After a series of criminal incidents, including murders and kidnaps involving mostly Chinese citizens, the outcry to ban offshore gaming operations in the Philippines again resurrected.
Legislators loudly got into the act, and, in a budget hearing of the finance department, they even got Sec. Ben Diokno admitting that the revenue collections from Pagcor-legalized POGOs were not worth the “social costs” it exacted in return.
The Senate President, accompanied by two members of the Senate, one of whom studied in a Filipino-Chinese school, and is expected to fairly comprehend the Mandarin language, visited the Embassy of the PRC in Dasmarinas Village to discuss the issue of the POGOs.
Thereafter, Sen. Pres. Juan Miguel Zubiri announced that China has blacklisted the country as a travel destination for its citizens on account of the unbridled operations of online gaming which has caused grave financial and moral consequences among its gambling-addicted citizens.
When everyone trembled at the negative effects of the “blacklist” on our yet-to-be-revived tourism industry which got a big boost with the friendly relations engendered by former Pres. Duterte’s apertura Sinica, Ambassador Huang denied that there is a travel blacklist.
Lost in translation?
Whatever, the central issue of the POGOs impacts on the currently dismal state of our economy.
Because the industry flourished during the Duterte years, there have been frenzied efforts by many sectors to cash in on the “boom.”
And we refer not only to the operators, legalized or illegal, but to the real estate industry, the restaurants, and other services that catered to the POGO employees, mostly from China.
Pagcor in the previous administration succeeded in earning from the legalized POGO operators, reversing the clandestine operations sanctioned even beyond their territorial jurisdiction by out-of-town export processing zones.
But this is no longer a matter of weighing treasury contributions versus social costs.
China clearly wants to curtail POGOs and is likely to increase pressure on the country especially with the newly re-crowned Xi Jinping hammering hard on corruption.
The handwriting is on the wall: sooner than later, that “blacklist” may happen, in the same manner that it was easier for China to implement the same upon Cambodia.
As a result, the gaming industry boom in Sihanoukville and Diamond Island in Phnom Penh withered and became virtual ghost towns.
Realtors in Metro Manila and nearby who cashed in on the POGO boom along with many who invested in condominium units for rental to POGO employees are in panic.
The MOA area with its plenitude of Chinese restaurants may likewise wither in the vine.
We can only continue meanwhile with the Pagcor-legalized POGOs and close down the illegal operators. But how far the industry will remain is solely up to Beijing.
If Xi decrees no go, POGO will go.
The property boom, causing real estate prices to zoom in a country where the poor cannot afford decent housing, will create a huge dislocation to an already weakened economy.
But that is the problem with band-aid fixes. They are short-term.
• • •
But it’s not the POGO that caused our visitor arrivals from China to virtually disappear. It is the pandemic.
We had lockdowns while China imposed severe shutdowns of several cities even when only a few residents got afflicted. With that, their own economy took a beating.
Can the other tourism markets match the dislocation should China finally clamp down with its threatened travel restrictions?
To begin with, in the record-high tourism year of the Philippines in 2019 with some 8.26 million visitor arrivals, China contributed 1.74 million compared to Korea’s 1.99 million. Korean visitors have been at the top of our visitor arrivals for many years.
Coming in third is the US of A, with 1.06 million, mostly balikbayans who have since become American citizens. Then Japan with 683,000 visitors.
Taiwan comes next with 327,000 visitors, a hefty increase from 2018 figures by almost 100,000 tourists.
Revenge domestic travel will hopefully stanch the bleeding travel industry, but that does not bring in the foreign currencies we need badly.
That may keep Baguio and Tagaytay, Cebu, Boracay, Siargao, Bohol, and Palawan surviving, but the good times will not return unless new markets find the Philippines more fun than its regional competitors.
Secretary Christina Frasco needs all the marketing creativity her department, in coordination with the travel industry, can come up with.
That is one area where the presidential adviser on creative communications, Paul Soriano, can perhaps focus upon.
As for the resort owners and tour operators, they will need to do more pencil sharpening.
Our room rates, our tour packages, even our restaurant food services—all of these are not price-competitive with those offered by Thailand and Vietnam, or Indonesia’s Bali for that matter.
The fixation for quick returns on paltry investments will need to be replaced by a long-term view, and for now, survival mode.
Tourism is indeed a major economic driver, but it requires coordinated public-private effort and proper market targeting.
It is a highly competitive economic “propeller,” as our president describes the sector.
• • •
A marvel to use as template for creative marketing is Korea’s successful country imaging, with the use of their artistic talents — K-pop, telenovelas, and the like.
An impoverished country when Park Chung Hee deposed the corrupt regime still reeling from the effects of the Korean war stalemate, South Korea began with just two export products: ginseng and Kanekalon wigs.
Despite a lack of natural resources, they went heavy into manufacturing, from ship-building to automobiles, eventually competing with the rest of the world in two decades.
Then, their creative minds focused on the singular revenue generation of a by-now classic movie—Jurassic Park. But they did not ape the same with their version of Godzilla’s and paper-mache dinosaurs.
They created nice telenovelas, all focused on their culture, whether historic or current. All these are within the realm of potentials for our highly creative directors and artists.
Do you know how much BTS contributed to the Korean economy pre-COVID? Five billion dollars a year.
The “princes of pop” that Billboard labels them have by now sold more albums than any other rock or pop music group except perhaps, UK’s Beatles.
Eat our hearts out. Or following their lead, create a worldwide appreciation of Filipino culture.
What it takes are hard work, determination, patience, and, above all, creativity.