Saturday, 17 April 2010

Seen from afar

Peter Wallace
Manila Standard

My wife and I are celebrating our 31st wedding anniversary by traveling to much of Australia, seeing places we’ve never been to. It’s a wonderful experience. Some interesting insights—about the Philippines—are also coming out of this trip.

The first is: “Where’s the Philippines?” Everywhere we went, there was news on Asia, ads on touring into Asia, travelogues on visiting Asia and reports on countries in Asia. Thailand was understandably high in the news with the riots and political unrest going on there, but still it ranked high in tourist destinations for Aussies to go to. The Philippines was not listed, which is no fault of Secretary Ace Durano who has done an imaginative job at promoting the Philippines. He doesn’t have anywhere near enough budget to effectively compete, and the general image of the Philippines is just too negative to overcome by just a tourism promotions program. The country, unsurprisingly, lags behind its neighbors in terms of foreign tourist arrivals. Only a little over 3 million visited the Philippines in 2008 (assuming that figure isn’t bloated by hordes of returning migrant workers or balikbayans). Thailand got an estimated 14 million that year, Indonesia attracted 6.3 million, Vietnam, 4.3 million.

Next was how clean everything was. It costs next to nothing to put rubbish in bins and sweep streets. Generating a public consciousness and concern for a clean environment can be done. We can keep our homes clean, why not our communities?

Then there was the vibrancy, the air of confidence of success that permeated. It was a country whose people had weathered the world’s economic storm and come out ahead. A principal reason in some of the places we visited, such as Perth and Darwin, was mining.

Some 54 percent of Australia’s exports are mined products. It accounts for 11 percent of GDP and employs 133,200 people directly and about 300,000 more indirectly in support of the mines.

And for the bleeding-heart environmentalists, we toured Kakadu. It covers 200,000 square kilometers of virgin forests, unspoilt rivers and billabongs and fully protected wildlife, which form a unique biodiversity. The aboriginals, whose country it was, are nurtured and supported by a wide range of government services that give them a livelihood whilst fostering retention of their culture.

In this magnificent wilderness, there are two things: smooth and wide roads that provide ease of driving. These roads couldn’t possibly be justified commercially. We would go 10 or even 15 minutes without seeing a single car in the opposite direction. We were alone yet it was a perfectly paved road. The second was that in the middle of this wilderness, there was a mine. It was an open-cut magnetite mine where one pit had been quarried out and was now the tailings dam for the second open pit. It was all fully contained and to be reverted back to its natural environment when mining was completed. It was bringing great wealth to a community that before had nothing.

Tourism was an equal draw card. Resort hotels that nestled into the trees. No high-rise monstrosities here. One delightful one was the Gagudju Crocodile Inn, which was in the shape of a green crocodile when seen from the air. A delightful bit of architectural imagination at work.

Here we were in the middle of nowhere (believe me, the middle of Australia is as bleak as it gets) yet tourism is thriving. It was an overnight trip on a train (but what a train), then a three-hour drive through the desert to get to a rock called Uluru (but what a rock, the world’s second biggest rock).

Organized tours had fully (and I mean fully) educated guides who knew the area, the flora, the fauna and the history. They made it a fascinating, learning experience. They obviously loved their job and were truly dedicated to it.

Cars were for rent and tour buses could be hired. Planes and helicopters provided a magnificent overview. Boats could be taken to almost touch a crocodile and film the over 290 bird species.

The Philippines is not short of attractions. Its exotic resorts are hard to rival. We have magnificent beaches, the Rice Terraces that used to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Bohol’s chocolate hills and tarsier, Palawan’s underground river and many others. The country is also listed for its biodiversity, which has yet to be conserved or managed.

The Philippines has the potential to be one of the most beautiful and enjoyable countries in the world. Filipino friendliness and hospitality is legendary.

The Philippines has the potential to be a rich country without any poor from two sectors that provably elsewhere have brought wealth to a nation’s people—tourism and mining. Two sectors that generate wealth, that create jobs where it is needed—in the countryside. About three-quarters of the poor live in rural areas. That’s where we need the jobs.

Mining and tourism can help do it.

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