There is an upside to being peripatetic, a tendency our president does not deny.
Because of this, he and the first lady have extensive experience in traveling to other countries even before he was elected president.
President Marcos Jr. announced several policies and practices that would facilitate inbound and even domestic travel, better promote tourism, which is the main driver of any economy.
The easing of travel restrictions due to the long pandemic is one thing, and it certainly showed immediate results in our tourist arrivals in the fourth quarter, both from neighboring countries and Balikbayans.
When travelers found the One Health Pass too cumbersome, the government simplified the process after several complaints.
The NAIA complex under its new management and the leadership of Jimmy Bautista of the DoTr has made registration more efficient by eliminating redundant X-rays and security checks.
We just hope that the immigration office can find ways to deal with the long queues at peak times, although we understand that space in our outdated terminals is a limitation.
The President’s recent directive to our embassies and consulates in China, Japan, South Korea and India to accept electronic visas for inbound visitors is another good move.
These are large nearby markets whose tourism potential has not yet been optimized by the country.
The Economic and Cultural Office in Manila, our de facto embassy in Taiwan, has been issuing e-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 hit and we restricted travel, we were already reaching 70 to 75 percent utilization of the e-Visa service.
We contacted Taiwan’s CTBC, which had several branches and ATMs all over the island, including 7-Eleven stores, to facilitate the payment of the visa fee, which is MECO’s main source of income.
The e-Visa should be very convenient, especially for large countries like China and India, where our embassies and consulates are few in number.
In China, for example, we have an embassy in Beijing and consulates in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing, Xiamen, Macau and Hong Kong. An eVisa will allow tourists coming from other provinces to apply without visiting our consular offices.
The President actually advertised MECO’s Taiwan e-Visa and ordered the BID and DFA to use the same as a template.
Another good policy is to refund VAT for tourists who shop while in the country.
Shopping is an integral part of travel and a VAT refund for tourists is certainly a welcome idea.
There are several key considerations when it comes to effective VAT refund application.
The first is obvious: what local products are worth the tourist’s time? If they buy branded items and clothing made elsewhere, the effect on our economy is minimal.
But Joey Salceda has a solution, which is to tax all such designer branded luxury goods at 25 percent on top of VAT.
Anyway, luxury lovers among tourists can always go elsewhere for them. And nouveau riche Filipinos can always shop in Singapore and Hong Kong and pay the road tax on the way there.
What we need to do and this is where the DTI, DOT and LGUs need to put their heads together is to promote well-designed, well-made and reasonably priced locally produced items that can compete with those from other countries.
A good example is Don Papa Rum, a local brand that uses our cane sugar and has become a hit especially in Europe. It was blended and introduced originally for the Negros market 10 years ago and became popular in the UK and Spain.
Don Papa was recently purchased by Diageo from its owners for €260 million, a truly successful and strategic marketing product in the Philippines.
Imelda Romualdez Marcos, if memory serves, initiated the creation of Design Center Philippines precisely to make good design accessible to Filipino artists, artisans and small producers.
DTI’s Citem has in the past been quite active in promoting Philippine products abroad. But variety, packaging, quality and other aspects of product development need to be improved.
The other important consideration is how to equip our shopping malls with convenient tax refund centers. Getting a tax refund at our derelict airports where there is little space (except Cebu International and Clark) is impossible.
I was in Spain late last year and getting my tax refund was easy at Barcelona International Airport.
In less than a week, the bank that issued my card received the VAT refund. I guess we’ll have to wait for Bulacan and/or Sangley to replace our NAIA terminals for good.
Although some would disagree, the vacation economy is the way to go, especially to boost domestic travel.
In Erap’s short-lived regime, then ES Ronnie Zamora approved my proposal as head of the Philippine Tourism Authority to push the holidays to the nearest Friday or Monday, something that GMA’s successor government implemented.
Sunk by PNoy and held as such by the PRRD, President Marcos Jr. is now reviving the holiday economy.
But wait! Productivity is hindered here in the backwater not by the holiday economy but by too many holidays – religious (I thought we were a secular country), historical, special (by presidential order) or local like those idiotic Araw ng whatever city, or even quasi-religious and practical bacchanalian celebrations in honor of patron saints that the inhabitants do not even properly recognize.
Last time I counted, we have 18 national holidays, not including two local holidays (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, there are 11.
As for those who lament the loss of sentimental significance of commemorating heroes and others on imprecise dates, the US has moved almost all of its commemorations to Mondays or Fridays for six decades.
My final suggestion, which I’ve written about in the past, but which is a drive that will surely earn total disapproval, is to group all the holidays in the first term into a whole week to coincide with Holy Week.
Likewise, all vacations for the second semester be combined into a long vacation starting from December 24 to January 1 of the following year.
The only exception should be June 12, when we celebrate our national holiday when we declared independence from foreign rule.
As we write this material, we are happy to know that Valenzuela’s ideal civil servant, Rex Gatchalian, has been appointed DSWD Secretary. Congratulations!
By the way, 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 be sworn in?
This was to come after the celebration of the DSWD in the morning, where no hints were given about the new head of the agency.
In any case, Rex possesses both excellent command of public communications and managerial competence, which would be a credit to the DSWD.