Tourism and thoughts on marketing Filipino culture

I was in Shangri-la with a friend and his lesbian friend last night doing a petty-bourgeois activity of drinking coffee in Starbucks when our conversations over a tumbler of brewed coffee touched the management of Philippine tourism. All three of us being relatively well-traveled wondered why a middle-class Filipino is seen backpacking in Southeast Asia but not a middle-class Thai, Khmer, or Indonesian choosing the Philippines for leisure travels.

There’s nothing distinctly Filipino, my friend pointed out. So according to him, the Philippines can follow the Thai way, where old traditions are relived to benefit the tourists who seek exotic Asian culture. He, by the way, has lived in Thailand for two years as part of his Master’s studies.


His friend, on the other hand, said that we simply cannot market for tourism what is uniquely Filipino because we ourselves are not proud of these traditions. She added that we’re content with the ‘inggit (envy) factor’ whenever other Southeast Asian talk about what they have, even salivating while listening to their stories but when we’re asked what the Philippines has to offer, we recoil back to our seats opting not to talk about our culture. For how can somebody advertise something he is ashamed of, she asked rhetorically.

I suppose nothing is pure in this age of globalization. And western or moneyed tourists, trying to recapture that cultural purity long gone, will dearly pay for that artificially recreated exoticism of these developing Asian countries. The Philippines being at the far end of extreme hybridity, has lost any semblance of cultural uniqueness and has succumbed early on to a heterogeneity that transcends definition, a result of three centuries of Spanish rule, American colonization, Japanese domination and a strong Chinese influence. This ‘cultural dead end’ proved difficult to sell to foreign tourists seeking ‘absurd’ cultures that they can marvel in, laugh at, or feel pity on because people of these exotic cultures are still wallowing in the backwardness of their traditions while these tourists are living conveniently in the comfort of their modern civilization. The week-long Asian travel is a welcome hiatus from the monotony of efficient public transport, coffeemaker, microwave, and internet back home.

I smirk at the idea of tourism if it does not lead to understanding. If it functions to create a model where one culture is used as a foil to emphasize the supposed superiority of another culture, then the idea of tourism is a plain, brown excreta.

Most Filipinos fail to see the wonder in Philippine culture because of our failure to see it from within. We look outside and finding that it has nothing like we see in our neighboring Asian countries, we wail and declare we have nothing close to something distinctly Filipino. But Filipino culture has always been welcoming and embracing. The very idea of a Filipino culture is grounded on its eclectic nature, its non-pure quality, its being an amalgam of east and west.

But it is far from being broken.

The vibrancy and richness of one culture is not measured by its marketability and saleability in the highly competitive global tourism industry. I decline to subject my culture to such non-sense.


17 thoughts on “Tourism and thoughts on marketing Filipino culture”

  1. aahhhmm.. ca you help about the thoughts of filipino authors about the internet? i cant find the right explanation for me..

  2. I think the Philippines has a great culture and it’s marketable, just not in the same way it’s neighbors can. The Philippines is like a string of pearls, each region has a different culture depending on it’s past, amount of colonization and regional traditions. You can spend a lifetime discovering all there is to know, the only thing is because the common ties are only the colonial culture which isn’t so exotic and it’s hard to show all there is and still be cohesive but once you explore different parts of the country you’ll see the true beauty it has to offer that it’s neighbors can’t ,everything for tribal to modern, east to west, native to colonial, and everything in between.

  3. Really interesting! Philippines is an archipelago of over 7000 islands, with many different ethnic group, dialect and tradition. Yet is only well known as a malay catholic nation, a country colonized by the Spaniards and the US. From this day Filipinos are still bombarded with everything western, from Mc Donalds, Starbucks Coffee, to Mega Mall and Hollywood and we are obsses with it! I’m not saying everyone, but I think most of us are.

    1. indeed the filipino is that floating thistle wanting to finally land on something more stable than the shit it used to lodge itself in.

  4. Sophat,

    I must say that after reading your response I realized the sense of your points coming from your experience in Cambodia. Probably because the Philippines has not really looked into the potential of tourists coming from neighboring Southeast Asian countries, instead it has looked into the Western markets, whose penchant for exoticism, forgive the phrasing, is high.

    Philippine tourism really has to evaluate the path it is taking.

    1. i agree with you, john, that the philippines needs to think long and hard about its tourism path. we have so much to offer (mainly natural formations coz “we built no monuments”), and yet languish in tourism arrivals and revenues compared to malaysia, thailand, singapore, indonesia and now even vietnam (since 2000). not exotic enough? that’s relative; dunking pan de sal into coffee and drinking the latter after the fact is exotic enough for other people… i say we are not visionary and driven enough to spot our definitive strengths and market these wisely in terms of competitive pricing and quality. not a single philippine brochure in travel agencies either in near vietnam or far-away germany! strange but true.

    2. olivia, the government seems not very serious about this, or if it is, the people running it are not very smart enough in recognizing the value of the commonplace things.

      thank you for passing by.

  5. Interesting topic. A lot has already been discussed about the cultural power relations in cultural marketing. I don’t necessarily agree with the idea that the cultural marketing is primarily a response to creating or reviving a culture that foreigners deem ‘exotic’ and can laugh at – at least not in the case of Cambodia. In the case of Cambodia (which I am familiar with), and perhaps Thailand, I think there is a strong endogenous factor to it, relating to nation-building and nationalism which happened a long time ago as part of de-colonization – but in the current context of globalized tourism, it works both ways and generates huge income. Whether Westerners consider this as exotic enough to laugh at, that’s another issue. I do agree with you that sometimes this marketing can get out of hand – perhaps in Thailand which is a well established cultural tourist hub – but, like what mossgreentrunks says what is there to lose really? And often the income generates here comes handy as a much-needed resource for cultural preservation. That’s especially the case in Cambodia, where after the war so much national culture was destroyed that without cultural tourism, the state would not be able on its own to save what is left or revive what was lost.

