EDITORIAL: Boosting farm tourism

MANILA (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Congress passed Republic Act No. 10816, or the Farm Tourism Development Act, three years ago which aims to optimise income from family-owned farms by infusing tourism-related activities into the farm setup. 

It’s been three years since Congress passed Republic Act No. 10816, or the Farm Tourism Development Act, which aims to optimize income from family-owned farms by infusing tourism-related activities into the farm setup. The law aims to tap revenue from a new development: the growing market among urban dwellers and foreign visitors to seek rest and recreation, even education, in places closer to nature, greenery and the outdoors.

Under the law, farm tourism is defined as the practice of attracting visitors to farms (or fishing areas) for production, recreation or education purposes. More importantly, it encourages private investment by providing tax breaks to parties venturing into this niche kind of tourism.

The Philippines is ideally suited to agritourism, which can be a “catalyst for sustainable tourism and inclusive development,” said Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo Puyat.

According to a report in this paper, “Citing data from the World Bank, Puyat says about two-fifths of the Philippines’ total land area of 300,000 square kilometers is devoted to farming, which engages about one-fourth of the country’s workforce… This, coupled with the world-renowned Filipino hospitality, provides competitive advantages that farm tourism in the Philippines can leverage.”

The country’s farm sector is also responsible for a tenth of the country’s total economic output in any given year. Unfortunately, the realities of modern market economics, along with historic institutional neglect, have long conspired against the local agricultural sector, which remains woefully underdeveloped compared to its regional peers.

The present-day Filipino farmer makes, on average, only half of the equivalent wage a Filipino laborer takes home at the end of the day, no thanks to inefficiencies at almost all stages of the agricultural production process.

Besieged this way, many rural families are opting to give up farming, with many of their children making the difficult and painful choice to try their luck in the cities, leaving vast farmlands fallow and the nation poorer for it.

According to several published sources, over 100,000 hectares of agricultural land have been converted into commercial or residential areas over the last 30 years — an area the equivalent to Metro Manila and Metro Cebu combined.

Everywhere, shopping malls, residential subdivisions, golf courses and industrial estates have sprung up where bountiful farmlands once produced rice and all sorts of fruits and vegetables as well as livestock.

Boosting farm tourism is one private sector response to help farmers improve their lot and sustain agriculture, and it’s a development that deserves a closer look from stakeholders and greater support from policymakers.

According to Rose Libongco of the Hotel Sales and Marketing Association International, quoted by the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture in a statement last April, the Philippines has become one of the world’s preferred destinations for agritourism, alongside other places such as Taiwan, Brazil, Tuscany, Hawaii, Mallorca and California.

“Farm tourism sites have boosted the Philippines’ tourism potential as the country is now a top agritourism destination with foreign visitors arrival growing by 10.24 percent,” said Libongco.

So far, 174 farm tourism sites all over the Philippines have been accredited by the Department of Tourism. (Taiwan, a country smaller than Luzon island, does brisk tourism from its more than 200 recreational farms.) That number is expected to rise with the approval, finally, of the implementing rules and regulations for RA 10816 three months ago. The government’s aim is for at least one tourism farm, either agricultural- or fisheries-related, to be established in each of the country’s 81 provinces.

Tasked to boost these efforts and grow the industry is the DOT, along with the Department of Agriculture and Department of Trade and Industry.

Puyat, the country’s chief tourism promotion officer, happened to have also served for many years as undersecretary in the Department of Agriculture — a unique exposure that should give her valuable understanding of both key pillars of the economy and how they can be combined into a sustainable new industry.

Implemented correctly, the farm tourism initiative has the potential to become a sunshine program that would benefit many sectors, but especially the countryside, which needs all the help it can get.

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