Interview with Joebert Opulencia, president of Orientours, by OSM! Online Magazine and Issues & Inspiration.
Excerpts of our interview:
1. Please give us an update on how the tourism industry and tourism operators are doing in the Philippines. Is it beginning to perk up despite covid19?
JO: We are all in for a long ride, 4-5years. Just like other countries, the Philippines is no exception and has implemented temporary travel restrictions to contain the spread of COVID-19. They urge their people to stay home and follow community quarantine protocols.
The country is closed to foreign visitors. Filipinos holding Philippine passports are allowed to enter the country. Families of Filipinos holding foreign passport, as well as Foreigners with business dealings in the Philippines, are allowed to enter the Country as long as they secure the required visa. They will also be subject to quarantine.
Most of the hotels, restaurants, and other tourism related business, have complied with government directives, specially when it comes to safety protocols. Anything they do cost money.
Philippine Tourism industry has contributed 12.7% to GDP in 2019 and employs close to 6million workers. Inspite of this, the industry is still in a dilemma due to lack of government support. Hotels, tour operators, travel agents, restaurants, transportation companies, even the farmers, are desperate and have been seeking for government assistance for months.
2. As a Philippine tourism advocate, what are your realizations during the coronavirus pandemic on how to improve the tourism industry in the Philippines?
I have learned to accept the fact that covid19 is here to stay. I have also realized that if you protect people, economy suffers. If you protect economy, people suffer. There are no winners to this. You just have to meet both, and hope that all the safety measures and decisions you have taken are the best options you can have for protecting both.
At this time, I find no answer on how to improve the tourism industry in the Philippines for two simple reasons: government does not support the industry and the Balikbayan Program.
Furthermore, tourism industry in every country will have difficulty in picking up as long as we are unable to convince the travelling public that travelling is safe and its safe to fly.
3. International tourism is an economic driver. But this pandemic could be teaching us a lesson to not entirely depend on (international) tourism for the local economy to be strong. Do you have thoughts on how to make sure the local economy could still thrive through local tourism?
Domestic tourism alone will not be able to help the country’s economy. In the Philippines, millions of people have lost their jobs, millions are starving, those with money are staying in the comforts of their homes, people are scared of going to restaurants without outdoor seating, etc.
Because of our geographic location and airport regulations and fees only few airlines are flying into the country. There is even no international airlines that fly non-stop of the Philippines. Philippine Airlines is the only airline that has non- stop flights from Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Vancouver, and Toronto to Manila.
At this time and for the next 2-3-4 years, the balikbayans from all over the world, would be our only hope to boost the economy
4. As an industry player, what do you see needs to be improved or boosted in Philippine tourism?
I would urge the Philippine government and the Philippine Department of Tourism, to prioritize the “Balikbayan Program” which was established in 1989 and which has continuously supported the economy of the Philippines. For the next two years, I do not see a lot of Foreign Visitors to visit the Philippines. We have to accept the fact that Philippines is not a priority destination of Foreign Visitors. Balikbayans from all over the world, will be our visitors specially this coming holidays.
5. Let’s talk about something light. What is your favorite spot in Pinas that you really like for people to visit?
As a tour operator and one who designs tours for our clients, I tend to distance myself from liking much a destination. I usually look at the profile of guests and pick up several options to present. For first time visitors, I suggest starting with Manila and never miss visiting the famous Pagsanjan Falls, shop at Greenhills for precious pearls, and a dinner at Sofitel’s Spiral Restaurant (features an interactive gourmet dining experience with 21 ateliers that give you a taste of dining in 21 different countries in a single place plus their famous cheese room).
After Manila, there is Cebu, Bohol, Boracay, Palawan, El Nido, that guests can consider. Philippines is very famous for its white beaches.
Cebu and Visayas Islands have been named Top Island in Asia, leading three other Philippine islands in the top ten of the Conde Nast Traveler’s (CNT) 2020 Readers’ Choice Awards. Palawan, Siargao, and Boracay also made it to the top 10 in Asia list, ranking fourth, fifth, and sixth, respectively, to give the Philippines the most slots in the ranking of the prestigious international travel magazine.
6. Same for food. What is the food you usually endorse for foreign guests to eat?
Philippine cuisine combines Eastern and Western ideas and is strongly influenced by Chinese, Spanish and American traditions. I suggest foreign guests not to leave the Philippines without trying the boodle flight or kamayan way of enjoying Filipino Food. Nothing exemplifies the Filipino spirit of camaraderie and love of good food like a kamayan feast or a boodle fight. A boodle is a very large collection of food that comes on banana leaves. The bottom layer is usually white rice on top of which can be fish, shrimp, crab, squid, clams, eggplant, bagoong, salted duck eggs, lato (seaweed), and slices of green mangoes, etc. In a boodle arrangement, diners eat with their fingers.
7. They say that once you visit the Philippines, you will always try to come back. What makes people come back? Is it our natural beauty or how friendly and nurturing we generally are?
What do you think? All countries have their own natural beauty, nice beaches and unbelievable attractions. What makes Philippines different from the rest is the “unique smile” in every Filipino’s face that simply signals a “welcome gesture.”#
(Editor’s Note: After our interview with JO, the Philippine government lifted the restriction of former Filipino citizens to be unable to enter the Philippines. On December 7, 2020, former Filipino citizens can go back to the Philippines in the reinstated Balikbayan Program.)