MANILA, Philippines - Many local and foreign tourists know that the Philippines has some of the best beaches in the world, but what about its old Spanish churches, indigenous tribes and UNESCO-recognized natural sites?
The cultural heritage sector is there, but so far it has only been able to appeal to a minority of travelers, generally with a higher income and a keen interest in history and the colonial past.
A new initiative wants to change that trend and further promote the sector to lure more tourists and investments, as well as create job opportunities for young Filipinos.
The program, entitled 'It's More Fun' with more jobs, is led by the Institute for Labor Studies (ILS), the research arm of the Department of Labor and Employment, in close coordination with the Department of Tourism (DOT) and its broader It's More Fun in the Philippines campaign.
Both departments are working on a framework for an employment plan that will address the needs of tourists, operators and LGUs in training future heritage tourism workers such as competent and professional tour guides.
Cultural heritage as a driver for employment
ILS Executive Director Cynthia R Cruz said that they are working on a framework that will link cultural heritage to the labor market so that cultural tourism can become a "driver for employment generation"
"We wish to examine to what extent it can help to create jobs," she said during an interview with Rappler on the sidelines of a forum at the Ortigas Foundation in Pasig City on Wednesday, July 11.
Cruz noted that Filipinos need to learn to "love our country more" but at the same time officials must be realistic about the situation and make an "economic case" for cultural heritage in the Philippines.
"We talk of heritage in terms of beauty, aesthetics, history… But for people to pay attention, there should some market-based incentive. You see beauty, history, but not the money part," she said.
Cultural tourism leads to new jobs
Part of the "economic case" for cultural heritage as a driver for employment is the responsibility of the DOT, which has the mandate to promote cultural tourism.
Ryan Sebastian, head of the department's Office of Product Research and Development, noted that not all travelers just want to go shopping.
"Whenever people want to visit a certain historical district, we tap into tour guides, provide traditional vehicles, and look for cooks so they can sample the native cuisine," he told Rappler.
Some of the heritage houses are encouraged to open up for tourists, and all of this creates income and jobs.
"We are trying to open up other cities and towns, particularly those that are far from Manila, and thus we were able to open up employment opportunities for people in the area," said Sebastian.
Tour guide, a career?
John L Silva offered young Filipinos looking for a job his own personal experience many years before he was appointed Executive Director of the Ortigas Foundation.
He started out as a guide touring people around Manila, then around the country and finally to other nations in Southeast Asia, so over the years his clientele and fees grew so much he was able to make a good living as a tour guide.
"Others can do the same thing," he said during an interview with Rappler.
Silva also called on future heritage tourism workers to learn more about the Philippines: "I was a history major and learned everything about my country, rather than just rote and facts and figures. That's absolutely boring."
"What I am now pushing my tour guide colleagues is that you can't just have historical facts and figures, you need a sense of what the country is all about," he added.
Silva noted that cultural tourists tend to spend more and "want to get a more profound notion of the country" than leisure travelers.
This way, he said, cultural tourism can be a similar if not greater driver for economic growth to ecotourism, very popular with foreign backpackers who are looking for something more than "sun, sand and shopping."
By Carlos Santamaria
11 July 2012
San Agustin Church in Paoay, Ilocos Norte. Photo by UNESCO-WHS