Where is Manila in Flight Centre's strategic marketing scheme of things? I don't know. I don't work there. But just on the basis of the Philippine capital's consistent absence in Australian travel marketing paraphernalia over the last ten years, one can tell this teeming megalopolis of more than 11 million is a non-entity here -- not even an afterthought.
The Philippines' doors to travellers awash with cash and wide-eyed for "adventure" are not only wide-open, they are practically begging to be entered. Yet tourist arrival figures in the Philippines are utterly dwarfed by those of Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. In the wake of the global financial meltdown of 2008, tourism was seen as the industry of last resort (no pun intended) as the remittances of our army of overseas foreign workers (OFWs) came to be seen as being under threat.
I wrote at the time how our entire way of life at its very core simply did not exhibit any serious alignment with our aspirations in that much-touted industry of "hope"...
[...] considering that Filipinos have for the last several decades systematically destroyed the very natural wonders it now desperately hawks to anyone out there with foreign exchange to spare for leisure.
Indeed, evidence of Filipino habitation is next-to-impossible to ignore in these named-after-a-Spanish-king islands. No less than 3.4 million hectares of forest cover has disappeared from 1990 to 2005. Primary forest cover now accounts for just 2.8% of total land area in these islands. Add to that the human excrement we regularly dump into our rivers and stormwater drains. Years ago, I took a helicopter flight over Manila and the thing I remember the most is looking down upon the port area of Manila Bay and seeing a huge blot of black water at the mouth of the Pasig River contrasting sharply with the green-bluish water further out to sea.
That's "just" our forests and our water supply. But it reflects our society's regard and respect for the land we inhabit and now rely on desperately for our future survival as part of the global economy in the face of this "crisis". It makes the pitch of the "natural wonders" of our land that dominates our tourist brochures sound rather phoney and utterly out-of-sync with our collective character.
Seriously, our tourist industry is a shell of glossy false advertising.
Questioning the if-you-open-it-they-will-enter notion we apply to foreign direct investment (FDI)
If your house looks and smells like shit, even burglars won't enter it.
Even as Western Europe and North America lurch painfully into the New Year under the weight of highly-leveraged non-performing assets, Southeast Asia is sucking up the world's capital like a sponge -- except the Philippines. BusinessWorld Online, in fact, reports that investors are bypassing the Philippines...
FDI flows into Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore in 2010 were estimated to have surged by triple-digit rates from yearago levels as Southeast Asia was among the regions that led the global economic recovery, the UN Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) said in its Global Investment Trends Monitor.
Malaysia was projected to have grown its FDI by 410% to $7 billion while Indonesia similarly enjoyed a 163% rise to $12.8 billion, the UN agency said, annualizing available data for the three quarters of 2010.
Singapore, meanwhile, likely saw FDI levels grow by 123% to 16.8 billion.
These improvements allowed inflows to South, East and Southeast Asia to rise by 17.8% to $274.6 billion while the global average flattened to $1.122 trillion in the same year, the UNCTAD said.
Full-year estimates for the Philippines were not included in the report but the country, according to latest central bank data, recorded an annual 36.5% decline in FDI as of October.
Like the tourist industry, with its wide open doors and meagre arrivals the question we need to ask is whether overly restrictive regulation of foreign ownership of Philippine business assets -- specifically the 60/40 foreign/local ownership rules -- is the primary issue at work here. In that BusinessWorld Online report, the only excuses reported for our pathetic performance in attracting FDIs were around infrastructure deficiency...
Long-proposed moves to improve infrastructure have just started, European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines Executive Director Henry J. Schumacher said in a text message.
... and disruptions caused by our political circuses...
The disparity was likely caused by last year’s elections, University of the Philippines economist Benjamin C. Diokno said in a text message yesterday.
"Investors adopted a wait-and-see attitude given the change in political leadership," Mr. Diokno said.
...that is, of course, if "expert" opinion can even be trusted nowadays.
Note however how access to foreign capital was not mentioned at all. It raises the embarrassing possibility that even with doors thrown open to full foreign ownership and a "Buy us, PLEASE!" sign displayed, we will still be bypassed by the industrialists of the world.
Of course, cash not flowing into the country is not something any of us would like to see. But consider how OFW cash currently flows into the economy to the tune of more than 10% of its value. The really hard question with regard to this embarrassingly large elephant in the room is quite simple:
Where has all that cash been used?
The OFW remittances black hole illustrates how Filipinos remain clueless about the productive and sustainable use of money. A number of issues could be at work there -- lack of skills, lack of attitude, lack of imagination, lack of information, lack of infrastructure, whatever. The point is, in the case of this consistently moronic use of otherwise abundant cash, access to it certainly is not an issue.
Multiply the possibility of that sort of misrepresentation of what really is the fundamental problem behind our chronic inability to prosper as a people, and we begin to worry about whether we truly understand what we want to get out of certain initiatives being pushed, the advocacies being organised around them, and the momentum these are gathering.
In the case of our tourist industry, it was momentum that ultimately did in Enteng Romano and his ill-fated "Pilipinas Kay Ganda" sloganeering project. The volumes of action and the very little thinking that underpinned them is quite easy to see in hindsight there. At least that time, only a few odd-millions pesos and a bit of face was lost.