Despite its rich cultural and natural offerings, negative perceptions of Mindanao as a conflict zone remain a major roadblock for its tourism ambitions, finds Rosa Ocampo
Mindanao, the southernmost major island in the Philippines, still remains sidelined by tourists due to safety and security concerns, but the trade feels this stigma stems from misinformation and seeks concerted efforts from the government and private sector to overturn the negative perception.
The foremost issue lies in addressing the prevalent safety and security concerns, stated Angel Ramos Bognot, president and managing director of Afro Asian Travel and Tours, and suggests Mindanao to take a leaf from Palawan’s book.
Rocked by a high-profile kidnapping at one of its resorts in 2001, Palawan has recovered from the incident and gained global renown as a premiere beach destination after giving focus on security measures put in place, she added.
As well, Ramos Bognot added that Mindanao should have highlighted the Japanese prime minister’s recent visit to Davao as well as the authorities’ preparedness for emergencies and safety measures that were implemented.
Although Rajah Tours offers tour packages to Davao, Cagayan de Oro and Siargao, its president Jogo Clemente sees “trepidation from some partners as their governments have travel advisories issued against Mindanao”.
Therefore, besides the need for the authorities to establish peace and order in Mindanao’s troubled spots, Clemente also underscores the vital role of the private sector.
“Mindanao has had its troubles and this is the biggest obstacle in offering it as a viable tourist destination. To change that perception, it is important to highlight what’s good about it and play up its attractions,” said Clemente.
“We must do a better job of explaining (to clients and partners) where these safe and enjoyable places (in Mindanao) are in contrast to where the troubled areas are,” he elaborated.
For Luxus Pacific Travel and Tours, which has not been getting clients to Mindanao, reservations manager Jovy Caldejon remarked that it would help if media reports about the island were less sensationalised and indicate that the violence usually takes place far away from the cities.
While not denying that certain areas of Mindanao had suffered from war and violence, a greater part of the island boasts unspoiled natural beauty, a multicultural society and rich heritage, but the island’s development was neglected by the central Philippine government in the past due to its geographical distance from Manila, a trade member pointed out.
Although Mindanao’s stigma has also affected peaceful areas nearby, such as Davao, that looks set to change as both Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte and tourism secretary Wanda Tulfo Teo hail from Davao, priority is finally being given to build infrastructure and promote Mindanao.
Meanwhile, Butch Blanco, tourism director of region IX in western Mindanao, has plans to develop Zamboanga, Dipolog and Dapitan as new tourism hubs by rolling out initiatives such as putting security personnel on alert to assure travellers that the areas are safe, building connectivity to Manila and improving airports.
As Mindanao is home to a sizeable Muslim population, Ramos Bognot feels that the Middle East and neighbouring Muslim countries can be developed as primary source markets for the destination. Europeans too will also make a good market to invest in as they are interested in culture, cuisine and beaches, something Mindanao has in abundance.
To develop Mindanao, she advocates ASEAN’s open skies policies to extend to the BIMP-EAGA (Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area), which will drive connectivity from the neighbouring countries and increase foreign tourists to Mindanao.
And if people realise the value that tourism brings to livelihoods and the economy, perhaps the troubles in parts of Mindanao would cease, opined Clemente.
This article was first published in TTG Asia March 2017 issue. To read more, please view our digital edition or click here to subscribe.