Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Mansalay Master Tourism Development Plan

At a glance, Mansalay's Master Tourism Development Plan (courtesy of TagBalay Foundation)

June 24, 2014, Mansalay, Oriental Mindoro. Today marks an important milestone in the history of Mansalay. This afternoon, Alain Maulion, team leader of TagBalay Foundation, presented to local government officials and other concerned citizens, Mansalay’s Master Tourism Development Plan. It highlights the abundant natural beauty from “Ridge to Reef” of Mansalay and its surrounding environs as well as the rich cultural heritage of its Mangyan communities. As Mr. Gregorio De Chavez, the Secretary of the Sangguniang Bayan of Mansalay, eloquently observed, the Plan has rekindled his awareness of the multitude of God-given blessings of Mansalay that have the POTENTIAL to improve the quality of life of every individual in the municipality.

The operative word is “POTENTIAL” for, as the saying goes, “ideas (even brilliant ones) are cheap”. It is in the earnest, diligent, collaborative, tenacious and focused pursuit and execution of an idea whose time has come that determines its success. And indeed, the time has come.

First, Mayor Joel Maliwanag (modesty aside) is a young, dynamic, educated, articulate, foresighted and people-oriented individual. Most importantly, his heart in the right place. He humbly admitted during the presentation that developing the tourism sector in Mansalay is an old idea that has been discussed at length over the years with little tangible results (again, talk is cheap). So, as Mayor, he allocated the necessary resources to hire a team of experts and professionals to develop and articulate a comprehensive and executable plan, which is the Master Tourism Development Plan of Mansalay. This serves as the roadmap of the tourism sector of Mansalay; that is, from Point A today (where there is little tourism in Mansalay) to Point B 20 years from now (hopefully sooner, where Mansalay is a world-renowned tourist destination like Boracay—only better, particularly in terms of sustainable environmental practices). The seed to action has been planted by Mayor Joel. In the parlance of physics, he has commenced the conversion of POTENTIAL to KINECTIC energy. It’s time for action!

Second, one of the critical ingredients of a successful tourist destination is ACCESS. This has been achieved by the completion of the national road from San Jose Airport, Occidental Mindoro to Mansalay, Oriental Mindoro just over a years ago. Today, it takes only 1.5 hour by car or shuttle van or express bus to travel from San Jose Airport to Mansalay. Moreover, the regular flights from Manila to San Jose Airport take less than an hour. This places Mansalay well within the 2 to 3 hour “sweet spot” of tourist destinations in the Philippines. This critical transportation infrastructure is available to Mansalay today. Each day that Mansalay fails to take advantage of this infrastructure is a wasted opportunity. There is no time for delay!

Third, another critical ingredient of a successful tourist destination is PEACE AND ORDER. Not too long ago, Mansalay was a hotbed of communist insurgents, terrorizing the people and holding back the economic progress of the town. My parents themselves were victimized severely in Mansalay. After pouring blood, sweat, tears and plenty of money (nearly bankrupting my father) transforming essentially barren land into a flourishing forest reserve with prime species such as narra, teak, among others, these communist bandits violently invaded our property, killed two of our employees and proceeded to cut down all the trees for profit. Although this and other violent communist-related occurrences remain a historical stigma of Mansalay, these scenarios will hopefully not be repeated, particularly with the presence of an AFP battalion in town. However, the AFP will eventually transfer their battalion to another hotbed of communist or Muslim insurgents and inadvertently allow these lawless elements to return. Substantial investments in tourism mean jobs and a better quality of life for the people, who will less likely fall prey to the poverty-driven propaganda of these so-called communist rebels. Let’s not wait for history to repeat itself. Let’s act now!

Fourth, the private sector is waiting to be deployed. While the “easiest” tourism projects are those that could be developed by the local government unit using government funds (e.g., at a cost of P1 to P2 million, the Mangyan Museum to be located in one of the Mangyan enclaves to showcase the cultural heritage of the Mangyan communities), government funding is limited. There is only so much the government (local, provincial and/or national government) can accomplish with its meagre resources. Hence, it is more important for the local government unit to harness the substantial resources of the private sector with nothing more than the power of the pen; in other words, local legislation that will not only enable but attract the private sector to invest in the tourism sector of Mansalay. For example, a private company is ready to invest P5 to P6 million on a mangrove walkway leading to a Mangyan burial site but not until this project is formally etched in a municipal ordinance.

