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Overpriced | Inquirer Opinion

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The COVID-19 pandemic has prevented people from traveling, but now that things are slowly returning to normal, they are more than eager to splurge on trips again to make up for being cooped at home for the last two years. But there is still a reasonable ceiling on how much a day in the sun should cost as a group of local tourists to an island in Bohol recently demonstrated when they cried “overpriced” after being billed P26,100 for lunch, including P900 for bananas.

The price breakdown of the food in the Facebook post that went viral: abalone (P2,500), fish for soup (P1,800), kinilaw (P3,000), grilled fish (P2,500), scallops (P3,000), oyster (P3,000), squid (P2,500), lato (P800), baby squid (P1,500), sea urchin (P2,300), bananas (P900), softdrinks (P1,300), beer (P1,000). The post elicited not only shocked reactions but testimonials from other tourists confirming that, indeed, food was expensive on Virgin Island, a sandbar located a few meters off the coasts of Panglao in Bohol. Others said the amount was reasonable since there were 13 people in the group averaging P2,000 per person—half the price of a buffet in a five-star hotel. In their defense, the island’s vendors said the food was expensive because they buy their ingredients from the mainland plus the high cost of fuel and commission for the boatman. The local mayor acknowledged that the food was “a bit overpriced” and has temporarily banned vendors from the island and limited the place to sightseeing only.

This incident has nonetheless highlighted the need to regulate prices and establish reasonable pricing standards, as Department of Tourism (DOT) Secretary Christina Garcia Frasco herself said in a statement. This would entail coordination with local governments and the Department of Trade and Industry, as well as frontline tourism workers and stakeholders.

Overpricing, predatory business behavior, and many other scams are nothing new in tourism anywhere in the world. In Thailand, where the sector normally accounts for about 12 percent of GDP, the government periodically issues warnings against scams. Recognizing tourism’s importance to the country’s economy, Thailand also established a tourist police bureau to extend assistance to travelers when necessary and ensure that their travel experience is not ruined by tourist traps.

The Philippines’ tourism industry, on the other hand, still has a lot of room to grow and many improvements to undertake, foremost of which is to make domestic travel appeal to Filipinos by making it more affordable compared to the cost of going to nearby countries. Even foreign tourists find travel to the Philippines more costly compared to other Southeast Asian countries, such as Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The main reason for this is accessibility—because the country is an archipelago, interconnectivity is quite a challenge and an air ticket to go to the islands can be costly, especially during high season. The lack of accommodation options also turns off potential tourists.

Frasco earlier emphasized the need to invest in infrastructure to improve the connectivity and accessibility of tourist sites. She also bared plans to develop domestic tourism: capitalize not only on the beauty of the country’s natural resources but on the local talent and products including clothes and food. But there is a problem if even food, an essential part of the tourism experience, is not affordable. A common complaint among travelers to the country is the inflated tourist prices in top draws like Boracay, Palawan, and now Panglao. As one travel blogger wrote: “Keep in mind that the Philippines is a wonderful place to visit, but it simply isn’t as cheap as Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, or Vietnam—all of which can be done on an extreme budget.” Even domestic tourists, who somehow kept the industry alive during the travel bans, must not be turned off by the unaffordable cost of food and accommodation in their own land.

Tourism is highly influenced by word of mouth. News like the Virgin Island overpriced food does not help in the bid to attract tourists, especially in the aftermath of a pandemic that has crippled the tourism sector. Frasco herself admits that while the DOT acknowledges the challenges faced by tourism-related businesses and establishments that are only beginning to recoup losses due to the pandemic, she believes that “due care must always be given to the overall experience of tourists whether it concerns upholding the quality of accommodations, attaining a certain level of service, or ensuring the reasonable pricing of products.”

Tourism is also a shared responsibility—this period of recovery from an economic slowdown is certainly not the time to be greedy. Stakeholders from the government, business owners to tourists all play a part in growing and nurturing the sector to make it more attractive than, and competitive with, other Asian countries. It should not be hampered by, among others, overpriced food that leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

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