Has the Philippines drug war harmed its tourism industry?
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Has the Philippines drug war harmed its tourism industry?

WHEN the Philippines’ crime-busting President Rodrigo Duterte came to power last year, many predicted tourism would take a deep plunge, on account of his bloody war on drugs.

A tourism official this week even saw it necessary to urge the media to tone down its reports on drug-related killings in the country, claiming they were hurting tourism numbers.

A closer look at tourist arrivals in recent months, however, seems to show while tourism numbers slipped slightly below target last year, the trend did not continue into the year and may well improve over time.

In fact, Tourism Department statistics say inbound arrivals surged to 631,639 in January, the highest ever recorded by the Philippines in a single month. The volume represented an “impressive” 16.48 percent growth from the 542,258 recorded in the corresponding period last year, before Duterte’s takeover.

Asians formed the largest bulk of the arrivals, taking up 59.13 percent of the total volume or the equivalent of 373,476 visitors. The spike was largely thanks to arrivals from China, which experienced a sharp growth of 76.46 percent to hit 85,948 from the 48,708 arrivals in January 2016.

More Japanese visited the Philippines during this period as well with a 23.57 percent increase in arrivals from January last year, although this was perhaps due to the diplomatic visit by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the Southeast Asian nation that month.

“This strong performance could be attributed to the significant increase of arrivals from China and the recently held Miss Universe, among others,” the department said.

SEE ALSO: Philippines: Tourism secretary says media coverage on drug war scaring foreigners

Asian Correspondent was unable to source February’s numbers, but given that total arrivals last year hit 5.9 million, just 100,000 shy of the country’s six million target, it appears pundits were not entirely right to suggest the industry would fall as another casualty to the drug war.

Last October, Bloomberg columnist David Fickling said there was a tendency among holidaymakers to shun countries experiencing violence, as tourist destinations are highly interchangeable.

Citing World Bank data to back his claim, Flickling pointed out people seeking experience in coastal resorts, bustling cities and historic cultures spent more money in Egypt than in Turkey. However, he said by 2014, Turkey’s tourist arrivals were 57 percent higher.

Flickling also argued holidaymakers are highly sensitive to a country’s public image, despite the Duterte administration and local tourism operators’ hope the bloody campaign would actually attract tourists afraid of drug crime.

Pointing to a 2004 paper by London School of Economics and Political Science professor Eric Neumayer, the columnist said substantial increase in human rights violations “deals an even bigger blow” to tourism than terrorism or general violence, causing a steep decline in visitor numbers.

SEE ALSO: What do Filipinos think of the Duterte impeachment attempt?

Since taking power, Duterte’s war on drugs has claimed the lives of over 8,000 suspects, many who died at the hands of the country’s security forces. His heavy-handed and even brutal methods have triggered widespread condemnation from rights groups who accuse the leader of committing crimes against humanity. These rights defenders want Duterte to be tried for his alleged crimes at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and efforts are underway to bring a case against him at The Hague-based tribunal, along with an impeachment petition filed locally.

At home, however, the intrepid leader enjoys loyal support from his countrymen, many who say they can see the positive effect his policies have on their streets and in their neighbours. In fact, recent conversations with the Filipino man-on-the-street suggest his support levels have not wavered despite the controversies he has courted while in office.

“For me, him being simple, humble, strong, and sincere and his willingness to sacrifice his life, honour, and presidency just to solve the problems that existed a long time before his presidency is why I love him,” Sheliane (name changed for the article), an office clerk from Mindanao said.

“His political will and iron-fist … is what I am looking for in a leader.”

How this support translates to the rest of the world, however, remains to be seen.

But although the current assumption is the drug war has frightened off tourists from Filipino shores – exacerbated by the call by Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo on journalists to water down their reports on the drug killings – the sensible thing to do would be to look at the numbers.

Official data says arrivals have increased consistently over the past three years. In 2014, total arrivals recorded hit 4.8 million. In 2015, that number spiked to 5.3 million and increased again last year to 5.9 million.

According to Tourism Undersecretary for Media Affairs Kat De Castro, “that is not so bad for someone transitioning.”

The Philippines targets to attract seven million tourists into the country by the end of 2017.