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Build it and they will come

A NEWS item in a Manila paper last week said Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat has endorsed to the Commission on Audit for appropriate investigation a $2-million expenditure of her department for the "World's Strongest Man" contest.

She also said that there will be no Miss Universe anytime soon held in the Philippines under her watch.

Indeed one wonders how contests such as these could enhance the number of visitor arrivals to our country. It's an exercise in optics, and for locals, not the foreign travelers we need to attract.

Truth is, hardly any country in the world now wants to host these contests, TV audiences for these having waned through the years. Very low-cost benefits.

And $2 million?

Last year, to aid the DoT in advertising the Philippines as a destination for Taiwanese, Meco bought a million Taiwanese dollars (P1.65 million at that time) of television prime time to show the wonders of our country. That bought more than 500 30-seconders distributed in so many Chinese-language television shows. Compared to our TV rates, that was a bargain.

Two million dollars, in contrast, is $110 million. Did these "strongmen" contribute more to the Philippine economy than the $2-million bill they left for us taxpayers to foot?

Secretary Puyat, who used to teach economics, would this time around apply cost benefit analysis to tourism promotions, and rightly so.

* * *

I just came from Penghu in the Taiwan Straits, together with ambassadors and resident representatives who were invited by government to visit for a two-day excursion. The Portuguese who first colonized it called the islands "Pescadores" because it's bay was a natural shelter for Chinese fishermen during rough weather. It is just 45 minutes by air from Songshan regional airport in the middle of the capital Taipei.

While on top of a hill surveying the expanse of blue waters and basalt rock formations formed by underwater volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, Penghu's natural attraction, the Malaysian representative and I remarked how important the right infrastructure is to tourism.

"Our countries have much, much more to offer by way of naturally beautiful resources. Our beaches are more stunning; our dive sites more breathtaking," he said.

"It's all about infrastructure. Look at the roads that brought us from the pier to here. The efficiency of their ferry system," she wondered.

And I added that the "domestic" airport was bigger and better than "international" airports in many cities in the region.

Remember the movie actor Kevin Costner building a baseball field in the middle of a corn field in the movie "Field of Dreams?" Its most memorable line was "Build it and they will come."

* * *

Penghu has just 68,000 residents and some of its islands have only 300 residents, with the overwhelming majority living and doing business (fishing is its major economic activity) in the capital Magong City, which is included in the list of the world's 10 most beautiful bays.

There are elementary schools in the island where only three students populate an entire classroom. The tour guide joked that if you want your child to be an honor student, enroll him in Penghu.

Penghu receives just about a hundred thousand tourists, mostly domestic each year. The number is increasing though, with Japanese and mainland Chinese visitors discovering a destination which was underwhelming in comparison to Bohol, or Palawan, or even Camiguin, let alone Boracay.

But build it and they will come.

Backpackers and the more adventurous might want to discover and explore "raw" natural beauty, but the moral of the economic lesson in this day and age is, "Build, Build, Build" be it roads, bridges and modern transport facilities for the convenience of the population and visitors, or water, sewerage treatment, airports, piers, access and internet connections for the convenience of tourists.

Building better infrastructure is an investment in the future that always pays dividends for the economy. With a major caveat, though: Build and maintain properly thereafter. That is the painful lesson that Boracay now teaches us. We built, but a combination of greed and incompetence failed to maintain properly.

* * *

There is another interesting story that we learned in Penghu. We stayed in a five-star Sheraton hotel, courtesy of our host government.

Across it was Discovery Hotel, another five-star facility opened just recently, with a cavernous "convention center" and a shopping mall beside it.

While having lunch in one of its restaurants, one of our hosts said that it was intended by the owners to be a "casino-hotel," which was why he borrowed heavily to build it.

Taiwanese laws do not allow gambling, except in far-removed islands like Penghu or Kinmen, but only IF the residents agree in a referendum whether or not to approve of gambling in their locality.

The Taiwanese businessman who invested heavily in what he thought would be a casino town that would attract gambling-crazy Chinese and Taiwanese visitors was encouraged by the fact that four years ago, the Penghu residents voted against casinos by a mere 51 to 49 percent vote.

But while he was already building his dream project which would be an instant cash cow, the residents voted 65 to 35 against gambling in their county of several clustered islands. (This is a lesson for the Macau gambling titan who thought he could put up a sixstar casino cum entertainment hotel in Boracay, until President Duterte said without equivocation that he would not allow it in his rehabilitated Boracay.)

Yet, Penghu residents and its chief magistrate have not given up on their dreams of enticing more and more visitors, even without a casino. Every small thing, like a supposedly ancient water well in the middle of a street shopping area is given a "story" drawn from history. And the residents wave at every tourist bus that passes by. Shop owners and their employees are very kind and solicitous, asking everyone to taste their artisanal delicacies.

Penghu and all of Taiwan is a lesson in "trying harder." And it is paying off

Topics: Lito Banayo
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