Tue

24

May

2016

I Was Declared 'Persona Non Grata' in the Philippines...Why?

Nathan Allen - Persona Non Grata in Sorsogon, Philippines
Nathan Allen - Travel Writer

2015 was officially known as "Visit the Philippines Year". This is ironic, because it was the year that Manila airport employees started planting bullets in luggage to extort money from tourists. It was also the year I ended up all over national news when a sensitive tourism board declared me "officially unwelcome".  However, nobody heard the full story.

 

Filipinos seem to love a good issue. So much so, that sometimes one is created from thin air. "White Guy Rampages Through Tourism Office" makes for a sensational headline, but it's far from the truth. The reality is actually quite boring.

 

I simply showed up in a tourist office in Sorsogon, and told them I was there to promote the region. I explained what I do and how it works, then asked to please have the tourism officer text me. I handed the girl my business card, smiled, then walked out.

 

 

The next thing I know, I've been declared 'persona non grata', and CNN is contacting me for my side of the "Tourist Office Controversy".  Haha...the what!!?? As far as what actually happened, a more appropriate headline might be:

 

"Tourist Almost Dies, Tells Truth, Gets Banned in Unrelated Region."

 

Yes, you are about to read a pretty bizarre story. Keeping silent about this while I finished documenting the Philippines was one of the hardest things I've ever done. Now that I'm finally out of the country, I feel safe talking about what really happened...

 

Who Am I?

I created the website "I Dreamed Of This". Here is a screenshot from my FB page...

Nathan Allen named #2 Top Blogger in the World

 

My name is Nathan Allen. On my very first visit to the Philippines, I fell in love with the warmth and beauty of the place. The people became like family to me, and I realized that the country was only getting a fraction of the tourists it deserved. I decided I would do everything I could to help boost tourism, which in turn would hopefully benefit some of the local communities I had come to know so well.

 

You may have read my articles in national media like Rappler and GMA News. To date, I have formed successful (and unpaid) partnerships with tourism boards, local governments, and businesses all over the country. For example, the province of Albay, Bicol invested in having me tour their region.  When I wrote and shared my Albay travel feature afterward, it reached a few million people. The Governor was kind to call my visit "the wind beneath Albay's wings."

 

I considered it a great honor to be there.

 

Screenshot from "I Dreamed Of This" FB Page - Photo by BM Snapshots
Screenshot from "I Dreamed Of This" FB Page

So How Could This Happen?

Here is the short version, or at least how it seemed to me:

 

  • I Wrote a FB Post - Having noticed more and more areas for tourism improvement during my travels (and receiving hardly any response when trying to contact tourism officials), I posted some key points on my FB page. Most importantly, I wrote about the time I almost died when I was guided by a very unqualified tourism officer. I probably don't need to mention this, but of course, dead tourists are bad for business. That was actually the second time it happened, and neither experience took place anywhere near Sorsogon.

 

Yes, I was very frustrated. I think anybody who almost lost their life would be, but it wasn't just that. I wanted to know why emails to the Department of Tourism go unanswered, and why visa fees are higher compared to countries the Philippines is trying to compete with for tourists. Filipinos may already be used to these kinds of disappointments, but as a foreigner, I am not. I have a deep appreciation for the people of this country; I guess I just want to know that their taxes are being used for the good of the people.

 

Like the unanswered emails, I mentioned how I left my name and contact info for a tourism officer in Sorsogon, and was simply disappointed that I never got a response. I wrote this post to help raise awareness, so that the government might be able to address some of these issues. Tourists should be assisted if they need help...that's what officials are paid for, right? Again, this could boost tourism, which I hope in turn will benefit local communities.

 

My post also mentioned the good people at the D.O.T., and I called their marketing campaign "brilliant". In fact, I gave them credit for inspiring me to visit the country in the first place.

 

  • D.O.T. Bicol Demands Apology - Even though my post had very little to do with the Bicol region, the regional director there got very sensitive and seemed to think I was attacking her. The truth is, I didn't even know she existed (I might have, if her region had responded to my email a year earlier).  She went straight to the media and demanded an apology from me. She seemed surprised that I didn't know the Dept. of Tourism is not the one who runs these tourism offices.

