Solo: Richard Gordon
- Wilson Lee Flores () - July 4, 2001 - 12:00am
DOS PALMAS RESORT HOTEL, Palawan – Tourism is the biggest and fastest-growing business in the world, but the Philippine tourism industry has been repeatedly bludgeoned by kidnapping, political instability and other crises. Is there still hope to revive this industry?

Less than a month after Abu Sayyaf bandits kidnapped 20 people from Dos Palmas Resort Hotel in Arreceffi Island, Honda Bay, Palawan, on May 27, this resort has bounced back to business with tight security measures, successfully hosting Tourism Secretary Richard "Dick" Gordon and the first ever Department of Tourism (DOT) Regional Directors’ Meeting under the Macapagal-Arroyo administration from June 20 to 22.

At Dos Palmas’ restaurant, Tourism Secretary Gordon gave a six-hour interview with The Philippine Star, sharing his dreams for the nation, his goal of achieving three million tourist arrivals by 2003, his unforgettable experiences with 8,000 volunteers in rebuilding Subic Bay, his childhood and family life. Gordon recounts tales about his immigrant Jewish grandfather Jacob Gordon who came from New York, how he went to the US to search for his wife’s long-lost father and a hundred other stories.

Unknown to most people, Gordon at 24 was the youngest delegate to the 1971 Constitutional Convention, so he administered the oath of former President Diosdado Macapagal as head of the Concon. Gordon studied History and Government at the Ateneo University and Law at UP.

He exudes supreme confidence, boundless energy and optimism, declaring that the Abu Sayyaf terrorists and other crises will never defeat the Philippine tourism industry. He is a super salesman and GMA’s appointment of Gordon to his post reflects well on the judgment of President Gloria Arroyo. At night after dinner, Gordon enthralled the DOT regional directors and other guests with nonstop singing up to 1 a.m.


Philippine Star: How big is the potential of tourism business for the Philippines and Asia, and how important is this to the future of our impoverished country?

Secretary Richard Gordon:
Today, the No. 1 industry in the world is tourism. It represents 700 million people moving around. The 2000 Sydney Olympics showed the magnitude of tourism as a business. Next year, Japan and Korea will jointly host the Soccer World Cup, just three hours away from the Philippines. Tourists spend US$500 billion per year. This business is bigger than the world’s richest man Bill Gates. The World Tourism Organization (WTO) also predicted that with the rise of China’s economic prosperity, you will soon see 100 million Chinese tourists, especially those from the coastal regions. Unfortunately, while the world’s tourism business is growing, our market here is going down.

A day or two after the Abu Sayyaf kidnapping, Asian Wall Street Journal had a front-page report that even Vietnam surpassed us in tourism last year.

Last year, 38.34 million tourists visited Southeast Asia, with only 1.8 million tourists coming to the Philippines or 4.69 percent. This represented a negative 27.61 percent decrease for the Philippines. Yes, Vietnam last year had 2.14 million tourists, which is 5.58 percent of the Southeast Asian market, registering a 4.8 percent increase.

What is the outlook for Philippine tourism after the Abu Sayyaf kidnapping and the reported increase in kidnap-for-ransom crimes in other parts of the country?

I will not say Philippine tourism is recovering but it is not dying either; it is wounded, limping in the leg. Sakit ng kalingkingan, sakit ng buong katawan; it’s a pinkie. I don’t want to mourn. It’s wrong to say Philippine tourism is in the coffin and dead. The Abu Sayyaf is only a nuisance. The Abu Sayyaf will be gone, but Dos Palmas resort and Palawan will stay here, we will all outlive the terrorists. Even with past violence, tourists are still going to Israel. After the massacre of Israeli athletes in the Munich Olympics, tourists still went there. The bombings in New York or Atlanta did not stop tourists from visiting these cities. New York used to be very squalid, but after Mayor Giullani came in and cleaned up, more tourists now go to New York than Disneyland.

I told my DOT regional directors they’ve got to believe in the future of Philippine tourism, or they’d be transferred to New York – no, to Basilan or Sulu (laughs). Today, we are under the specter of Abu Sayyaf, but let our soldiers fight them, let us move on to rebuild the tourism business. The military is fighting the Abu Sayyaf right now, we can’t change that situation, but we in the Department of Tourism (DOT) can tell the whole world that there are 7,104 islands in the Philippines that are great for tourism.

