A better way to tell our cultural story

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FERNANDO MARTIN ROXAS

Have you seen the latest Camiguin tourism ad called “No Words”? With its quirky take on depicting the island off the northern coast of Mindanao, it is one of the more memorable Philippine tourism campaigns.

In it, a woman arrives in Camiguin but is disappointed when her companion cancels on her at the last minute. She then meets an unlikely tour guide. I won’t spoil the rest of the video for you, but I will point out that the beauty of Camiguin leaves the garrulous woman — even viewers for that matter — speechless.

As an advocate of sustainable tourism, I liked how the video displayed a more personal approach to tourism: a solo traveler engaging local culture face-to-face. I appreciated the intimate slant because, often, having droves of tourists (especially in smaller, less-developed places) may not always be ideal.

On the one hand, tourists bring in money and earnings can filter down, fuelling the local economy. On the other, an influx of visitors also puts a strain on the local ecology and infrastructure. The strain is exacerbated when a town or province lacks adequate training to deploy sustainable tourism programs.

We at the Asian Institute of Management’s Dr. Andrew L. Tan Center for Tourism tackle this problem by providing frameworks and training to support sustainable tourism.

Triple bottom line
The United Nations World Tourism Organization defines sustainable tourism as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”

For the Dr. Andrew L. Tan Center for Tourism, sustainable tourism encompasses different forms, including ecological, heritage, cultural, culinary, health, and agricultural. The common thread: These do not need a large influx of tourists to be viable. Sustainable tourism is in sharp contrast to the popular image of throngs of people descending on a place.

The challenge for the Philippines is that, being an archipelago, we lack the infrastructure required by mass-based tourism, such as airports, roadways, inter-island transfers, and reliable public transport.

Sustainable tourism, however, makes sense for a country like ours because it appeals to a premium tourist market, which is willing to pay more for unique and authentic experiences. It can generate larger revenues per visitor than mass-based tourism.

Tourism can, in fact, potentially generate as much revenue as remittances from overseas foreign workers (OFWs). Thailand’s tourism revenue, for instance, is as large as Filipino OFW remittances. Clearly, the superior strategy here is to employ our workforce at home via tourism jobs, instead of exporting human capital.

Another challenge of sustainable tourism is training ourselves to look at the local tourism industry with less sentimentality and view it as just that, an industry.

My colleagues at the AIM Master in Development Management program call this the triple-bottom line. That is, a business needs to focus on people, planet, and profit. Likewise, we at the Dr. Andrew L. Tan Center for Tourism foster a triple-bottom line approach to sustainable tourism with the following key results areas:

• Profitability – The sustainable tourism enterprise should generate enough surplus to invigorate the local economy, mitigating the need of residents to migrate to urban areas for jobs, vital social services, or seek employment abroad.

• Job Creation – Productive employment means that locals do not have to cut down forests, dynamite fish, destroy corals, or poach wildlife.

• Conservation (of the environment, local culture, and biodiversity) – Local residents must realize that their prospects for present and future livelihood depend on the preservation of tourist attractions, rather than short-term profit from environmental degradation.

Tourism is storytelling
We already see the negative effects of unsustainable tourism in such places as Sagada.

The northern mountain town has some of the most stunning vistas our country has to offer. It occupies that sweet spot; close enough to be accessible, yet remote enough to be just beyond the reach of overdevelopment.

Sagada has become a prime destination for a broad spectrum of visitors, from soul-searching hippies to harried urban dwellers looking for a short break from city life.

But Sagada may be buckling under the weight of its own appeal. This tourism boom is putting a stress on the town’s resources and infrastructure. This has encouraged concerned individuals to start Preserve Sagada, a blog that aims to spread awareness on how to visit the town without disrupting the local culture and ecological balance.

It is a commendable effort that underlines the fact that while tourists experience a locale, the locale also experiences tourists. Sustainable tourism promotes two-way learning and mutual respect between host and visitor.

Promoting tourism is the act of telling our cultural story. Instead of words, the story comprises experiences and interactions.

Our country is blessed with so much natural beauty and a rich cultural heritage. We need not fabricate these sights and experiences. We just need to tell our story better. Sustainable tourism is the perfect medium for that.

Professor Fernando Martin Y. Roxas, DBA is the Executive Director of the Dr. Andrew L. Tan Center for Tourism Research at the Asian Institute of Management, where he also teaches under the Department of Analytics, Information, and Operations. Reach him through FRoxasMT@AIM.EDU or visit AIM.edu for more details.





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