 

 

Actually, it seems 95% of Filipinos don't know that, either. So you're telling me that the tourism officer wearing a D.O.T. campaign t-shirt inside the official tourism center has nothing to do with the Department of...Tourism? Haha. Well, demanding an apology for something so confusing made a LOT of Filipinos angry.

 

  • Her Son Hijacks The Issue and Declares Me Persona Non Grata - The small-town drama was heating up...seeing that people are now angry at his mother, a Sorsogon Tourism Board member uses what little power he has to try and take it out on me. He declares me persona non grata...but when it comes to Sorsogon, all I did was simply express disappointment about not receiving a text message. Is that enough to be officially banned from a region?

 

Confusion in Sorsogon

(A.K.A. Things Are About To Get Crazy)

 

As a media professional, Sorsogon is the only place in the Philippines that extended an invitation to me, then asked me to pay for it afterward. I'm referring to a whaleshark tour operator who contacted me on my promotional page. That's why I came to the region.

 

Later, a friendly local told me to transfer from my cheap guest house to his family's place instead. This was a relief, because no, I am not on a year-long vacation...and I do not get paid for this promotional work. I have very little money for my day-to-day expenses, and saving every little bit helps. My host and I became fast friends as we took photos and explored the beauty of the region. He was an excellent guide.

 

Subic Beach, Matnog - Philippines © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis
Stunning Subic Beach, Matnog - Sorsogon

However, when it was time to leave, my host told me I needed to pay for the room at his family's place. I hadn't been informed of this when I transferred there. It's not his fault, but it turned out to be the most expensive fan-room in my 3 years exploring the Philippines. I needed to pull out cash from an ATM to pay for it.

 

(Media professionals take note: If you are invited to Sorsogon, you might want to clarify what exactly that means. In my case, I was invited to pay. It was the first place anywhere in the Philippines that this was the case. There is nothing wrong with that, it was just a simple misunderstanding. Perhaps an "invitation" in Sorsogon has a different meaning, or their tourism infrastructure is still being created. Anyhow, the lesson I learned is that it's definitely worth clarifying:)

 

No Working ATMs

I needed to take a bus to Naga for a sponsored tour, and it was leaving from the next town where the ATM was. I loaded all my gear up on a trike, and my host followed along on his motorbike, because there was no room for him. The plan was to give him cash from the ATM and continue on to Naga from there.

 

Well, unfortunately none of the ATMs were working. We had no more options. Being friends and fully trusting each other at this point, he said it was fine to just wire him the 2,000 pesos in the morning. He texted me all the bank transfer info, I thanked him for his generous help, and then I was on my way. We are still friends to this day.

 

And...Suddenly I'm an Outlaw?

I was exhausted on the bus to Naga. 3 hours into the trip, my phone rang. It was my connection in Sorsogon, the one who found me a host. Here is our exact conversation: "Nathan, where are you right now?" he asked. "I'm on my way to do a promotional tour in Cam Sur", I said. I was excited to tell him how much I enjoyed my time there in Sorsogon. I'll never forget what he said next:

 

"Did you flee Sorsogon with an outstanding balance of 10,000 pesos? That's what they are claiming you did. They say you tried to escape your place without paying, and that you were chased by the owner on motorbike...trying to get his money."

 

"They are in the process of declaring you Persona Non Grata in Sorsogon right now."

 

This is one of those surreal moments in life where you feel like you're on a prank TV show or something. With my jaw hanging down in disbelief, I started looking around for the cameras. Unfortunately, this was no joke. This was really happening.

 

10,000 pesos!!?? Is somebody trying to extort money from me?

 

 

Yes, this is a much more exciting story, but no part of it is true. I mean, the owner who supposedly "chased" me? That was my friend!  Haha. I wondered how my 2,000 peso bill suddenly turned into 10,000 as well. If true, I was shocked that people might have used such nonsense to take government action against me. What a use of tax-payer money!

