POSTSCRIPT / March 12, 2000 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Even without Erap, oil price hike was to be cut

IT’S summer, it’s a weekend, and you have this urge to drive out to the countryside with the kids. Then the big question hits you: But where can you go?

That summarizes somewhat the utter failure and the continuing irrelevance of the Department of Tourism.

Filipinos who cannot afford to go abroad have nowhere to go in their own country. We’re referring to worthy destinations within driving distance, places and facilities suited for a one-day family outing or an overnight weekend stay.

The hot, dry breath of summer triggers this recurring longing, this search for getaway destinations.

Maybe there are such places. There must be. If so, should not the tourism department tell us restless souls?

* * *

THE taxpayer’s standard acid test of a government agency is this: What has it done for me today? This month? This year? If the answer to all those me-based questions is “None,” that agency or government office has to go.

Try applying that test to the Department of Tourism. What has it done for you? What’s your conclusion?

* * *

TOURISM sales and promotions for the more successful tourism destinations, such as our neighbors Bangkok and Hong Kong, are not handled by a full-blown government department or ministry of tourism.

In Thailand, whose tourist arrivals are 10 times that of the Philippines, tourism is overseen by the Tourism Association of Thailand. In nearby Hong Kong, a tiny corner bursting with free-spending tourists, there is the Hong Kong Tourist Association.

Both the TAT and the HKTA are tight, unpretentious private industry-driven organizations, not pretentious Cabinet-level ministries.

Here in the Philippines, a beautiful country with a beautiful people, we still have to see waves of tourists crashing at the airport. We see instead homesick Pinoys lugging balikbayan boxes and a sprinkling of businessmen coming for pre-arranged business meetings.

And who manages the trickle of innocent tourists, real tourists, straying to our shores? A giant tourism department with an expansive (expensive) main office, regional offices scattered across the archipelago, and extension offices abroad.

* * *

MANY balikbayans stay with relatives and friends, not in hotels. While they bring in dollars and pasalubong, they are not the type whose spending in other countries with a well managed tourism industry provides the financial backbone of countryside development.

The foreign businessmen who routinely come over for business meetings stay in hotels in Makati, Mandaluyong and Manila all right, but hardly go by the popular description of a tourist who ventures farther out to savor the sights.

What are we doing to grab a few of the millions upon millions of loaded tourists crisscrossing the globe and littering their paths with dollars?

Nothing.

* * *

OKAY, if we’ve lost foreign tourists to the more professional competition, what are we doing to generate and keep domestic tourism moving?

Nothing.

We may plead that since tourism is a function of the economy, and that since there is widespread poverty, it is difficult to stir local touristic activity. But what are we doing to address this problem?

Nothing.

* * *

TO complicate the problem, there is the rising cost of moving around.

The price of fuel keeps rising in inverse proportion to dwindling real incomes. And then, because of the bad times, many car-owners who had gambled to buy that car of their dreams now cannot keep up with amortization and they lose their only car.

Assuming many families hit by the bad times have had their mobility impaired, what is the government doing to facilitate sightseeing or the basic movement of people wanting to go several hundred kilometers from home?

We are forced to go back to the first question that triggered this lament: But where can we go anyway?

* * *

THE attempt to make us eternally grateful to President Estrada for the decision of the local oil cartel to bleed us “only” by an additional 80 centavos per liter is pathetic.

Everybody knows that the oil companies floated a possible P2.10-per-liter price increase based on a short-lived report that Dubai crude’s price had shot up to $28.40 per barrel. This price, however, was promptly slashed to $25/barrel, making the threatened P2.10/liter hike in local pump prices ridiculously high.

The reduction of the price increase from the bloated P2.10 to just 80 centavos/liter was in order, whether President Estrada stepped into the picture or not.

Why the melodrama? Are the President’s media handlers running out of gimmicks?

* * *

SUDDENLY everybody’s talking of looking for alternative sources of fuel and energy as well as cutting down on consumption. Why do we need the specter of a price increase to make us scramble for alternative sources and to conserve?

Why does not the Estrada administration draw up and pursue a comprehensive energy program that would reduce dependence on oil—whether there is a price hike or not? That’s not among the juicy topics kicked around by the post-midnight Cabinet?

Just as suddenly, the government excitedly tells us not to worry since fuel would be rushing in from Malampaya Sound. One would think the gas is already on its way like the promised liberation armada of Gen. Douglas MacArthur steaming from Australia.

Raising false hopes is dangerous. People must be told that the gas from Malampaya cannot be pumped into the tanks of motor vehicles and reduce usage of gasoline.

* * *

THE mental poverty of the administration shows whenever President Estrada hangs his head and pleads that there is nothing he could do about fuel price increases except to beg the oil cartel to please be gentle while they suck.

If he is held hostage by the oil firms, it’s his fault since he refuses to think. It cannot be that there is no other way to fight runaway fuel prices except to fall on one’s knees before the oil cartel.

If thinking is that difficult, certainly the people are ready to help him study and look for solutions. But first, let’s have transparency. Malacañang must level with the people, tell them the unvarnished truth about the oil problem and the options left.

* * *

SPEAKER Manuel Villar refuses to go along and adopt the helpless attitude of the President. He is calling to the floor measures aimed at breaking the stranglehold of the Big 3 on the captive market.

One such measure is the bill of Bataan Rep. Enrique Garcia establishing a National Oil Exchange that would bid out regularly the requirements of the country for gasoline, diesel, cooking gas and other finished (not crude) oil products.

The idea is to slash retail prices by buying directly from some 40 refineries and traders and not be tied to the overpricing and the costly inefficiencies of the local oil cartel.

Villar also called for the review of the law deregulating the oil industry. Premature deregulation merely gave the oil cartel a free hand in deciding when to raise prices and by how much – without anybody being able to do anything about it.

* * *

PRESS Secretary Rod Reyes mentioned us with other columnists who he said had criticized him.

We did? We don’t even remember having done so – which may indicate that it was not a searing indictment that we arguably made. It was possibly just a passing comment, something that we hope did not inflict a wound that time cannot heal.

Whatever it was, we want to say for the record that we hold Rod in high esteem.

He was already a star reporter of the pre-martial rule Manila Times when we were just a fresh recruit of that great paper. If we call him Rod instead of Secretary Reyes, it is because we feel awkward calling him by a stilted title.

One advantage he has over the pretenders to his post is that newspapermen consider him “one of the boys.” We say that’s 60 percent of winning the media game.

* * *

CHAIRMAN Perfecto Yasay of the Securities and Exchange Commission is not the only government official who has been a victim of unwarranted meddling. Rod Reyes also is.

We understand his irritation when, in his absence, the wife of then incoming Malacañang Chief of Staff Prod Laquian reportedly asked for Press Office records to help her study how to streamline the Press Office.

Although her having been a campus writer and a stringer of a foreign newspaper may have given her valuable insights into the workings of media, we doubt if she – professionally speaking – can approximate the experience and expertise that Rod brings to the job.

President Estrada would do well to advise her to back off.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 12, 2000)

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