We should also clean up the problems in Metro Manila. The government says there is actually less kidnapping now, but if you have a feeding frenzy in media, it becomes a wave, then it acquires a life of its own. We are a country that is very impressionable, it is sad we don’t have much critical study of facts. In our country, we tend to magnify the bad without critical analysis, making it a zillion times worse. It’s just like bad public relations: We tell the world that there’s a crime wave in our country but nobody says anything about the other side of the coin. We are our own worst enemy. Like in the US before, when they sent a general against the Indian chief Geronimo for war, it doesn’t mean that people then stopped coming from the old world to the new world – life went on, progress went on.

Any suggestions on how to stop the Abu Sayyaf terrorists?

I support President Gloria Arroyo’s news blackout strategy. The easiest way to kill terrorists is with news blackout. Kulang sa pansin yang mga Abu Sayyaf, besides, why should media focus on them when I’m better-looking than Abu Sabaya (laughs). You know, there are three sharks caged under the pool of Dos Palmas resort. Unfortunately, even if they are not caged they will never eat the Abu Sayyaf terrorists, you know why? Professional courtesy (laughs).

What’s your opinion of President Gloria Arroyo and how she reacts to all these crises?

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is becoming more like Gabriela Silang; she has been attacking the terrorists with the military. It’s correct and good, sending the message to them that they can run but they can’t hide. When the kidnapping happened, I suggested to her that she use only one spokesman. The President is very focused, she’s very quick. She has a sense of urgency, and she can communicate very well, she can articulate the message, which is important to a leader.

Can we do anything to improve the military efforts to contain the terrorists?

I’m a person who doesn’t mince words, but I’m a team-player. Later on, after everything has been resolved and in the spirit of improving things, I will speak out my ideas but not now.

What can be done to ensure a viable future for the ailing tourism industry? How can it become a business for more people?

I firmly believe there is a great future in Philippine tourism, but we should let our people believe it. Unfortunately, our people are insular. Tourism is an option, it is a business that will stop fishermen from using blast fishing. The rural poor can become tour guides, they can engage in small businesses. Tourism is an option, while poverty is actually an absence of choice. Ang business ng turismo ay bagay sa pipol natin, it is not a difficult business. A bus driver, a gardener and other ordinary folk can become managers. Tourism is a great option for entrepreneurship. Tourism business will help get Juan de la Cruz a new job, gain his self-worth. Tourism will make more Filipinos become entrepreneurs, not only work-seekers abroad, because it doesn’t take much to put up a small business in tourism. We Filipinos tend to work for other people. Look at the Westerners of history, they "discovered" us because they were sailing to far places looking for new sources of raw materials, new markets and new wealth, but we Filipinos go abroad to work for others.

Why the choice of Dos Palmas resort for your DOT Regional Directors’ meeting?

Look at Dos Palmas resort. This family put up this beautiful resort to help the country’s tourism business, then the Abu Sayyaf came here only one night in a thousand nights…Let’s not allow these terrorists to defeat us. Let’s go to Basilan and to Sulu where various groups of the Abu Sayyaf are, bomb them. The government has repeatedly reiterated the policy of no ransom, but you can’t stop the parents from paying ransom. Hopefully, this won’t give the Philippines a black mark in media.

The Lim family members are Filipino of Chinese heritage, they have been investing here in Dos Palmas resort, they are horizon-chasers, they are helping the Philippine economy, we cannot allow the terrorists to defeat them. They went from Davao to Palawan to put up a tourism business. If we surrender to defeat, then the Abu Sayyaf will really win. Even media wouldn’t want that, even they were victimized, remember the French journalists last year, or the hostages who were beheaded by the Abu Sayyaf? Our mission in tourism is to give people jobs, tourism is the fastest way to generate new jobs.

If things go well, what is your target for tourist arrivals in the country?

With the proper promotions, we can have three million tourists by 2003. Palawan province alone can accommodate as much as 10 million tourists, it’s so big and beautiful, you can put in Hong Kong, Bali and Singapore here and still have space left. No other place is more symbolic than Palawan for it represents the great future of Philippine tourism. I and the regional directors of DOT are meeting here in Dos Palmas not for show, not to count bodies; we wish to attain quality tourism.

What kind of promotions are you hoping to do to push Philippine tourism? What annual budget should we spend for promotions?

When I met recently with World Tourism Organization (WTO) Secretary General Francisco Frangialli in the Maldives, he said the Philippines is a country with tremendous tourism potentials, that what we need is promotions, promotions, promotions. We already made a presentation. I spoke to the Budget Secretary, who said that we’re probably the only department that will get an increase in budget. I asked the government for a minimum US$15 million, but I hope to get a budget of US$30 million.

