Is Filipino President Duterte an Asset for Philippines’ Tourism?

Rodolfo Duterte during his presidential campaign (Photo Philstar)

Rodrigo Duterte, the often brutal and rough talking current President of the Philippines could have a negative impact on the country’s image, scare away investors, and have also a ripple effect on tourism.

Since taking office on July 1st, 2016, Rodrigo Duterte has so far generated negative headlines internationally due to his brutality—both in words and deeds. In its September 17th edition, British weekly ‘The Economist” titled a story about the President “Sceptered Bile”, denouncing “a policy spiralling out of control”.

So far, Mr. Duterte is immensely popular with the poor and most vulnerable communities, as well as a parts of the middle-class. They voted for him in droves, as he promised to rid the Philippines of drugs dealers, fight corruption, resolve traffic congestion in Manila. He made the eradication of crime the cornerstone of his campaign. He then pledged to kill “100,000 criminals”.

The first actions in his presidency seem to show that he kept to his promise. Police forces and the army arrested and killed some 3,000 suspected drug dealers. While the total number of people killed is open to debate, his first steps in foreign policy are more worrying for the international community. By calling both the Pope and President Obama a “son of a bitch”, by answering to two UN representatives who condemned “Duterte’s incitement to violence” with a “F**k you, U.N.”, President Duterte has already begun to worry some foreign investors who feel at unease about a rather volatile foreign policy, which seems to fluctuate with the President’s emotions. According to the Economist, some companies believe that they could become the victims of arbitrary judgement on so-called “transgressions” in conducting business.

Regarding tourism, the image of the country’s strong man is essential. A perfect example is Iran, and its former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who contributed to give of Iran a very negative image of the country and his people—despite the fact that Iranians are probably among the most welcoming people in the Gulf area!

“State of Lawless Violence”

Mr. Duterte could have a similar effect on his country as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had on his. First, by alienating potential American travellers and investors, especially following his words about the US President. And, most likely, discouraging other potential travellers if they feel increasing hostility towards foreigners. Following a bomb explosion in Davao on September 2, Mr. Duterte declared a “state of lawless violence”, giving sweeping powers to authorities to crack down on terror threats and on the recent rise in extrajudicial killings. On September 4, the Filipino President then declared an indefinite “state of national emergency”, a term which could scare away even more travellers.

It is still to early to look at the potential effect on tourism, as President Duterte has been in office only for two months. And the new tourism policy still needs to be unveiled by Philippines’ New State Secretary for Tourism, Wanda Corazon Teo. Mrs. Teo already announced she would present a new branding for Philippines tourism to replace “It’s More Fun in the Philippines”, as used by the previous administration. Tourists should, however, remember that Mr. Duterte is far from being an “average” Filipino in the way he behaves. Most Filipinos have a true sense of welcome, a natural friendliness and a great sense of fun.