By Perry Diaz


Furor over terror alerts


During a gathering of CEOs and heads of state at the recent 8th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in Yokohama, Japan, President Benigno Aquino III caught everybody by surprise when he took the floor and lashed out at the United States and five other countries for issuing travel advisories – or, more aptly, “terror alerts” – to their citizens traveling to the Philippines.   The summit,  billed “Economic Integration and the Future of APEC” and attended by 20 other heads of state and government, was thrown off tangent when Aquino launched a tirade against the six countries.  


While Aquino’s courage in addressing the “terror alerts” at the CEO summit was commendable, in my opinion, the summit was not the appropriate place to lambast the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, France, Australia, and New Zealand for issuing terror alerts.  Previous travel advisories only covered the volatile southern Philippines where Muslims rebels and terrorist groups were a threat to peace in the region, but this time they expanded the travel advisories to include Metro Manila.  

Aquino claimed that there are countries that harbor terrorists who had staged attacks in other countries but are not included on the list of travel advisories.   He was probably referring to Indonesia where the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah is based but has infiltrated and conducted several terrorists acts in Mindanao before.  “We have three million visitors a year.  Some of our neighboring countries would have as high as 22 million visitors.  Unfortunately, with the terror advisories recently we were singled out as a place to avoid,” he said.  


The timing of the travel advisories, which came at a time when he’s trying very hard to attract foreign investors as well as tourists, did not please Aquino.  He complained that the“imminent terror attack” warnings were not  “validated on the ground” by the Philippines’ intelligence agencies; therefore, the terror alerts should be withdrawn.  

But Aquino should also realize that the countries that issued the terror alerts wouldn’t have concluded that a terror attack was imminent without validating the information gathered by their own intelligence agencies.  Indeed, one could assume that their intelligence networks, particularly the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), have wide and deep penetration into terrorist organizations such as the al-Qaeda and J
emaah Islamiah.    


Although a “terror alert” would certainly scare tourists away, the number one deterrent has always been the prevalence of common criminals preying like vultures on foreign visitors.  The hostage-taking incident last August 23, 2010 -- where the hostage-taker murdered eight Chinese tourists after a botched rescue attempt by the Philippine police – further reinforced the perception that the Philippines is not a safe place for tourists.   

In my article, “From Balikbayan to Balikbankay” (PerryScope, April 28, 2006), I wrote: 
A sharp decline in the number of balikbayans could hurt the tourist industry and would ultimately have a debilitating effect on the Philippine economy. The proportion of balikbayans to the total number of tourists is very high, perhaps as much as 80%, or even more. With a record number of 2.623 million tourists to the Philippines in 2005, the balikbayan component commands serious attention. The government officials, particularly those at the Department of Tourism (DOT), should be concerned about crimes committed against tourists. The last thing they want to see is a ‘travel advisory’issued by the United States and other countries like Australia and Japan.”


To boost tourism, the Aquino administration launched last November 15, 2010, its tourism campaign using the slogan “Pilipinas Kay Ganda.”   But the Federation of Tourism Industries of the Philippines Inc (FTIP) said that it was not “catchy” enough to attract international attention.  “The slogan did not ignite much excitement. Maybe they rushed in coming out with a new brand. But what we need is something that would create a great impact,” said FTIP president Alejandra Clemente.


The new logo – in bold colors -- shows a sun, a tarsier (a primate endemic to the forests of Bohol), the words “Pilipinas Kay Ganda” with the “L” shaped like a coconut tree with a “happy smile,” and the translation: “[kay.gan.da’] adj. So beautiful!”     


Evidently, the Philippines’ tourism industry needs an “extreme makeover” to attract foreign visitors.  It’s going to take more than just a catchy slogan.   The government needs to clean up its act and address a lot of issues – including corruption and crime -- that impacts the economy in general and tourism in particular.  


The government needs to implement a stringent security system that would provide protection to tourists and also monitor the tourism industry’s operations and practices. A system similar to the Better Business Bureau in the U.S. would be helpful in weeding out unscrupulous operators and predatory businesses. 


I also wrote in my previous article: “Tourism in the Philippines has been taken for granted for too long. Its rich culture, delicious food, hospitable and ever-smiling people, and exquisite views of its natural beauty are second to none. The Philippines could provide a better milieu than Hawaii. It is interesting to note, however, that policemen in Hawaii’s tourist areas do not wear uniforms. They blend in with the tourists. The last thing a tourist would like to see is a Kevlar-vested policeman toting an Uzi assault gun. Yet, crime rate in Hawaii is one of the lowest among tourist destinations.

“Ultimately, what would make, or break, tourism in the Philippines is the tourists’ sense of safety and security. Unless the Philippine government is willing to take the bull by its horns and deal with the safety and security of tourists, tourism will not flourish in the Philippines.” 


Indeed, the major challenge is how to reach beyond the balikbayans and make the country an international tourist destination.  Yes, the cake is already there, all that needs to be done is to put icing on the cake.   However, it is easier said than done.   But first things first, President Aquino has to address the issues of safety and security of tourists.  The last place that tourists would want to visit is one that is not safe. 


In this day and age,  it’s the duty – nay, obligation -- of every government to warn its citizens when they’re traveling abroad if there’s an “imminent terror attack” in the country they’re visiting.  However, nobody could second-guess when a terror attack would actually occur.  But one thing is certain: any place in the world is fair game to terrorists today.