    With regards to creating a distinct even uniformed culture, I think relatively ethnically homogenous countries like Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam have it easier that the culturally diverse Philippines, Malaysia, or Indonesia. Yet, cultural heterogeneity is not a disadvantage but a plus, take Malaysia as an example and the Philippines can present it this way. I don’t see what you’ve described as a ‘cultural dead end’ but something that can be promoted at least within Southeast Asia.

    And finally my two cents on why middle-class Khmers don’t go to the Philippines but the other way around might be true – (1) Cambodia is poor and its middle class growing but still small, (2) relative distance and geography (flying), (3) it’s a conservative society where people traditionally don’t travel beyond their villages let alone their country’s borders – although this is changing with the young more ‘globalized’ generation (4) the Philippines in not really promoting itself as a destination in Cambodia. Malaysia (and Singapore) has been a popular destination for middle-class Khmers for a while because of their ‘modernity’ and perceived ‘openness’ rather than culture its exotic culture, and yet Malaysia is still heavily promoting itself in Cambodia through advertisements etc. I think the Philippines, as one of the most Westernized and open countries in Southeast Asia (sorry if I got that wrong) has a lot of potential for promoting itself to fellow Asean citizens without having to deal with ‘exotic’ issue. This openness perhaps explains why you have travelled a lot. I would love to visit the Philippines when that’s financially feasible, but like in Malaysia, you won’t hear much about the Philippines in Cambodia. It will be up to Filipinos themselves to decide what part of your country you would like the rest of Southeast Asia and the world to know.

  6. maybe i misunderstood you. you said something about philippines being a product of different colonial pasts and other cultures so much so that there’s no exotic in it, and enough for foreigners who are looking for the exotic other in asia not to be interested in it. then you said that marketing philippine culture as exotic will lead to superior-inferior cultural relationships. then in your last paragraph you said that you don’t want your culture (i’m assuming you’re referring to the non-exotic philippine culture made up of different foreign influences, and not your visayan culture) to be subjected to non-sense tourism pr by marketing it as exotic.

    first, tourism’s “non-sense” pr if it ever so advertises a culture as exotic is not totally non-sense. it generates a lot of money and jobs, which i think is more important than dealing with superior-inferior relationships between cultures, something that should be left for anthropologists to deal with. meanwhile, if an “exotic” culture baits 100 million dollars a month, hell yeah i go for everything exotic.

    second, i dont believe that the tourism industries of asian countries should and do actually go nuts trying to make their cultures look exotic, as asia is already exotic in the eyes of europeans and americans (i so agree with zaid). malaysia-truly-asia was never in my mind exotic when it advertises petronas towers or putrajaya. on the contrary, it’s very modern. same goes for the big malls in bangkok and singapore. but for some reasons, malaysia is exotic for the europeans. dont ask me why, im asian hahaha.

    third, which is i guess related to my earlier comment, when you say you don’t want your culture to be subjected to non-sense pr, what you are ACTUALLY saying is that marketing your culture as exotic will lead to inventing philippine culture to make it more unique, instead of simply marketing it as a mixed bag of spanish, american, japanese, chinese and what have you cultures. which is why i reacted. because there’s nothing wrong about inventing a culture, for whatever purpose. culture is not static, and even if you don’t want your culture to be packaged as exotic, chances are they will be/might be eventually. and your culture will change. before you know it, filipinos will believe that drinking kape batangas al freso has been a long-held tradition that was just lost for a while. you cannot say you don’t want your culture to be subjected to market forces such as global tourism, because that is REALLY assuming your culture is monolithic and not subject to change. cultures do change, i swear to god. i mean, just look at the way we dress up compared to our lolo and lola.

    lastly, i think of philippines as having many cultures. and yes, there are so many exotic in them. we just have to market them! no need for invention (which is not to say inventing culture is bad).

    yes, seriously. lol

  7. there was no assumptions made similar to what you’ve pointed out. I carefully built my case. The last sentence should be taken in the context of the previous paragraphs. I have nothing against getting revenues from tourism, but marketing Filipino culture using the exoticism model akin to the strategies in other southeast asian countries will not work because ours is not as exotic by western standard, not amusing enough. and saying that filipino culture is not marketable enough because it is not southeast asian enough is flawed.

    we market philippine tourism for what it is, not ‘creating’ an artificial culture to suit the need of western tourist for some out of this world sites, adventures, and people.

  8. right on about the worth of a culture not measured by its marketability. but about not wanting to subject culture to “non-sense” pr for philippine tourism assumes culture is something that’s been there from the very start, long before adam and eve even came to earth, and that “non-sense” thing is something that endangers this culture. from what i understand, cultures are invented (after appadurai, giddens, and the rest). what we know to be “philippine culture/s” are nothing more but state inventions marketed to an “eclectic” groups of people inhabiting 7107 islands. i don’t think cultures can be harmed if they are marketed, especially if that will mean new jobs and cleaner EDSA.

  9. hi john do you find any backpacker from Malaysia? Sorry to tell you that I hardly find any tour agencies here to promote tours to Philippines. I am puzzled why the country of thousand islands has been left out in their itineraries. Even airlines here seem reluctant to advertise the fare to Manila or Clark despite that they fly daily to the two places. What have gone wrong with these two countries?

    1. i also do not understand why that’s the case. probably the economic ties between malaysia and the philippines, or the rest of southeast asia in general, is not very strong. or it could be that the tourism department in the philippines does not see southeast asia as the country’s primary market. in any case, there’s a lot more to discover in my country.


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