 

Worried About My Safety

There I sat on the bus to Naga, my mind racing. This felt very extreme - clearly I wasn't dealing with the most rational people here. Who knows what else they might be capable of doing? People had warned me about Sorsogon previously, but I always shrugged it off.

 

Usually I feel the sense of danger is exaggerated in the Philippines...but for the first time in almost 2 years documenting and exploring, I actually felt unsafe. I didn't want my family to worry about me. This is when I realized I couldn't write about this until leaving the country.

 

(Tourists are safe almost everywhere, but the same cannot be said for people in media who speak up about the truth. For example, for journalists, the Philippines is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. As I started writing this, an outspoken radio host was shot and killed in his home in Sorsogon. Can you imagine what it's like to be so tall...and so white out in public in a situation like this? I started feeling uncomfortable everywhere in Bicol...and eventually, everywhere in the whole country. What's worse is that in a free and democratic country, I didn't even feel free to speak up about it.)

 

Due to the unbelievable nature of this story, I decided to document every part of it with  screenshots. I had proof, and that could be why these details were later dropped from the "official" story. Perhaps painting me as some kind of outlaw was how they initially got support from the other board members, and justified making an extreme decision like declaring a tourist Persona Non Grata Who knows.

 

The Media Circus - & Family Ties

Once the news of the declaration hit, suddenly the whole country seemed to be talking about it. There was one part of my original post that the media kept focusing on...it was the part where I wrote:

 

"Is the D.O.T. just hiring members of their families who need jobs? I hope not...these people need to ACTUALLY be qualified!"

  

Well, almost to prove my point, the gentleman who filed the declaration was none other than the D.O.T. regional director's own son. Essentially, this guy (a Sorsogon tourism board member), hijacked my post about almost dying in another region, along with other tourism concerns across the whole country...and instead, made it all about his local tourism office, him, and his mother.

 

Thanks to his theatrics, this tiny, insignificant interaction in a tourism office seemed to be all the tabloid-hungry country was focused on. I shook my head, and finally began to understand the hashtag #PrayForThePhilippines. I suspect that stunts like this are used by politicians to get themselves into the spotlight.

 

Is Hiring Family Members OK?

In truth, I don't have much of a problem with people hiring qualified members of their own families. I believe some businesses in the Philippines have limits on how many family members can be hired though, and that's probably a good thing.

 

Municipal workers in Barcelona, Sorsogon © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis
Municipal workers in Barcelona, Sorsogon pause for a photo - This was an exeptionally well-run office!

 

Don't get me wrong - I love the uber-social and family-oriented culture in the Philippines. However, in the world of business, I worry it can cause problems. 

 

In my opinion, running your department like a family is not a recipe for efficiency and progress...instead, it might be a recipe for all your staff gossiping around the water cooler.

 

Family Dynasties?

It seems quite clear that the inefficiency stemming from these "family dynasties" could really be holding the Philippines back from its potential.

 

 

Let me give you an example. When I ask somebody in the Philippines for a bakery recommendation, they will not send me to the best bakery. They will send me to the one owned by their friends or family. The owner might be a great friend...but a terrible baker. This happens over and over, and then I go home from my vacation thinking that Filipinos have no taste, and that the country is full of mediocre service providers. I tell my friends.

 

In reality, there are plenty of great bakeries in the Philippines, but since everybody has a baker in their social circle, people want to do favors, and I'm often pointed to bakeries that are just mediocre.

 

It seems that in the Philippines, you don't have to be GOOD - you just have to be CONNECTED.

 

When it comes to political families, again, don't get me wrong - I have met some who truly do seem to have the best intentions for their country. However, others are definitely more self-interested.

 

Media Spin

Anyway, at first, the media reported how "angry" I was in the tourist office, because the tourism officer was not there to assist me. Again, this makes for good headlines, but it was simply not true. As for being "demanding", nope. Never demanded a thing. Both in the office and in my post, I simply explained who I am, what I do, and how it works.

 

At the end of the day, the tourism board member (who wasn't even there) probably tried to sensationalize the story to justify making a very emotional and irrational decision. I mean, think about it. He will be forever known as the tourism employee who officially banned a tourist who came to promote his region...for free. Haha. You just can't make this stuff up.

