How social media and millennials changed local tourism

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Millennials and social media have had an effect on shifting local tourism into something more experiential, according to Department of Tourism Undersecretary Atty. Falconi V. Millar. Photo by AN ESTRADA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It was as if the summer of the tropics was temporarily transplanted to Venice.

The buzz of Filipinos felt familiar. Some have flown in from the Philippines just for the occasion: the unveiling of the Philippine Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Art Biennale. At 4 p.m., the cold outside reaches up to 17 degrees Celsius, but inside the Pavilion, it’s starting to feel like a regular night in Manila.

The featured artists, Lani Maestro and Manuel Ocampo, as well as the Pavilion’s curator, Joselina Cruz, are pulled by different people — curators, artists, collectors, patrons, diplomats, and officials — to discuss the works. The National Commission for Culture and the Arts chair Virgilio Almario entertains questions from the Philippine media flown in to cover the event. Senator Loren Legarda, the driving force behind the country’s Biennale participation, takes part through Skype or Facebook Messenger — whichever connection lasts longer — unable to fly to Italy due to an emergency eye laser procedure.

The benches at the center of the space, an installation by Maestro called “meronmeron,” are alight with frenzy. Plastic glasses are filled with drinks: more talk of art and the occasional kamustahan. People are planning their Biennale itineraries. “What are the other good pavilions to visit?” Visitors drift in and out, on their way to the next room along the Artiglierie, an industrial building that dates back to the 1500s.

Several government agencies have pulled through to make this participation a reality — a show of force that presents the Philippine art scene, if there is one, at the global stage. For the Department of Tourism, Undersecretary Atty. Falconi V. Millar has flown in on the day of the vernissage, marveling at how such an event can bring in tourists to a historic city.

biennale artiglierie The crowd during the opening of the Philippine Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Art Biennale. Photo courtesy of the PHILIPPINE ART VENICE BIENNALE  

For example, the 2015 Arte Biennale has amassed over 500,000 visitors throughout its six month run, averaging at 2,899 visitors per day. Around the two venues, the Arsenale and the Giardini, the city’s tourism industry thrives: restaurants are packed with people, local businesses are frequented by visitors tired from looking at art the whole day, the vaporetto stops are always bursting with people looking to traverse Venice’s fabled Grand Canal for their art and culture fix.

Inspired at how a cultural event can draw such an influx, CNN Philippine Life talked to Usec. Millar about the plans of the DOT regarding cultural tourism, a shift in policies, and what social media and millennials have done to strengthen “experiential tourism.” Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

There have been talks about tourism based around creative communities so are there any plans for events like this in the Philippines?

The DOT has just approved the National Tourism Development Plan last April and a lot of projects are lined up, and whatever projects that would bring in tourists to the Philippines, then the DOT should be there. Like this one, the Biennale, the DOT supports this fully, naglagay kami ng permanent representative sa NCCA so they are assured that the DOT is always there in any projects. The DOT is one with the NCCA in promoting the culture and arts.

How do you see an event like this working in the local setting?

As you can see there are a lot of tourists, a lot of locals from Italy and tourists from all over the world who are interested in the works of our artists. This would promote the Philippines, this would create interest for them to go to the Philippines.

You think the Philippines can mount something of this scale?

We’re keeping our fingers crossed. [Laughs] This is a good start. It’s not an impossibility in the near future.

What are the challenges of selling the Philippines as a tourist destination?

It is quite a challenge kasi we’re a long haul [trip] coming from America. Ang layo natin. And we have no contiguous countries unlike in Malaysia, Singapore. If I’m a tourist from a long haul country, meaning like 11 hours trip, 18 hours trip, pupunta ako ng Singapore, Malaysia kasi magkakalapit, marami akong [mapupuntahan]. So it’s a challenge for us, the DOT, to sell the Philippines as a destination. They really have to come here to experience the beauty of the Philippines. Not only to experience beauty but also the culture. Kasi naniwala kami na ‘yung ganda ng Pilipinas, hindi ‘yan mata-translate talaga kung wala ‘yung kultura natin. All our majestic tourist spots will only be tourist spots, it won’t be majestic without our culture.