Tourism is a business, it is not a job. What we invest, we should get back tenfold. Last year, the Philippines spent only US$660,000 in promotions to gain 1.8 million tourists who spent US$2.5 billion. In contrast, our neighbor Thailand spent US$45 million, gaining 9.5 million tourists who spent US$7.5 billion. Hong Kong spent last year US$66 million, receiving 13 million tourists, who spent US$8 billion. Malaysia spent US$70 million, receiving 10 million tourists who spent US$4.5 billion. Singapore also spent US$70 million, receiving seven million tourists who spent US$6 billion. We are going to promote in Japan, in Korea where their tourists coming to our country grew 42 percent. Yesterday, there were two Koreans here in Dos Palmas resort. We should promote in China, we should get our foot into the door of this biggest tourist market, we should get rid of the antiquated thinking of the Cold War era and change the regulations on China tourists. If there are overstaying tourists, that is a law enforcement problem, but we should not lose out on this big market. Hong Kong last year had 3.8 million tourists from China, while Thailand in 1999 had 776,000.

On July 17, we will have new Macau flights two times a week. We have to increase flights from South China, also Hong Kong and Taiwan. In America, let us get the balikbayans to come back.

Maybe if we had a big budget in the past, it would also be wasted in corruption and wastefulness.

We should stop government and the people from thinking of tourism like a fiesta, where you spend a lot but have no earnings. That’s another problem among many local government officials, they are hesitant to spend, their thinking is always to ask for projects, for public toilets, new facilities from Manila. A mayor recently visited me from Agoncillo, Batangas near Taal Lake asking for a facility for tourism. I advised him to get local people to put up a business. Many politicians are pressured to show projects, but it is better to help people start businesses, improve facilities and promote their areas for tourism. I’m not a person who gives doleouts, I believe that we should all work together to carry the load with many hands.

Southeast Asian countries have different catchy marketing slogans for their tourism promotion. What would be your new slogan?

Would it work if we use "Exciting Philippines!" or would it be better if we use "Wow Philippines!"? Even the Germans can pronounce "Wow Philippines!" Then for our local destinations, we can promote "Wow Subic!" or "Wow Baguio!" or "Wow Palawan!" I hope you see the day next year during the National Basketball Association (NBA) Championships, you will not only see the promotions for "Amazing Thailand" or "I Wish I Were in Egypt," you will see "Wow Philippines! We should be aggressive in promotions, advertising and public relations. I appeal to the media to show the action, because we in the Philippines, we always look at our own navels, always bowing to the world.

What changes should be done to save the Philippines from economic, social and other crises?

There are many things to be changed, especially in our culture. That phrase "talagang ganyan na iyan" is the old bane of our country. When the Americans left Subic, I always said that we should all work to make Filipinos see their future not on foreign shores, but here in the Philippines, to find their self-worth in the process. Another cultural defect to change is this Spanish influence of loving titles. Like in the Spanish colonial government, we have this quest for titles that give people position in society. The Spaniards taught Filipinos to be ashamed to work with his hands, but to quest for titles. There’s also no reward for creativity in this country, no respect for it. We need to get the poor out of the rut by creating an atmosphere where groups will support people with good ideas and creativity.

Are you disappointed with the way media report on crimes and political troubles?

I’m not one to say don’t write this and that, but I advise the media to do more research. I know others in media want the exciting and sensational news in order to sell more newspapers, but the media should research, comprehend, and not bite anything fed to them. In the many opinion columns, I hope the writers will have more critical analyses. Also television, I hope they can be like the British Broadcasting Corp (BBC) with their economy of words – just cold flat news. Unfortunately in our TV talk shows, there is too much talk that plays only to the gallery and not much analysis. This makes people in our country gullible. Another disturbing trend for me is the rising power of some religious groups, which are becoming powerful in politics. If you mix religion and superstition, you will have a nation that will not be able to analyze.

What do you think of the Edsa 3 phenomenon and the May 1 attack against Malacañang Palace?

The May 1 attack seemed leaderless, I think it was really motivated by anger, a tyranny of numbers. It’s like living in a black ghetto in Los Angeles or New York, then when a black man is killed or beaten up, it triggers mob violence. I thank God for the miracle of Mendiola, because they could have taken over Malacañang, but they hesitated from physically removing someone from power. If these guys attacked the palace, it would have become like the French Revolution, a revolt not led by the middle-class. I’ve always toyed around with this issue about class war. Look at America and Israel, they were built by volunteers. They had volunteers as equalizers. In Subic, I had garbage scavengers and other poor people working alongside volunteers who are rich kids from Ivy League schools, so that we can promote a sense of unity in Subic. Here in our country, the poor and the rich are so divided, there is no common effort for a common goal, which the nation badly needs. On May 1, I was scared, I looked for my gun, fearing chaos, because if they had jumped over the fence into the palace, some of them would have been killed, perhaps 500 killed, that tragedy would have destroyed the country. What I really hate is the disrespect for volunteers in this country. In fact in Subic, I had asked a UP sculptor to build a monument immortalizing the spirit of the volunteers who helped build Subic into a success. It’s called "Children of the Sun Returning." I built another monument with all the names of all volunteers, similar to the Vietnam War Memorial in the US.