 

Also, my post very clearly stated that I knew it was a last minute trip, and that I did not expect much at all. What I *hoped* for was a simple text. For example: If I were the tourism officer, I would probably text something like "Hi, welcome to Donsol! I wish I could personally provide you with more information about our region, but I am very busy at the moment. Please enjoy your visit, and do let my staff know if you have any questions."

 

When I left my contact info, I mentioned that I had previously worked with the Governor of Albay, and did so for two reasons: One, it lends credibility to who I say I am, and what I can provide. Two, anybody who understands Filipino culture knows that you can't get very far with people if you don't have some kind of personal connection to them. The Governor is known throughout the region, and was literally the only personal connection we had. I just didn't want to miss the opportunity to really promote the region, and tourism officers in other areas have been quite helpful in this regard.

 

Angry Netizens React to Persona Non Grata

Well, Filipinos are well aware of the abuse of power within their government, and people were furious at this board member. The support for me started pouring in...I tried not to "like" or reply to the hundreds and hundreds of comments I received. Of course I appreciated them, but I was still in Bicol, and didn't want to make this official in Sorsogon even more irrational.

 

All told, thousands of comments came in from around the Internet. There were also hundreds of emails coming in from Filipinos all over the world, and quite a few from Sorsogon itself. Nearly all were apologizing on behalf of their government. 

 

They were embarrassed.

 

 

The "It's More Fun In Sorsogon" FB page slammed the board's decision, and even Sorsogon's local volcano seemed to signal its disapproval - shooting a thick plume of ash hundreds of meters into the sky around this time!

 

Here are some of the 700+ comments from the FB post on "When in Manila":

 

  • Dyoy said: "This I cannot take quietly as a true-blooded, registered voter, taxpayer and a proud Sorsoganon." (She even wrote her own blog about it!)

 

  • Christopher said: "Whatever that guy said whether positive or negative, he should be able to express himself. It's called FREEDOM OF SPEECH, which is something lacking in the Philippines. The Philippines has now become comparable to autocratic countries like Singapore or Thailand that limits FREE SPEECH. What's happening now is a prelude to our freedoms being taken away and being able to express our opinions."

 

  • "New Katipunan" said: "First, I wanted to see who this American travel blogger is, since some foreigners really do say insulting things about Filipinos just to get a rise out of us, probably knowing about the butthurt tendencies here.

    But I found out the blogger's Nathan Allen, and as far as I can tell he has nothing but respect for this country. Ironically enough, Allen is precisely the person who wrote that famous post defending Philippine cuisine after that Polish blogger criticized it (and I think he was also the one who wrote of the possibility that some bloggers may be deliberately insulting the Philippines just to draw attention to their blogs.) But this provincial board probably didn't know that. This is really ridiculous. Those people need to rescind this declaration and issue an apology to Allen.


    On the other hand, we have to keep in mind that this was done by the provincial board of some province, certainly not the national government."

 

  • On Rappler, Frankie Concepcion wrote an article saying: "In the end, Allen is right: our government is the face of our country, and so it's expected to do its job well....It was Sorsogon’s local government that took the issue to the next level, taking severe action over a non-issue...what they should have done was to invite Allen back to Sorsogon and give him a better experience."

 

Honestly, it was a minor issue, and I didn't even expect that much.

 

I Dreamed Of This - FB Comment
Screenshot taken from "When In Manila" FB post
On May 9th, Katrina Santiago wrote the following for 'The Manila Times': "...someone like Nathan Allen, travel blogger, is worth listening to. He was not ranting after all, and actually chose his words when he talked about the tourism officer – or lack of one – over in Donsol, Sorsogon...

...The bit about Donsol was actually only part of a longer status that Allen addressed to the Department of Tourism (DOT). His concerns were all valid
...Sorsogon’s local government meanwhile is revealing its utter lack of class as it has since dealt with Allen’s criticism by declaring him persona non grata. This, after he had apologized upon realizing that the DOT in Bicol is in fact not in charge of the Tourism Office in Donsol. I am as confused as Allen that this is so.

