that the person who cites such details, and is using them to market the Philippines, is no other than the new secretary of tourism.
After the scandals that hounded her predecessor, Bernadette Romulo-Puyat’s appointment has been met with a sigh of relief. She still has to prove her competence in her new post, but her initial moves and pronouncements are encouraging. “Sec Berna” is also being hailed for her integrity – and in this country, this is rare praise.
Sec Berna’s passion for her job was impressive when she faced us on “The Chiefs” recently on Cignal TV’s One News channel. It’s the kind of passion that comes only from those who care deeply for their country and want it to prosper.
Having worked for a long time in the Department of Agriculture, she was enthusiastic particularly about food and agriculture tourism, which are in fact a growing trend in the global travel industry. During our interview, she kept going back to Philippine food, making our mouths water.
“It’s so easy to sell the country,” she enthused. She was referring mostly to the local cuisine, and not yet to the many other Philippine attractions.
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The way to many people’s hearts is through the stomach. In my book, anyone who understands the delights of going on a food trip in Manila’s Chinatown or sampling the different longganizas across Luzon has to be a good promoter of the Philippines as a travel destination.
Cuisine is part of the national branding of top travel destinations France, Spain, Japan, Thailand and Taiwan. South Korea has incorporated its cuisine into its international tourism promotion.
The cuisine is also part of a nation’s heritage. Chinatown is worth exploring not just for the food but also for the role played by the Chinese in Philippine history. Sec Berna wants to encourage tourists to explore Chinatown together with historic Intramuros, the Walled City just across the Pasig River. She wants to boost so-called heritage tours all over the country.
Earlier this year I had a great time visiting the cheese factories and dairy farms of Hokkaido, Japan’s picturesque northern island (recently hit, sadly, by a devastating earthquake). In winter tourists flock to the island for the snow and the dairy delights, including lessons in making artisanal cheese and ice cream. During spring and summer, hotels are booked months in advance for the exquisite lavender fields.
Farm tourism can make agriculture a sexy profession for Filipino youths. It’s good for rural economies and for national food security. Farm tourism can make up for tighter regulation of beach tourism as the government implements measures to make coastal communities (and not just Boracay) breathe and become sustainable travel destinations.
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The impact on tourism of the abrupt shutdown of Boracay at the peak of this year’s travel season has yet to be accurately quantified. It’s also interesting to find out if the efforts of the Duterte administration to temper partying on Boracay’s beaches can be sustained. Aside from wild parties, Sec Berna told us that the government is banning bonfires, fire dancing, drinking, smoking and karaoke outside the premises of private resorts on the island.
Wouldn’t this negate the “more fun in the Philippines” slogan of tourism? Sec Berna chuckled and said Boracay is going to be a family destination and model of sustainable tourism, adding that President Duterte is firm in banning casinos on the island.
While giving Boracay time to breathe, Sec Berna is also looking at other areas that can be developed into new tourism sites. She mentioned the province of Siquijor, also called the mystic island. Several foreign expats have told me that the island province is gaining popularity particularly among certain Eastern Europeans not just for its unspoiled beaches but also for its faith healers and white witches.
Medical tourism – whether for treatment in modern hospitals, for cosmetic purposes, detox and calming sessions in health spas, or for those who believe in faith healers – is another area that Sec Berna intends to push.
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Sec Berna seems unperturbed by the high expectations surrounding her appointment. An economics graduate of the University of the Philippines – Diliman and a government official for about two decades now, she will have to work within the limited resources of her department.
One thing she seems to have that her predecessors did not enjoy is the support of other Cabinet members whose departments have jurisdiction over matters that affect tourism.
I have written that a national tourism program needs a conductor, a top-level coordinator. In several countries where tourism is a major engine of growth, the conductor is the head of government himself.
We haven’t had such a conductor so far; President Duterte has said he is leaving tourism matters, including Boracay, to the secretary of tourism. Previous tourism secretaries were hampered by the lack of such a conductor, with Cabinet members disliking any hint of encroachment on their turfs.
But with Sec Berna, it seems to be a different story. She told us that on her first day in her new office, she received not just calls but also visits from several Cabinet members such as Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade, expressing readiness to support tourism promotion efforts.
Maybe the Cabinet members got marching orders from Duterte himself. It probably helps that apart from being attractive and charming to all, Sec Berna’s boyfriend happens to be Charlie Cojuangco, son of one of the country’s wealthiest and most influential kingmakers, Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr.
While promoting tourism, Sec Berna is also reorganizing her department. She told us that she wants to recognize the work of career officials, especially those who have been with the department for a long time.
Some of these career workers joined the government during the administration of Corazon Aquino. Sec Berna’s relatives, starting with her father, former foreign secretary Alberto Romulo, are known to be close to the Aquinos. This has led to accusations that she is the Trojan horse of the “yellows” in the Duterte administration.
Sec Berna belies the tag but knows she can’t please everyone. At this point, she is pleasing more people than displeasing them. And from all indications, she enjoys the full support of the President, who is accusing the “yellows” of plotting to kick him out of office. So we might yet see sustainable tourism begin taking root.
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