Food, glorious Filipino food as tourism promoter
AS I WRECK THIS CHAIR By William M. Esposo
The Philippine Star 2007-11-25
How can we even miss including food, glorious food, as a come on in our tourism promotions program? How come that when it comes to enticing travelers — we hardly exploit our interesting array of Filipino food, with special mention to our fresh seafood?

Great sightseeing and most definitely, good eating, is my idea of an ideal vacation. In choosing a travel destination, cuisine has played an important factor for me. Apart from the fact that food indeed ranks high in my hierarchy of values, I know from experience that most travelers are also foodies. Savoring local cuisine plays an important part in their total travel experience.

When Thai food became popular in many countries, I noticed that Thai tourism also flourished. It is not however clear if the Thais had purposely promoted Thai food to spur tourism to their country or if that was just a coincidence.

The popular destinations in Europe are led by Italy , France and Spain which also happen to be noted for their food. In Asia , the most frequented cities — Hong Kong , Tokyo , Singapore — are also regarded as the gourmet’s paradise. High cost of travel to Japan , of course, now deters a lot of tourists from going there.

In our case, we do not give Filipino food the promotion it deserves. I see this as both a problem of wrong presentation and under-promotion.

I say wrong presentation because the few tourism promotional films that I’ve seen have not bothered to depict Filipino gustatory delights into something that would entice foreigners who had never tried them before. Most Westerners, for instance, get turned off with some of our eating practices and food presentation even before they even get to sample our food.

I can’t forget a dining incident when I was an invited guest in Hong Kong by the CBC Television Network of Canada in 1982. CBC hosted three days of screenings at the newly opened Shangri-La Hotel in Tsimshatsui, Kowloon to promote its television programs in Southeast Asia . On our last night, our hosts tendered a sumptuous Chinese feast at the hotel’s Shang Palace Restaurant that flaunted the finest Cantonese dishes worth a king’s ransom.

Enter the favorite roast suckling pig and the ladies from CBC (some of them the wives of CBC top executives who came just to attend the final evening’s dinner) almost fainted.

It was bad enough that these Western diners had seen for the first time a whole dead pig served on their table. In this dinner, the suckling pig happened to be equipped with flashing battery-operated eyes!

Now to most of us Asians, this is funny and not a bit shocking. The Canadian ladies did not even bother to touch the suckling pig. Instead, they watched us as we feasted.

These ladies were pork eaters so religion had nothing to do with it. Cultural sensibility did. Needless to say, I dutifully found a Christian home in my tummy for their untouched portions.

To bring out the best features of our cuisine to foreigners, we must study which of our native fare would appeal most to them. We must bear in mind that what we like to eat may not exactly be what they will best appreciate.

Our kare kare is a good example of what may not exactly appeal to Western palates. Don’t even think of offering them ararawan, palaka and balut.

I’m surprised that we have not enticed many of these television destination food presenters — like Anthony Bordain and Bobby Chin whose TV shows are seen on the Discovery Travel and Living Channel — to do a show here. Bordain and Chin would have shown very interesting aspects of Filipino food and landscape.

Considering our limited advertising budget for tourism promotion versus those of Thailand , Hong Kong , Singapore and Malaysia — bringing these destination food show hosts here will make a very big and lasting impact on cable viewers worldwide at a cost that will be much lower than media ad space.

The one destination food show host who did visit us lately is the one who would likely create the wrong image for Filipino foods — Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods.

Andrew Zimmern hosts a very entertaining show and I watch it regularly, mainly out of curiosity. But for attracting tourists to come here, I think that Andrew Zimmern’s show will do the opposite if folks think that what he ate here is typical of Filipino cuisine.

Bizarre Foods is all about balut, edible maggots, worms, pig’s intestines, rice field snails, frogs, bats, grub and all that. Even the average Asian will have a difficult time swallowing half of what Andrew Zimmern eats on Bizarre Foods.

But most Filipino dishes, properly presented, promise to be great attractions for tourists. Special mention of course, goes to our seafood, coming fresh from any of our 7,000 or so islands. The fact that our cuisine has been enriched by various cultures — Spanish, American, Chinese, Malay and so forth — provides us a wide array of tastes to offer.

It is important to create a romance with Filipino food. There is an art in food presentation. Just look at how the Japanese have made a big event out of a simple tea ceremony. The average Western diner is gung-ho on a sell like this.

Our failure to promote our cuisine to boost our tourism reflects the parochial mindset that has plagued our country, one of the major reasons why we’ve become the laggards in our region. We are too immersed in our local problems to even notice the jewels we have.

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