In the same way that the telecommunication sector, the power sector, the water sector, among other critical sectors in the national economy, have attracted billions of dollars of private investments in the Philippines due to enabling legislation (i.e., deregulation, privatization, among other landmark legislations), the local legislative body (the Sangguniang Bayan) must be responsive to private enterprises in the tourism sector. It’s a choice between some “mom and pop” tourism establishments (which is OK) or hundreds of millions or even billions of pesos of investments in tourism infrastructure over the next 20 years that will transform, strengthen and secure the economy of Mansalay.

Let’s step back for a moment and look at a couple of “big picture” items:

1.       The Western Tourism Corridor of the Philippines may be enumerated as follows: Tagaytay and Taal Lake, Batangas > Anilao, Batangas > Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro > Boracay, Iloilo > Coron, Northern Palawan > El Nido, Palawan > San Vicente, Palawan > Puerto Princesa, Palawan. If each of these tourist destinations were stepping stones in a pond, you will observe a large gap between Puerto Galera and Boracay, requiring another “stepping stone”, which highlights the strategic location of Mansalay, Oriental Mindoro, not only as another major tourist destination but also as the epicentre of three existing major tourist destinations; namely, Puerto Galera, Boracay and Coron. It stands to reason that as the tourism sector in Mansalay reaches a certain critical mass, the development of the Wasig Airfield into a tourist destination airport (much like the Caticlan Airport for Boracay) would eventually be justified and completed, thereby cementing Mansalay’s rightful place among the definitive tourist destinations in the Philippines. The point is, now more than ever, Mansalay should exploit its strategic geographical location, while Puerto Galera, Boracay and Coron have not yet completely ruined their environment (some say Puerto Galera and Boracay are already ruined) and are still considered attractive tourist destinations.

The Western Tourism Corridor of the Philippines and
Mansalay at the epicenter of Puerto Galera, Boracay and Coron

2.       Current confidence in the Philippine economy is at an all-time high. Apart from the country’s strong annual economic growth since 2012, the sovereign credit-rating of the Philippines achieved an investment-grade for the first time in its entire credit history in 2013. Furthermore, as recently as May 2014, Standard and Poor’s Rating Services again upgraded the country’s credit-rating one more notch above investment-grade. These gains are largely attributed to P-Noy’s fight against corruption in government or Daang Matuwid, albeit on a selective basis by some accounts. In any case, both the local and the international business community, including those in the tourism sector, are in the mood to increase or to place new investments in the country. However, the next presidential elections is less than two (2) years away and all the goodwill and confidence that P-Noy has gained from the business/investment community may be lost if the next President pardons the senators implicated in the PDAF scam (much like GMA pardoned ERAP shortly after he was convicted of plunder). The investment appetite for the Philippines appears healthy today but what happens after the next presidential elections is anybody’s guess. Mansalay should exploit this limited window of time to jump start its tourism initiative by eliciting the support of the private sector while P-Noy is still the President.

So, what exactly does the private sector need? For starters, the Master Tourism Development Plan should immediately be approved by the Sangguniang Bayan. It’s a no brainer and it sends a powerful signal to private enterprises that Mansalay is ready for business, particularly in the realm of tourism. More specifically, the Mangal Marine Protected Area (MPA) ordinance should also be passed by the Sangguniang Bayan. It’s another no brainer, yet it’s been vetted to death for over two years. Enough talk and get it passed—read “It’s the Environment, Stupid!” My family has committed to Mayor Joel the commissioning of no less than Palafox to master plan a world-class eco-friendly (Palafox would not agree to do it any other way) resort complex on our property—after the MPA ordinance is passed. Thereafter, we would entice major real estate developers to execute the Palafox master plan—again, after the Palafox master plan is approved by the SB. In short, the SB needs to step up their legislative efforts to promptly address the needs of investors and the aspirations of their constituents. No more dribbling or dicking-around with investor and livelihood-friendly ordinances.

In what seems like another lifetime, when I was a private power developer in Southeast Asia for a multinational energy company, I travelled extensively to Vietnam to develop at least one substantial power project that would entail a direct investment in the country of between US$1 to US$2 billion. After about 18 months of earnest discussions with ranking government officials, it became apparent that they were stringing us along without any urgency of entering any binding agreement. Thus, I pulled out and Vietnam had one less substantial private power investor to rely on for additional power generating capacity.

If not for my personal friendship with Mayor Joel, which is on its second generation and counting, I would have pulled out of Mansalay as well. My family is just as content to keep our property as a forest reserve in perpetuity. If the SB is serious about tourism in Mansalay, there is no time or place for ignorance, politicking or idle talk—just sound, responsive and prompt investor and livelihood-friendly ordinances. The time is here and now; otherwise, it’s hasta la vista, baby!

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