The Forgotten Role of Philippine Airlines (PAL)
In Air Travel and Tourism Development in the Philippines
By Apolinario Villalobos
When I joined the Marketing and Sales Department of Phippine Airlines in 1975, its Public Relations Office (currently, Corporate Communications) was already actively conducting air travel familiarization tours for groups, particularly, students and civic organizations. The groups were shown the airline’s facilities at the airport (the old Domestic airport), especially, the interior of the aircrafts which at that time were DC-3, HS748, YS11, and later, BAC1-11. Fare discounts were given to frequently traveling groups and individuals. The ulterior motive here was to educate the public about the advantages, especially, the comfort of air travel.
The Tours and Promotions-Philippines (TPP) headed by Vic Bernardino as manager, regularly conducted surveys, practically, throughout the Philippines – from Batanes to Tawi-tawi, to gather information on their touristic attractions, and other information that could lure travelers. The airline was then servicing Tawi-tawi and Sulu, via Zamboanga, while Batanes had straight flights from Manila and on other days, via Tuguegarao. The hubs of air travel were Manila for Luzon provinces, Cebu for Visayas and some Mindanao provinces, and Davao for the rest of Mindanao provinces. The Tours and Promotions-Philippines printed and distributed a regularly updated Philippine hotel directory, and the bi-monthly TOPIC Magazine which contained information on touristic destinations, hotels, resorts, festivals, and outdoor sports, such as diving, mountain climbing, spelunking (cave exploration), trekking and birdwatching. The hotel directory and magazine were distributed among schools, hotels, organizations, embassies and consulates.
The Tours and Promotions-Philippines office also conceived and developed an encompassing tour program that practically covered all facets of travel – educational, convention and seminar, outdoor sports, and charter. The travel market was segmented into sectors to identify their specific needs and requirements. This was called the PALakbayan Tour Program. Coordination within the marketing and sales departments of the airline was closely knit, so that a mere phone inquiries on destinations, be they serviced by PAL or not was quickly satisfied. The staff of Tours and Promotions office were all adept about travel within the Philippines so that they were regularly requested as resource speakers in tourism forums and seminars. For free, they also helped tour and convention/seminar organizers in coming up with realistic packages that their clients could afford.
The The TPP, through its Representative, John Fortes, organized the PAL Mountaineering Club which promoted and developed the sport in the country. To encourage mountaineering, he organized summer climbs to well-known mountains in the country, such as, Mt. Apo (between Davao and Cotabato), Mt. Hibok-Hibok (Camiguin), Mt. Madja-as (Antique), Mt. Pulog (Benguet), Mt. Mayon (Albay), Mt. Dos Cuernos (Tuguegarao), Mt. Kanlaon (Negros Occ.). Treks were organized for Mt. Banahaw, Mt. Makiling, and Taal. With the increasing mountaineering clubs in campuses and provinces, Mr. Fortes initiated the formation of the National Mountaineering Federation of the Philippines (NMFP). Simultaneously, Jun Luz, another TPP Representative handled the promotion of diving programs around the country. He was in touch with the different dive operators and groups in other countries to promote the dive sites that later graced the pages of international travel magazines and dive brochures.
On the other hand, Ed Buensuceso, section supervisor of TPP developed birdwatching areas around the country, an effort which brought to fore the plight of the Philippine Eagle, known before as monkety-eating eagle. He was a member of the scientific team from the United States that documented the life of the eagles, from their airborne mating to breeding. The first documentary was printed in National Geographic Magazine. Ed Buensuceso was also instrumental in the first survey of the Puerto Princesa Underground River conducted by an Australian environmentalist group. As an important information, the underground river is originally attributed to Palawan province, not Puerto Princesa city, hence, its original name was St. Paul Sub-terranean Park of Palawan. The effort of Mr. Buensuceso in developing Palawan as a tourist destination was extended to the Batak tribe which for long was not known among the rest of the Filipinos. He also spearheaded surveys of off-the-beaten-track destinations that brought to light the hidden touristc treasures of Caramoan peninsula in Bicol, the corals around the islets of Mindoro, Dumaguete and the now-famous Tubbataha Reef. The big waves of Siargao, Surigao, Aurora, and southern portion of Bicol were already captured in slides when Ed Buensuceso surveyed them for promotion in other countries whose tourists were interested in outdoor activities.
During the Marcos administration, there was a great demand for hotel rooms because Manila and other major cities in the provinces were peaking up as convention destinations in Asia. It was during this time that the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) was built together with the rest of the facilities within the Cultural Center of the Philippines complex, that included Cultural Center of the Philippines, Folk Arts Theater, Philtrade, and Film Center. The TPP of PAL on its part, actively worked with convention organizers to help them with their packages that included airfare discount and representation with provincial hotels for group discounts. Student groups were flown to provinces for educational tours, as well as, international groups that were regularly flown in by PAL and other airlines. Tie-ups were made with shipping lines and bus companies for tour packages, and of course, hotels at destinations.
Later on, the PALakbayan tour program gave birth to “illegitimate” tour programs developed by other tourism agencies. Unfortunately, the copycats failed to bring to life the essence of the program which is founded on the “total care” of customers, specifically, the “Total Passenger Care”. By “ total”, the airline even took care of the traveller’s other needs that do not concern its direct service, such as onward booking until the day of his departure, referral to other agencies, and giving of necessary information at destination, such as things that can be done on his own.
Every time, the TPP staff had a chance to speak to local government officials, the latter were encouraged to organize their own “local tourism office”, to handle what we called “backyard tourism”, or local small-scale tourism business in line with the eco-tourism concept. The Department of Tourism during that time, was aware of this effort. It was explained to them that having DOT field offices in major cities was not enough. There was yet, the need to fully coordinate with local government units in the implementation or promotion of programs. PAL already recognized this need that is why its station supervisors and managers were mandated to be closely in touch with local officials, even those located far from PAL stations. Also, practically, the staff in all domestic stations played important roles as coordinators to prevent hitches, especially, in the handling of groups.
The energetic promotion of tourism from the end of PAL came from Mr. Ricardo Paloma, Regional Vice-President/Philippines and Guam, who initiated efforts in touching base with the Department of Tourism (DOT) and government agencies concerned about environment conservation. Practically, the DOT involved the airline in all its touristic ventures. On the other hand, the airline furnished the DOT with all the input that the staff of the TPP gathered from their surveys. Mr. Paloma conceptualized the “eco-tourism” which is the basis of the government in the promotion of local tourism today. There was much effort in preserving the laid back image of the country as a touristic destination in Asia. That early, the “tourism think tank” of PAL was apprehensive about the destruction of the natural endowments of dive spots and mountains, as are happening now. The once pristine Boracay island is now a sorry site with no reliable waste disposal system, the mountains become garbage dumps after climbs, coral “gardens” are littered with plastic bottles, etc.
Today, tourism industry in the country is kicking high. The unsung PALers who did their part as conceptualizers, coordinators, guides, resource speakers, and who formed the early family of Philippine Airlines could just smile and utter a silent thank that the country’s flag carrier is still flying…and, at last, the less beaten tracks towards the hidden gems of the country are now heavily trodden by sneakers and mountaineering boots of eager tourists…