MANILA, Philippines—President Benigno Aquino III kept a happy face when he met visiting dignitaries in Malacañang on Thursday, buoyed up by a bounty of “good news” from newspapers.
“I had to admit the energy level was a bit down this morning until I read the papers which surprisingly had tremendous good news, left and right. That’s kind of unique. I think I will preserve my copy of today’s paper for posterity, just in case they never repeat it,” Mr. Aquino told them.
In particular, the President was ecstatic over the decision of the European Union (EU) to lift a three-year ban on Philippine Airlines flying to European airspace as it would complement the robust growth in tourism, one of the engines of the country’s economic growth.
The Inquirer and other major dailies also prominently carried news about the higher growth forecast for the Philippines by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the growth in all income groups of Filipinos belonging to the middle class, and the initial success of proponents of the reproductive health law in the Supreme Court.
Pepped up by the good news, Mr. Aquino welcomed ambassadors, consul generals and tourism directors from North America led by Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Cuisia Jr. who called on him at Rizal Hall in Malacañang.
The President said his guests provided him a welcome relief from his stressful duties. For the past three days, he has been scrutinizing his national budget proposal for 2014 that will be submitted to Congress later this month.
His enthusiasm drew applause from the 392 delegates from Los Angeles, Hawaii, Washington DC, New York, San Francisco and Chicago in the United States, and 105 from Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver in Canada.
They were attending the 8th Ambassadors, Consul Generals and Tourism Directors’ Tour, a joint project of all Philippine Foreign Service Posts in the United States and Canada in cooperation with the Department of Tourism (DOT) and the Department of Trade and Industry.
The project aims to promote the Philippines as a top tourist destination by encouraging Filipino-Americans and Filipino-Canadians to visit and discover the natural wonders of the country.
CAAP’s ‘stunning progress’
Mr. Aquino also heaped praises on the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) under William Hotchkiss, which, he said, had been working long nights and “made stunning progress.”
He recalled that his administration had worked hard to liberalize aviation since 2010, and to open up the country to new local and foreign airlines.
In March, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) lifted the “significant safety concerns” it had previously identified in the Philippines. “This led to the very good news we received just (Wednesday) that the air safety committee of the European Commission has allowed our flag carrier—Philippine Airlines—to resume direct flights to Europe,” he said.
For this, he declared that the CAAP “has achieved one of its major goals.”
“I extend my full gratitude and congratulations to its head General Hotchkiss and all who worked to make this possible,” he said. “Hopefully, this development will give them the extra energy they need to pursue all our other goals in the aviation sector.”
The President was also in the mood to tease his audience.
“While looking at your faces, I was wondering if you’re all still victimized by jet lag. I wonder if I look like you. We finished at about midnight (of Wednesday) going over the budget, and some details about our ongoing negotiations on the annexes on the framework peace agreement with the Bangsamoro,” he said.
Learning that his guests had visited museums, campuses, a hotel and casino complex and a mall in Metro Manila, and that some went to Cavite, Laguna and Tagaytay City, he said the sheer number of natural gifts in the country “can take your breath away.”
“But I also hope that in the few days you have spent here, you have seen the can-do attitude and the renewed confidence that have revitalized the Philippines. We are once again an up-and-coming place, respected in the community of nations, where families are moving forward as we strive for inclusive growth,” he said.
Mr. Aquino explained how his administration had “turned things around.”
“From a place of unfulfilled potential to a nation and people not just exceeding expectations but also creating even more potentialities for Filipinos and other people of good will,” he said. He described tourism as “a lyncpin for our economy.”
“We identified tourism as a low-lying fruit that needed to be picked. From day one, we have worked to grow tourism in the Philippines to the industry that it could become,” he said.
President thanked Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez Jr. for the “highly successful tourism campaign.”
“In fact, after the tours you have gone on, you can probably attest that it really is truly more fun in the Philippines. That is the secret of our campaign: We are not mouthing a marketing slogan. We are simply repeating a basic truth,” Mr. Aquino said.
Ultimately, he said, “the good news is you—and the millions of other tourists who have passed through our country—are not the only ones who have noticed.”
In its 2013 report, the World Economic Forum Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index ranked the Philippines No. 1 in the world in terms of government spending on tourism as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP).
“This helped us jump twelve spots in their index—from 94th to 82nd,” Mr. Aquino said. Citing reports in several publications, he said “we are among the world’s best diving and beach destinations.”
“Travel+Leisure magazine has even recently called Palawan ‘The World’s Best Island,’” he said.
Last year, the Philippines breached the four-million mark in foreign tourist arrivals for the first time, recording 4.3 million or a 9-percent increase from the 3.9 million in 2011. A total of 37.5 million domestic travelers was recorded in 2011, surpassing the government’s target for 2016.
“We have already surpassed the 2016 target as early as 2011,” the President said. “Of course, we are always looking to improve on our performance, and so we have decided to put just a little bit more pressure on Secretary Jimenez.”
From 35 million travelers, the domestic tourism target for 2016 has been adjusted to 56.1 million by 2016 and 6.8 million by next year, Mr. Aquino said.
The President also reported on efforts to stamp out corruption and the strong economic growth since 2012.
“We know fully well the challenges that remain. We must make certain that this growth becomes even more inclusive—that the economic benefits do not merely trickle down to our people, but that every Filipino is able to ride the rising tide of progress. If what we have achieved in the past three years tells us anything, it is that nothing is impossible to a united Filipino people,” he said.
He challenged the Palace visitors to become “informal Philippine ambassadors,” invoking “the spirit of bayanihan—the spirit of coming together to lift each other up—burns bright in every Filipino.”
“Our country is on an upswing, and I invite you, and every Filipino out there, to help keep our momentum going—to help us bequeath to future generations a Philippines they can be truly proud of,” he said.