Despite "a war on drugs" that reportedly claimed the lives of over 7,000 people in less than a year, the Philippines is still growing in popularity as a holiday destination, the Undersecretary of Tourism, Benito Bengzon, has said.
Responding to a question about whether the perception was that the Philippines had become less safe since Rodrigo Duterte became president and began his violent crackdown on drugs, Bengzon said that he was “impartial to empirical data.”
“Foreign visitor arrivals in the first two months of 2017 grew by 10.5 per cent year on year. The Philippines saw similar levels of growth, around 10 per cent, throughout 2016,” said Bengzon, who is in Dubai promoting the Philippines as a holiday testination during the annual Arabian Travel Market event.
By comparison, the global average is around four per cent.
“We must be doing something right,” Bengzon added.
When Duterte was elected in May 2016, many predicted that the Philippines would suffer a sharp drop in tourism as a result of his promise of a war on drugs.
The president-elect had promised on the campaign trail to dump all of the “drug-pushers and do-nothings into Manila Bay, and fatten all the fish there.”
After taking office, he again declared that “there are three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”
A Philippines tourism official in March even felt obliged to urge the local press to tone down its reports on drug-related killings, as they were hurting visitor numbers.
Yet despite these remarks, and indeed the realisation of his promised assault on criminals that has seen extrajudicial killings skyrocket and which Amnesty International has described as “the police’s murderous war on the poor,” tourism doesn’t seem to have been dented.
Inbound arrivals surged in January 2017 to 631,639, the highest ever recorded in a single month by the Pacific nation, according to statistics from the Department of Tourism.
Target: 7 million tourists
“We have set a target of seven million visitors in 2017, and we are on track to achieve that,” Bengzon said.
“It’s very clear what our mission is: to step up our advertising and promotions in key markets around the world,” he said.
When asked if he felt frustrated that his efforts at promoting the country abroad were being hampered by the headlines of violence that dominate coverage of the Philippines, the Undersecretary said that “there’s no way to control the perception of the outside world.”
When talking about how to fight this negative public image, he said that “we try to insulate tourism from the political goings-on.”
“We know our deliverables in respect to headcount, yield per tourist, and the number of people we want employed by tourism. We try to focus on those deliverables,” he added.
The country is looking to double the number of Filipino’s employed in the tourism sector from roughly four million currently, to eight million by 2022.
Multiple studies have found that human rights violations, and violence in general, can cause a steep decline in tourism, particularly as travellers are often quick to swap their holiday destinations for somewhere safer.
In recent years, both Egypt and Turkey have seen tourism numbers to popular holiday destinations such as Sharm Al Shaikh and Bodrum plummet following terror attacks as holidaymakers opt for more serene alternatives such as Morocco or Italy.
In addition to its war on drugs, the Philippines is also contending with Daesh-linked group Abu Sayyaf in the south, a conflict that recently spilt over to popular tourist island Bohol, where there was a skirmish between militants and the army.
3,500 daily bookings from S. Korea alone
“The first thing we do when we hear about situations like the one in Bohol, is ask how we’ll be affected. That’s always the first question. The second question is, have there been cancellations?” Bengzon said.
According to the Undersecretary, when he called the Philippines’ tourism office in South Korea, his colleagues informed him that there had only been 150 cancellations.
“When you compare that to the 3,500 or more bookings we receive from South Korea every single day, it doesn’t seem so bad,” he said.
“Will the 150 hurt us? You be the judge,” Bengzon added with a smile.