This spirit of volunteerism you wish to propagate, it’s opposite of what others claim is our country’s "crab mentality"?

(Laughs) That thing about crab mentality, I believe the crabs should not be faulted, they’re actually pushing each other and helping each other to get out.

What kind of leadership do we need in the Philippines?

This country needs a father figure, like a Lincoln or a Churchill, someone who can mold the nation. In Thailand, they have the King. Leadership should uplift the thinking of the people, a leader should not go down to the level of the masses. I admire Churchill, Ronald Reagan for his inspirational leadership, also John F. Kennedy for his charisma, Harry Truman for his directness. I admire Peter the Great of Russia, Napoleon the Great. I admire Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore for his vision and regimen, and his success in making such a small country cope and compete with the big countries, but I don’t like his ideas in social engineering.

Do you think the Philippines needs a strongman-type of leader like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore?

If you’re a leader, you cannot afford to be weak, to be hesitant. Strength is political will. A leader is also a teacher to his or her people. Strength is not power, but you have to have political will. Anywhere in the world, not only Asia, nations need strong leaders.

You’re probably former President Estrada’s favorite political enemy, since he issued his first executive order removing you from Subic. What is your impression of Estrada and his fall from power?

I’ve learned in life that you should never give your enemies more reason to hate you, especially if they’re already defeated. I’ve mellowed my killer instincts through the years...

Not as an enemy, but as a student of history, how would you describe Estrada and his fate?

President Estrada was given by the Lord the best of all gifts, the ultimate gift, the leadership of the nation, and what did he do? He blew it, with bacchanalian feasts and other vices.

Gordon is a foreign name, where are your ancestors from?

My grandfather John Jacob Gordon was Jewish, he was from Kingston, New York, and he came to the Philippines with Admiral Dewey when the US forces defeated the Spanish. His father-in-law and my maternal grandfather was Col. Jose Tagle, the revolutionary hero in the "Battle of Imus" in Cavite. Unlike other Filipinos who are Filipinos by accident, my father was a naturalized Filipino citizen who became a Filipino by choice. He was a great leader of the people of Olongapo, the first mayor. There were three unsuccessful assassination attempts on his life, but he was killed by an ex-convict on February 20, 1967 when I was only 21 years old. These were criminals backed by politicians, who wanted him assassinated. I said I will not give up, I wanted to follow in his footsteps in serving the people and I became mayor 13 years after he died.

Some activists criticize the Gordons for creating a political dynasty.

I don’t believe these criticisms about so-called dynasty issue are fair, members of our family were elected and reelected in democratic elections. That’s why it hurt me when President Cory Aquino in the 1980s removed me from office, it was a wrong move which divided the nation. My wife Kate is now a hardworking mayor of Olongapo, she just won an award from the World Bank in Bangkok, now that we are here in Dos Palmas, in fact, it saddens me that I cannot be with her tonight, because of my work here. She also won the Unesco Peace Prize, the first mayor in the world, one of five mayors, in 1998.

You are a man of courage, coming here to Dos Palmas without any bodyguard. What is your greatest fear?

None really...mostly about other people...I fear that our country is not waking up fast enough and the population is growing very fast. I’m afraid only that the country might be left behind. I fear that a lot of our people may lose hope. We should give people hope and confidence.

What should be done to save the Philippine economy from crisis?

Improve our agriculture, and we should put money into irrigation nationwide.

That’s also exactly what Lucio Tan said in his interview with The Philippine STAR. Are you confident your target of three million tourists by 2003 is a realistic goal?

I will try my best to hit three million tourists by 2003, but if the Abu Sayyaf problem is finished soon and we are given the budget for promotions, we can hit as high as five million tourists by 2003.

That’s a very ambitious goal.

I want to transform people wherever I go, whether in Subic or in the Department of Tourism. That’s why sometimes they don’t like me. I told them, I’m here not to make you happy, but to make you better, and to make this the best Tourism Department in the world.
* * *
Please send comments/suggestions to or P.O. Box 14277, Ortigas Center, Pasig City.

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