Politics, tourism and the struggle for social transformation in the Philippines

Mong Palatino

bu-op-icons-mongOur country is on fire yet we continue to rank our islands based on what tourists want.

Should we rejoice when travel magazines list some of our islands as among the must-see places in the world? Yes, of course. But it doesn’t mean we should adopt their standards to measure the relevance of our islands. It also doesn’t justify the brutal transformation of our islands so that we can entice more tourists to spend their dollars here. Imagine if all the 7,107 islands of the Philippines undergo a makeover for tourism branding. Sounds fun for foreigners and investors but a scary scenario for residents and the biodiversity of our islands. Just think of the extreme commercialization of Boracay and its disastrous long-term impact.

Compared to the extractive industries, promoting tourism is a more sustainable development model. Indeed, eco-tourism is thriving and it appears to empower several communities. Should we reject this too? No, our appeal is not to ignore the potential of tourism. Instead, what we advocate is the linking of tourism and progressive politics. Sadly, tourism is hostaged today by narrow elite interest. Tourism is invoked to force the entry of mega projects (read: development aggression), the approval of anomalous pork programs, and the conversion of farm lands which benefit landlords and politicians. The lucky residents are hired or employed in these tourist facilities but the unlucky ones are displaced from their lands.

But if tourism is disruptive, mining is clearly several times more destructive. Isn’t tourism the better option? This is a false choice. Why condemn our people to choose between two economic activities imposed by bureaucrats and corporations? The situation remains the same even if tourism is suddenly repackaged as community-driven or the mining permit involves only small-scale operation. Who decides that the survival of a town depends on choosing between tourism and mining? Let the people have the final say and let them explore other options. In other words, this is an issue of politics or how citizens acquire and challenge power to reshape their present and future.

Is tourism really the best alternative for low-income islanders or is this more profitable for the business sector? Treating tourism as if it’s the only way out of poverty reflects the dominance of the thinking that converting an agricultural or coastal village into a retirement haven or backpackers’ sanctuary can quickly uplift the lives of many. Again, this is the perspective of the elite class reinterpreted as an economic necessity. Why should we readily accept the business proposition that the role of our islands is merely to produce dollar tax revenues? As islanders, surely we have equally important things to do such as exposing the abuses of landlords, resisting feudal practices, organizing farm workers, and building grassroots formations. Tourism as defined by those in power makes us forget that we have political tasks to perform.

This is evident in our distorted knowledge of our islands. We think it’s only natural that islands should conform to the needs of the tourism sector. An island becomes a prime destination if it’s tourist-friendly. When Boracay, Coron, and Malapascua are mentioned, we quickly remember their exotic locations that made them world famous; but we overlook the situation of the indigenous Ati of Boracay, the rapid degradation of Palawan’s last frontier, and the destruction left behind by Haiyan in north Cebu. When we allow tourism to trump everything, we prioritize the normalization of business over the urgent needs of ordinary residents. We ignore the everyday struggles of islanders since we believe it is tourism, not politics, that will make ours islands prosper.

We forget also that corporate tourism erodes the organic links of our islands. There is an unnecessary competition between island resorts. Panglao is presented as the new Boracay while Siargao is known as the preferred getaway of adventurers. Again, this is expected since the main goal is to attract tourists. There is no motivation to connect the islands and restore forgotten ties because profit-making is the ultimate aim of island overlords. A nearby island is seen not as a refuge during crisis moments but as a competitor. Centuries of inter-island linkages are rendered irrelevant in the tourism economy.

Only politics can unite islands and islanders. Politicians have been doing this for various reasons but most of the time to advance a conservative agenda. Think of Gloria Arroyo’s inter-island highway (RoRo), the creation of a Negros region, or the patriotic appeal to assert our sovereignty in the Spratlys. But then there’s progressive politics and its reminder to complete the unfinished revolution. Poverty stalks the islands but resistance can spark unity among the people. Island-wide struggles can be won through solidarity from nearby islands. We can cross waters and fight alongside our fellow islanders. We can expose how mining ravaged the beauty of Rapu-Rapu and Manicani, we can stop the proposed mega dams in Panay, and we can join the masses of Samar and Leyte as they rebuild their lives.

Therefore, another way to promote our islands is to highlight the heroic struggles of our people. This is already being done in Mactan and Corregidor but we can also feature the raging battles against foreign plunder, bureaucratic corruption, and feudal oppression across the islands. Are we not the only archipelagic country in the world where a Maoist guerrilla warfare is being waged in the past four decades?

We have more than 7,000 islands and I refuse to accept the popular assertion that these majestic lands exist only to give tourists the chance to experience paradise on Earth. Our people live on these islands and many of them have endured decades if not centuries of marginalization. Our priority is to end the suffering of the masa by enjoining them in the national struggle for true liberation and social transformation. No island can truly prosper as long as 7,000 other islands are mired in abject poverty. Tourism can bring instant cash to select investors and temporary livelihood to a few residents; but if we want substantial change, we should subsume tourism to the broader objectives of progressive politics and nationalist economics.

In the 20th century, Manila politicians encouraged Luzonians and Christians to populate Muslim Mindanao. A similar campaign of island migration can be implemented again but this time the message is entirely different. We can repeat what the First Quarter Stormers did in the 1970s: return to the countryside to jumpstart the revolution. Return to the islands to intensify the struggle for national democracy. The concept of island mentality can be redefined by imbuing it with a radical content. An islander who advances the politics of change through island-wide struggles, inter-island solidarity, and the national mass movement.

Islanders of the Philippines unite, we have nothing to lose but an archipelago in chains. (https://www.bulatlat.com)

Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. He is the chairman of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Metro Manila. Email: mongpalatino@gmail.com

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