PLAYBOY: Tell us about your childhood and education. Where did you grow up?
DURANO: I took my elementary in Cebu, but my adolescent life I spent in the US, I did high school and college in the US. I studied law here in Manila, spending several years. In the US, it was not quite an issue, because there are so many Filipino-Americans there, it was (somewhat of an issue) when I studied for a year in Japan, because the face of the Philippines that they see in Japan is the japayuki—that was the terminology used. I felt that the Philippines was more than that. Although, when you think about it, the ability of these women to survive in such a closed society—I mean, it’s still something we can be proud of, that Filipino resiliency. If the Japanese saw that (resiliency) in the context of a larger Philippines, and how these women got the aptitude (to survive) then they would see that the Philippines wasn’t such a bad place; if our culture could breed this type of people that could adapt and succeed in different cultures and whatever environment—when I think of global Filipinos, that’s what I think of—then we can’t be so bad. The negative aspect is that a lot of these people are driven abroad because of a lack of opportunities here. It’s not by choice, it’s a necessity. Staying in Japan, that was when my sense of patriotism was really lit up.
When I was in the States, I thought (shrugging) I would end up in the States, but it was my stint in Japan that made me realize, I am a Filipino, that I had to do my part. We have a culture, a society that breeds capable people, and that capability should be harnessed in our country. I remember a conversation I had in Japan, where a Japanese friend of mine asked me to look for a wife for another Japanese national… That by itself was bad enough. But then he told me to make sure that she looked Japanese! Staying in Japan—that was my rude awakening, as far as my patriotism was concerned.
PLAYBOY: You once said that you never imagined yourself in charge of tourism, and yet by most accounts, you’re doing well in your post. How did that come about?
DURANO: The only thing I brought to this office was open mind, transparency and sincerity. The expertise was provided by the industry. I realized early on that what the industry really needed wasn’t an expert to tell them what to do, but a Department that would listen and give them the necessary support. After all, the industry players (here in the Philippines); they’ve been doing this for decades. They know what is needed, and we just provided the necessary support. I cannot speak for my predecessors, but I can speak for the source of the industry’s success today. First, we feel we have the right perspective, which is to not wish for other things, but to use what you have and get leverage from that. Second, we (the Department of Tourism) were the first ones who consciously broadened our market base. Third, my perspective is that the purpose of the Department is to support the industry.
PLAYBOY: Does your age-—or lack thereof—ever work against you?
DURANO: Not really work against, but it’s usually a barrier in the beginning, especially abroad, where they expect old men in suits. They hardly see a Secretary or a Minister this young. They think you have to be 60! I come out—it’s protocol that I come first, then the undersecretaries—in the reception line, and you see they—the foreign dignitaries—aren’t looking at me, they’re looking behind me ha ha! The undersecretaries then point to me, going, “This one, this one!” (laughs) Another example is at official events in other countries, and we arrive at the ministry or whatever, and I have an undersecretary beside me, the security will open the door of my undersecretary because they think I’m the aide! It doesn’t happen here. In the Philippines, it works well, being young.
PLAYBOY: You said that one of the most important things you did was just to listen. How receptive have they (the industry) been to this approach?
DURANO: It’s not that we were passive, when I said that what I brought was an open mind, transparency and sincerity —far from it. The first thing that I had to fight—what I feel was the biggest challenge—was the mindset of the industry. When I came in, the mindset was, “build it, and they will come”; they (the industry) felt there were just too many issues in the country that we needed to resolve before we could even start inviting people. I guess it was one of the things that helped me, having a fresh perspective coming in. I understand the frustration of the industry—they’ve seen more than 20 years of trying situations—but my perspective was that we already had what it took (to attract tourists), we just had to match it to the right markets and package it properly. It wasn’t so much infrastructure that was needed, but the services to make these destinations accessible and tourist-friendly, not the mega-infrastructures that people had in mind. Second, the industry players could not agree which market was important. My perspective then has been affirmed by the situation today. When I came in, we were highly dependent on two markets: Japan and the US. I think it is a fundamental principle that the best strategy against uncertainty is diversity. I understood as well that our diversification had to be founded on the resources that we had, so what we (my team) did was to commission this strategic process to come up with a balanced portfolio of markets, balanced between the emerging and the mature. We came out with a market portfolio of 24 markets, and this is what I had to sell to the industry players: Let us focus on these 24 markets. We would maintain our presence in mature markets like the US and Japan, but let’s put more of our resources in emerging markets because even if the volume isn’t there yet, it could provide us with momentum. That’s why we entered China, why we entered India, why we entered Russia.
These are markets the industry players never imagined they would be entering, and response has been good. In fact, that is the reason we continue to experience growth today, despite the economic downturn in our mature markets. Now, the mature markets will always be important to us, as they provide the volume, but when they have a downturn—like now—we get affected. Just imagine if we didn’t invest in the (rest of) the world market, we would be in a deep downturn as well! Because we’ve invested in the emerging markets the last four years, they’re now starting to kick in—starting last year and continuing into this year. So we see that we’ve balanced off the downturn in our mature markets with the continuing growth of our emerging markets. That has been, I would say, the intervention that we’ve given the industry. We took an active role in the overall market development strategy, and now we’re taking an active role in the product development side. We feel that it would be our nature-based products and attractions that will give us competitiveness. Of course there will always be a market segment that would prefer the urban lifestyle, but the private sector is taking care of that, with all the malls coming up and lifestyle satellite developments happening in Metro Manila. But as far as nature-based products and attractions are concerned, we need to take an active role, since they’re still not mainstream, and they need the development investment required. If it would be the private sector, they cannot provide the attractive returns, so that’s why we (DOT) are taking the lead. Bird watching, scuba diving, whale shark watching—taking advantage of the natural assets we have gives us competitiveness. This is one area of product development we’re taking an active role in.
PLAYBOY: How many tourists did we receive last year?
DURANO: Okay, to put things in context, there are two components: The foreign and the domestic. In terms of foreign, when we started in 2004, we had an annual base of 1.7 million visitors. We ended 2008 with close to 3.2 (million). As far as domestic tourism is concerned, for the past four years, it’s been growing at 18% per year, and we feel this will continue, especially with the airlines, resorts and the destinations offering more compelling products. Because of the competition, this will continue. But that’s on the demand side.
Because of this increase in demand and in volume (of tourists), what we will experience in the next three years, starting this year, would be a growth on the supply side as well. For example, this year alone, there will be two thousand and eighty nine new hotel/resort rooms of international classification and accreditation that will open, and that’s just for 2009! These investments came in between 2005 and 2007. Building a resort or hotel, there’s a gestation period of two to three years, depending on the size. This is one sector in our economy that will continue to expand and grow. In fact, what we see today is growth on the whole. For the past four years, we’ve seen growth in demand, and now it’s being complemented by growth on the supply side, so we see a total growth of the industry today.