11 April 2007

But only if we really try

My column for this week's issue of Vox Bikol.

ACCORDING to the 2006 report of the Department of Tourism, for the first time in years, Naga and Camarines Sur topped Legazpi City and Albay in terms of tourist arrivals (about 259,000 vs. 133,000), drawing in twice as more tourists as the erstwhile top regional destination.

What is lost in the above data is the remarkable fact that foreign travelers to this part of the region increased by 505%, from only around 4,300 in 2005 to about 26,000 last year. It also meant that in 2006, one of every 10 tourists who visited Camarines Sur came from abroad; the previous year, only it was only 3 of every hundred.

Why am I mentioning all these? Because according to former NEDA director general, now Ateneo de Manila professor and Inquirer columnist Cielito Habito, “the easiest and fastest way to create the additional jobs we so direly need is to further boost tourism in the country.”

Conventional theory requires the presence of the so-called four As – access, assets, accommodation, and activities or events – for tourism to take off. In a previous column, I already touched on access, pointing out that we are losing a big chunk of the market by default, owing to the Naga Airport’s short runway that cannot accommodate the new Airbus jets of Cebu Pacific Air, the country’s premier low-cost carrier.

Let me now focus on accommodation. To be sure, the city has fine hotels, like Villa Caceres, which is gearing up for yet another expansion. Fresh from their success with Avenue Square, the FLC Group is building its own 50-room hotel just behind their crowd-drawing property in the vibrant Magsaysay Strip that will be accessible from both Magsaysay Avenue and Balatas Road.

But what our local hotel operators are missing -- and this is true with practically all secondary urban centers in the country -- is the sea-change in the travel industry that is being powered by the Internet. Riding the coat-tails of eTicketing that has redefined how airlines fill their seats – by selling them directly to consumers – online hotel reservation services have empowered the individual, bypassing intermediaries like your friendly travel agents.

This comment by Romulo, a Pinoy who is now based in Europe, is typical:

I travel a lot in Europe and had always used the internet with all my bookings (to) get the best prices there could ever be. And choices that are a year advance so you can plan holidays a year ahead. Foreign nationals, especially Europeans, love to travel (to) sunny places but they plan things so far in advance. If the Philippines wants to bring in the money from tourist, travel companies based (there) should think about this.
In December 2004, our six-man study team -- consisting of then DepEd superintendent Nenita Ramos, Councilor Miles Raquid-Arroyo, Camarines Sur National High School principal Nely Abad, and my city hall colleagues Tess Zapata and Bob Ursua -- experienced the convenience first-hand. Armed with a credit card, internet savvy and a sense of adventure, we crisscrossed continental America on board the low-cost carrier JetBlue, starting from Long Beach, California and back, with stops in Oakland, New York and Washington D.C.. In every step of the way, we already knew our seat assignments in each flight, and had a hotel room waiting for us at every stop, even before we left Manila for the Los Angeles International Airport.

Now, imagine if you are a foreign national who wants to visit Naga to learn from its participative governance firsthand (like the 20-odd Canadian graduate students we are expecting next month), or a balikbayan wanting to have fun at the Camarines Sur Watersports Complex, and you have the same online travel planning capability that has been the standard elsewhere for many years now. Wouldn't you feel empowered and even more encouraged to push on with the planned trip, precisely because you have the first option to fix things online? And just imagine how many more travelers it can add to the record number of foreign visitors we attracted last year.

There are constraints, of course, to these types of transactions and to Philippine e-commerce in general, and the most recent issue of the PIDS Development Research News -- available here -- details them very well. The top reason why businesses won't try it -- cited by 45% of all respondents -- is their being not listed in an e-commerce portal or website.

But every time I make my hotel booking in Manila via AsiaTravel.com, and see that it covers distant places like Bacolod, Laoag, La Union, Butuan, and even Cotabato and Zamboanga far down south makes me certain putting Naga in the list is not an impossible dream. But only if our local hoteliers were to really try.


Urbano dela Cruz said...

here's an idea:

If tourism is so important to Naga's economy, then maybe Naga should consider building a tourism portal (for its hotels and other facilities) as a key piece of infrastructure needed to capture and grow that slice of the economic pie?

Obviously, Naga's local government is on the cutting edge of IT. Building a portal wouldn't be so hard -and it doesn't have to be a freebie.

You can offer the service for low cost at first to the hotels -and then increase rates as needed. Or tie the rates to number of guests acquired.

Perhaps the high cost of entry (building an enterprise strength online reservation system) could be the barrier.

Local government could invest in that. Or encourage/incentivize local entrepreneurs to do so.

Just an idea.


Willy B. Prilles, Jr. said...

Hi Urbano: This certainly puts the idea back on the table. It has been previously discussed by our iGov team and our tourism officer in fact broached the idea to local hotel and restaurant operators.

Unfortunately, it did not take off; their preference for the brick-and-mortar way, which served them quite well, is another constraint.

My own personal preference is to link up first with established privately-owned portals, like AsiaTravel which have the network and brand name already, so we don't have to build our own. But if that doesn't fly, the city should indeed get into the picture.

But recent developments -- like the DOT data -- augur well for giving it another try. The piece is really intended as an eye-opener to the possibilities the 'new economy' brings.

Dominique said...

Hi, Willy and Urbano: I like looking at Bohol's model. Not perfect, but it's very well synchronized. As such, it benefits both the tourists and the local operators (but prices are so high!) I wrote about this in one of my Bohol posts.

As far as web sites are concerned, they have a great portal in bohol.ph.

Willy B. Prilles, Jr. said...

Hi Dom: I checked out bohol.ph -- which had the old Yahoo-like feel -- and I think it should be a model that we can pursue. There's no online booking and reservation in the hotel I checked but each hotel has a website that handles booking by email.

Convincing our hotel operators to do the same is the bigger part of the task.