There is a good side to being peripatetic, an inclination our president does not deny.
Because of it, he and the first lady have had plenty of experience traveling to other countries even before his election to the presidency.
President Marcos Jr. has announced several policies and practices which would facilitate inbound and even domestic travel, the better to promote tourism which is a major driver of any economy.
The relaxation of travel restrictions owing to the long pandemic is one, and it has certainly shown instant results in our fourth quarter tourism arrivals, both from neighboring countries as well as balikbayans.
When travelers found the One Health Pass too cumbersome, government simplified the process after several complaints.
The NAIA complex under its new management and the leadership of DoTr’s Jimmy Bautista has made checking-in more efficient, doing away with redundant X-ray and security checks.
We just hope that the immigration bureau can find ways to deal with long queues at peak hours, even as we understand that space in our obsolete terminals are a constraint.
The president’s recent directive to our embassies and consulates in China, Japan, South Korea and India, to adopt electronic visas for inbound visitors is another good move.
These are major nearby markets whose tourism potential have yet to be optimized by the country.
The Manila Economic and Cultural Office, our de facto embassy in Taiwan, has been issuing electronic visas since 2015, an innovation started by the late Chairman Amadito Perez and the MECO board.
When I took over in July 2016, 20 to 25 percent of our travel visas for Taiwanese visitors were done electronically.
Before the COVID pandemic struck and we locked down travel, we were already hitting 70 to 75 percent usage of the e-visa service.
We tied up with Taiwan’s CTBC, which had several branches and ATM machines all over the island, including 7-Eleven convenience stores to facilitate payment of the visa fee, which is MECO’s main source of income.
The e-visa should be very expedient, especially for large countries like China and India where our embassy and consulates are few and far between.
In China, for instance, we have an embassy in Beijing, and consulates in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing, Xiamen, Macau and Hong Kong. An e-visa would allow tourists coming from other provinces to apply without visiting our consular offices.
The president in fact adverted to MECO’s Taiwan e-visa, and directed the BID and DFA to use the same as template.
Another good policy is that of granting VAT refunds for tourists who shop while in the country.
Shopping is part and parcel of travel, and giving VAT refunds for tourists is certainly a welcome idea.
There are a few major considerations when it comes to the effective implementation of the VAT refund.
The first is obvious: what locally-made products are worth the while of the tourist? If they buy signature items and apparel made elsewhere, the effect on our economy is minimal.
But Joey Salceda has a solution, which is to tax by 25 percent all such designer-branded luxury goods, on top of the VAT.
Anyway, luxury good fanciers among tourists can always go elsewhere for these. And nouveau riche Filipinos can always shop in Singapore and Hong Kong, and pay the travel tax on their way there.
What we need to do, and this is where the DTI, the DOT, and LGU’s should put their heads together is in promoting well-designed, well-crafted and reasonably priced locally-produced items which can compete with those of other countries.
A good example is Don Papa Rum, a local brand that makes use of our cane sugar, and has become a hit especially in Europe. It was blended and introduced initially for the Negros market 10 years ago, and became popular in the UK and Spain.
Recently Don Papa was bought by Diageo from its owners for 260 million euros, a genuinely successful and strategically-marketed Philippine product.
Imelda Romualdez Marcos, if memory serves me right, initiated the establishment of Design Center Philippines precisely to make good design available to Filipino artists, craftsmen and small manufacturers.
DTI’s Citem has in the past been quite active in promoting Filipino-made products abroad. But the variety, packaging, quality and other product development aspects should be improved.
The other major consideration is how to equip our shopping malls with convenient tax refund centers. Getting tax refunds at our decrepit airports where there is little space (excepting Cebu International and Clark) is impossible.
I was in Spain late last year and getting my tax refund was a cinch at the Barcelona International Airport.
In less than a week, my card-issuing bank received the VAT refunds. I guess we will have to wait for Bulacan and/or Sangley to replace our NAIA terminals for good.
Though some would disagree, holiday economics is the way to go, especially to spur domestic travel.
In the short-lived Erap regime, then ES Ronny Zamora approved my proposal as Philippine Tourism Authority head, to bunch up holidays to the nearest Friday or Monday, something which the successor GMA government implemented.
Scuttled by PNoy and retained as such by PRRD, President Marcos Jr. is now reviving holiday economics.
But wait! Productivity is hampered here in the benighted land, not by holiday economics, but by far too many holidays — religious (I thought we are a secular state), historical, special (by presidential order) or local, such as those idiotic Araw ng whatever city, or even quasi-religious and practice-wise bacchanalian fiestas in honor of patron saints the residents do not even properly recognize.
The last time I counted, we have 18 national holidays, not to include two local holidays (the Araw ng… and the religious fiesta) for a total of 20. By contrast, the US of A has 10, and France which our president will visit in June or July, has 11.
As for those who cry about losing the sentimental importance of commemorating heroes and others on inexact dates, the US of A has been moving almost all their commemorations to the nearest Monday or Friday for six decades.
My extreme proposal which I have written about in the past, but which is an aspiration that will certainly merit wholesale disapproval, is for all holidays in the first semester to be bunched up into an entire week to coincide with Holy Week.
Likewise all holidays for the second semester to be bunched up into a long holiday beginning December 24 up to January 1 of the following year.
The singular exception should be June 12, when we commemorate our National Day when we declared independence from foreign domination.
As we write this piece, we are happy to know that Valenzuela’s ideal public servant, Rex Gatchalian, has been named DSWD Secretary. Congratulations!
Incidentally, Rex was told on Tuesday morning that the president wanted him to join the cabinet, and could he rush to the palace in the afternoon to take his oath of office?
This was to be after a DSWD commemoration in the morning where no hints were given about the new head of agency.
In any case, Rex brings both an excellent mastery of public communications and managerial competence which would be a credit to the DSWD.