DOT Usec "We believe, until now, that the number one tourist attraction in the Philippines is the Filipino people," says Department of Tourism Undersecretary Atty. Falconi V. Millar. Photo by DON JAUCIAN  

Is this a new shift in terms of the DOT’s policies?

We have taken a bold shift to promote the Philippines, to promote the Filipinos. We believe, until now, that the number one tourist attraction in the Philippines is the Filipino people. Our unique culture, tayo, 'yung hospitality natin… that’s why they come to the Philippines. That’s why in our new ad, “When you are with Filipinos, you are with family.” Talaga naman ‘diba? Mababait naman tayo. Our hospitality is above the rest.

What kind of branding does this campaign need? How exactly are you selling this idea?

Well we promote rural tourism, like [for] Davao, Cebu. Manila would sell on its own. The tourists would come to Manila. Boracay, the tourists would visit Boracay so it will survive on its own, it’s already world famous. But we have to promote Bohol, it is a paradise. Cebu, Davao. That is also in line with the ten-point agenda of President Duterte, to promote rural tourism.

When we say rural tourism, it embraces the beauty of the rural spots, and the culture. Like … I have been to Banaue a lot of times, Cordillera, and I’m proud to be a Filipino because nakita ko 'yung kultura natin, we are under the colony of Spanish for 300 years but we were able to preserve the Ifugao culture, Cordillera culture — unblemished and untarnished by the colonialism. It’s not just street dancing but the culture itself. Intact 'yan for thousands of years.

Experiential tourism na kasi tayo ngayon. Rather going to the sand and sun, rather than just the beaches, they want to mingle with the locals, they want to learn about the culture.

How do you integrate the participation of the people who live in these areas in your plans to promote tourism?

The local government units play an important role kasi sila talaga 'yung nandun sa areas. Kami naman we support any project. We have regional offices, sila naman ang nakakaalam talaga ng local culture in their areas. It’s not only fiestas, street dancing, but our deeper culture. Sa Cordilleras, six provinces and different in each province. Nakakatuwa. Every time I go there, this beautiful mountains would only be plain mountains without the culture. Kaya tayo pinupuntahan ng mga turista.

So what should be the focus now of visitors going to these areas?

Experiential tourism na kasi tayo ngayon. Rather going to the sand and sun, rather than just the beaches, they want to mingle with the locals, they want to learn about the culture. And we have very unique cultures, especially in the rural areas. ‘Yung project ng NCCA is to put a marker for each cultural site, language, we have 131 dialects, ang project namin with the NCCA is to put markers in each community that speak that dialect. It’s not only a monument but QR codes [will also be included] that will [have information].

How has social media changed the approach of DOT in promoting the country?

It’s an addition to our promotion. It starts with an attraction, the spot, but without the awareness, it wouldn’t be an attraction. We also have to create the awareness, we have to ignite that. People will come to this place because we promote it as a destination. We also have to promote the accessibility since it would not translate into tourist arrivals without the accessibility, accommodation, and affordability.

So this is where local businesses and the government come in ...

Yes. It’s vice-versa also. When we create awareness there will be new businesses, new jobs, tourist guides, sellers of souvenirs, tricycle drivers — all these will be additional income to the local communities.

Why do you think tourists are more experiential now?

Before, it was about “ownership.” Now it’s the experience. One factor is the millennials. They want to experience everything. We also have our love for country, we start to experience our tourist spots. These are not expensive so the domestic tourist can afford all these things. And we in the DOT play an important role. We have to provide awareness, security, accessibility. You’re going because these are safe, accessible places.

Marketing domestic tourism to Filipinos, is that different?

Our domestic tourists, captured market 'yan, we just have to promote it. In the other countries, malayo. We really have to sell to them that it’s worth going here. Sa atin, we really just have to patronize because it’s our country. We have to visit our own country. It was ironic that in my early 20s, when I went to Palawan, my tourist guide was my American friend! [Laughs] Nakakahiya. Now it’s a different scenario. With the millennials coming in, with experiential tourism. [They] have to post it on social media.