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Roque's publicity stunt diverts media attention from tourism issues | CMFR

Roque’s publicity stunt diverts media attention from tourism issues

Screengrab from Inquirer.net.

THE EIGHT months of strict lockdowns severely affected the country’s tourism sector with an estimated PHP190 billion in lost revenues. The restart is being done in phases. Only two major tourist destinations, Baguio City and Boracay Island, reopened to visitors in October, but with stringent requirements, including negative results from a PCR swab test. Boracay remains closed to international visitors.

As the world’s travel industry hunkered down to hard times, the Duterte administration seems to have prioritized tourism infrastructure by funding their construction in the Bayanihan 2 Act.

Media coverage has obliged the government with reports on the reopening of the world-famous beach, noting its slow start and explaining why people are keeping away. But even as journalists flagged challenges in Boracay, they have not raised the policy issues involved in tourism promotion at this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque’s publicity stunt encouraging ordinary people to visit Boracay seemed completely out of sync with the fact that so many Filipinos are still struggling with quarantine restrictions. Unfortunately, media readily indulged his exercise of self-promotion and in effect boosted the validity of the tourism campaign.

CMFR monitored the coverage of four primetime news programs (ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, TV5’s Frontline Pilipinas, CNN Philippines’ News Night) and three Manila-based broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin) from October 1 to 7.

Challenges

In the first three days, news accounts were straightforward, listing the new safety protocols as well as the low turnout of visitors. Journalists cited local officials and business owners who said visitors are likely discouraged by the costly PCR test requirement that they have to shoulder on top of their airfares.

The Inquirer’s October 2 report provided an estimated cost of the PCR test, pointing out that even local travel would prove too expensive for a family. It also observed that residents from the Western Visayas region, who, despite having easier access to Boracay, found the indefinite wait for swab test results a barrier to travel.

Posting on social media on October 4, Roque said that Boracay was his “happy place.” Perhaps, there are news organizations that think anything Roque does is news solely on the basis of his position. Enough media played into his obvious publicity stunt by playing up his visit.

It was not enough to just repost his photos on their respective social media accounts; primetime newscasts also gave him airtime.

24 Oras aired clips October 4 of Roque as he hammed it up, waving his arms, saying “Punta na kayong Boracay!” The report continued with Roque’s recount of his experience with the mandatory health checks, following him as he went around noting the many establishments that are still closed. On October 5, Frontline Pilipinas flashed photos of the spokesperson sitting on the beach.

News Night reported in a fluff piece that favored Roque with more publicity. It showed that after netizens made memes from his Boracay photos, the spokesperson uploaded his own on his Facebook page. On October 7, the program even featured those memes, adding that Roque is “not your ordinary presidential spokesperson.”

None of the reports pointed to the ease with which a ranking official such as Roque can visit anywhere, afford PCR testing and get results without delays, while giving undue attention to Roque’s self-promotion as a kind of tourism ambassador.

The government seems unable to address the urgent need to revive the economy while keeping the population safe from COVID-19. Media have not taken up what seems to be evident from the low turnout of people not just in tour capitals, but even in malls and restaurants: the public feels that the threat to health remains.

If media focused on this fact in their reports, perhaps government can be convinced to concentrate on strengthening public health measures by prioritizing the needs of the medical and hospital systems, and improving testing capacities and contact tracing. Communication should heighten awareness about what citizens should do to protect themselves. But much of the media are not providing them that service in this time of crisis.

Meanwhile, to improve economic prospects, government should support and assist other sectors— agriculture and food production, transportation, information technology and business start-ups — by easing regulatory restrictions and strengthening digital measures in doing business. It seems foolhardy to pour resources into the dampened tourism market at this time. Media for their part should be quick to tell a public stunt when it hits the newsrooms.

Way forward?

While reports on tourism promotion flagged the PCR test as the deal-breaker for would-be tourists, journalists missed updating the public about another kind of test and its feasibility for tourist use.

Back in September, health and tourism officials chose Baguio City for a pilot implementation of rapid antigen testing, a cheaper and faster test that also uses swab samples. DOH commissioned the study to determine whether this kind of test can be used officially and for cross-border travel. In his October 5 press conference in Boracay, Roque said that the tourism sector is pinning its hopes on this test.

The Inquirer reported on October 7 the initial results of the pilot study, which are sadly not very promising. According to DOH-Cordillera, the antigen test did not have the same sensitivity as the PCR test, and is better used for patients who already have symptoms. Therefore, it was not recommended for mass screening of tourists.