New tourism chief faces huge challenges

In Photo: President Rodrigo R. Duterte swears into office Bernadette Fatima Romulo Puyat as the new Secretary of Tourism, Monday evening in Malacañang Palace. Looking on are former Senator and Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo and his wife Mrs. Lovely Tecson Romulo, and Puyat's daughter, Maia. (Contributed photo)

By Ma. Stella F. Arnaldo / Special to the BusinessMirror

NUMEROUS challenges are afoot for Secretary-designate Bernadette Fatima Romulo Puyat, as she formally takes over the Department of Tourism (DOT) this week.

For one, she faces employees demoralized by the recent P60-million scandal that rocked the agency, which led to the resignation of their former boss, Wanda Corazon T. Teo. Along with it, industry sources warned, are perpetrators of the alleged illicit deal still working at the DOT.

“She needs to clean it up,” an industry veteran said about Romulo Puyat’s immediate task at the department. “The people who made that deal possible are still there, and who knows, may have already destroyed other documents that would implicate them,” the source underscored.

In a recent interview with reporters, Romulo Puyat did not say what she would do with the current officials at the DOT, but expressed excitement about working with its career officials. (See, “New DOT chief vows to be tough on corruption; will keep ‘It’s More Fun in the PHL’ brand campaign,” in the BusinessMirror, May 3, 2018.)

The DOT chief is also expected to look into other projects with questionable provenance like the P80-million Buhay Carinderia, the first phase of which is being implemented by the Tourism Promotions Board (TPB), along DOT biddings for the “Procurement of Reversible Jackets for the DOT Birthday Celebrators” (P1.29 million) and “Services of a Production House for the DOT’s 45th Anniversary Celebration—A Night to Remember” (P2.5 million), to name a few.

Boracay-based designer PJ Arañador, in a Facebook post on May 4, called the bidding for the reversible jackets as “insensitive. More of our taxes [going] to wrong use,” even as thousands of island workers have lost their jobs.

Romulo Puyat also faces a marketing nightmare with Boracay Island’s closure, a stalled international advertising campaign and various political appointees who have no background in tourism nor marketing, among others.

President Duterte ordered Boracay Island closed for six months starting on April 26, which led to the DOT issuing a statement to its central and foreign officers abroad “to exclude the island destination from all ongoing promotional campaign.”

Jojo Clemente, president of Rajah Tours Corp., said “we continued to promote Boracay,” at the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai from April 28 to May 1. “We told [prospective clients] that the island will be closed until the end of October for rehabilitation. Honest answer. They accept it, because their programs are about six months to one year away anyway, so it works. That’s why I didn’t understand why the DOT has to say to stop promoting it.”

About a million foreign tourists traveled to Boracay last year, contributing to the P56 billion in tourism receipts generated by the island for the period. The onslaught of tourists over the years, however, along with the commercialization of the island with unrestricted construction of more resorts, have created environmental stresses leading to polluted waters at Bulabog Beach, and easement violations on the main white beach.

On the promotions side, the DOT has yet to come up with a new set of TV commercials or advertising collaterals after last year’s plagiarism charges leveled against an advertising agency. It would be recalled that the DOT had to cancel its contract with McCann Worldgroup Philippines in June last year, after it found an ad the latter created was allegedly copied from a 2014 South African tourism ad. (See, “DOT stops airing of McCann’s ‘Sights’ as unofficial tourism ad reaps praises,” in the BusinessMirror, June 15, 2017.)

The “Sights” ad was second in a series for what should have been DOT’s yearlong advertising campaign, pegged on the theme “When with Filipinos.” The agency’s budget last year for the advertising campaign was P650 million, but since the cancellation of the Sights ad, the agency has not been able to produce a new one.

Meanwhile, Teo’s name was dragged into the scandal when the Commission on Audit tagged payments made by the People’s Television Network Inc. (PTNI) to Bitag Unlimited Media Inc., owned by the former secretary’s brother, Ben Tulfo. The funds apparently came from the DOT, which had a media placement contract last year with PTNI. Other documents showed, however, the agency had specified that its ads would be placed in Kilos Pronto, a blocktimer TV show produced by Bitag.

Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea is said to be investigating the deal to determine the culpability of other officials at the DOT, PTNI, and the Presidential Communications Operations Office. The Ombudsman has already said it is also investigating the transaction.

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