Interview: Ramon Jimenez Jr

To what extent can a competitive tourism industry generate more inclusive growth and employment?

RAMON JIMENEZ: The single biggest shift in thinking on tourism lately has been the reassessment of how it can spread its benefits more inclusively, create jobs and help alleviate poverty. Out of that has come a new paradigm where inclusiveness is not the objective but the strategy, meaning we will create jobs at the planning stage and not expect them to be generated afterwards.

There are two types of touristic community, the front-room community, which is visited by tourists, and the back-room community, which supplies it with the resources it needs to function. In the past, only places with both the right attractions and the right resources would thrive. Infrastructure changes that. As a result, the regions with the greatest distribution of infrastructure have the lowest levels of poverty. People in Cavite can take part in tourist booms in Laguna and vice versa, because transport between these two provinces is highly developed. But even in successful tourist areas like Cebu City and Mactan, outlying regions are still among the most depressed because they do not have the connections and facilities to help them participate.

Our thrust now is to reorient infrastructure to include those who might participate as suppliers, such as those who make souvenirs, sell farm-to-table produce, or offer related services. One needs smart incentives for tourism enterprise zones, areas that have an attraction but lack full facilities to support tourism. And one needs a clearer definition of what that would mean – one that includes not just sightseeing but production, too.

What niche markets within tourism show the most growth potential, and how can the Philippines discover this and capitalise on them?

JIMENEZ: The niche with the biggest potential for growth is eco-tourism. Whether an accident of history or the result of periods of under-development, most of the country remains well preserved. There are clusters of biodiversity that present tremendous opportunities to develop that niche. This becomes increasingly important as social media develop, and new generations of travellers arrive wishing to be part of something ecologically sound. As close to Manila as Dumaguete, the mountainous area of Twin Lakes (only a short trip from town) is home to 345 bird species – a ripe opportunity to attract a bird-watching market.

Regarding medical tourism we need to be cautious because the country’s image is very important. The Philippines is fortunate to have a wealth of skilled medical professionals. The DoT is taking a closer look at dentistry and orthodontics because they are the most expensive medical work done elsewhere, and we have well-trained dentists and world-class equipment. The government is also putting money into orthopaedics, from hip replacement to bone surgery, and modernising the National Orthopaedic Centre. A third area is cancer care: the Philippines has a full range of oncologists. At present, however, investment in equipment is concentrated in Manila and needs to spread to other areas.

What opportunities are there for intra-regional cooperation within ASEAN? What are the priorities in preparing for greater volumes of tourists?

JIMENEZ: The Philippines is joining hands with Singapore and Malaysia in many ways. In marketing, for example, we sell Singapore and the Philippines at the same time, as each is an extension of the other’s value. As Singapore tries to get tourists to stay longer, they are giving them the option to visit Boracay or Cebu on the same trip, boosting jobs and revenue for both countries. To ease border crossing, we are working towards a smart visa or single ASEAN visa.

For domestic tourism, the priority is infrastructure. Our challenge is to form as much and as many links with other government offices as possible so as to arrive at needed capacities. The current crowding of airports is good news from an arrivals standpoint. But once domestic or international travel outgrows its capacity, that could become a strong reason for tourists to look elsewhere.