 

...It is foolish to imagine that the 3,000 likes will translate to less tourists in Donsol, especially since Allen himself talked about how great his experience there was, despite the case of the missing tourism officer."

 

Good Point, Did They Even Read What I Wrote?

Katrina is right...indeed, it did seem like this gentleman neglected to read what I actually wrote before reacting and speaking out against me. She writes:

 

"The thing with words is that, well, we should read them." 

 

God, I hope sensible people like her will run for office in the Philippines someday.

 

Thankful For All The Support

Having my face plastered all over the media was a bit stressful, but having the nation's support surely helped. I appreciate it. However, there were a few people who almost seemed to agree with the reckless decision of this Tourism Board: Some Filipino travel bloggers. I wondered, how could they feel so different than the rest of the country? Ah, then I realized: They are connected to the tourism industry.

 

 

Getting paid trips is every travel blogger's dream. Perhaps they will stand up and try to defend their tourism "cronies", regardless of how ridiculous they are acting. Yes, in the Philippines, everybody wants to be one of the very few benefiting at the top. "Bootlicking" and "social climbing" are very common. The irony is that this board member went to the media and called the promotional work bloggers do "a scam".

 

Related: Nathan Allen Tells Truth, Gets Banned, Attacked By Pinoy Travel Bloggers

 

Personally, I don't care what the Tourism Boards provide me...if I find out they are not serving the public well, I will not look the other way and continue to promote them. I don't think Sorsogon tourism really did anything wrong...until making the decision to use tax-payer money to declare a tourist "persona non grata". This "public servant" clearly did not have the best interests of the people in mind when making this hasty decision.

 

Filipinos, You Deserve Better

Aside from keeping me alive while in the hands of your tourism officials, no, Philippines, I don't think your country owes me anything. However, I do think that it owes you something. As tax payers, you deserve more than you often get. What you don't deserve is for your country to be the butt of jokes because of the silly stunts some of your politicians pull.

 

With children in Antique Province - Philippines © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis

Praise For the Department of Tourism AND Donsol

This gentleman conveniently overlooked all the praise I gave the D.O.T. and his region. I actually called the whalesharks "awesome", and I specifically mentioned the employees that provided exceptional service. I even went on international TV the day my FB post went live - highlighting whalesharks in Donsol as the environmentally friendly option in the Philippines. He claimed I damaged Donsol tourism, but netizens were quick to point out that he did a great job of that on his own.

 

So Long, Freedom of Speech

Imagine writing a restaurant review on Tripadvisor - mentioning both the incredible dishes you tried, and also the ones that disappointed you. Now imagine that the restaurant owner flipped out and banned you...for life. Haha. No, that would never happen, because it's ridiculous. I think it might even be illegal. Well, it happened. To me.

 

The Philippines will never move forward if officials lash out like animals every time somebody gives genuine, honest feedback. It's not an attack, it's an opportunity to improve.

 

Perhaps the frustration from almost dying may have blinded some sensitive people to the real point of my post. It's so sad to realize how much tourism could benefit the country...and know that you could be of some help...but that the people you need to work with can't be bothered to reach out and just take the hand you're offering.

 

Sayang, as my Filipino friends say.

 

Expectations in the Philippines

 

A few local bloggers thought my expectations were too high. I'm sorry, but expecting tourism officials to keep tourists alive and safe during their visit to the Philippines is never too much to ask.

 

Send load to friends and family in the Philippines!

topup load Philippines

 

Furthermore, I worry that if I was Filipino, I might not have said anything. Many people in the Philippines don't seem to expect much, perhaps because their government hasn't given them much. It seems like they have grown complacent, but to be fair, if I lived there for 30 or 40 years with little or no change on the horizon, I might be complacent, too.

 

This is a great setup for the government - people who expect even baseline, substandard services are called out for wanting "red carpet" treatment. Keeping the peoples' expectations very, very low keeps the government collecting their taxes - without having to give much in return. Somebody once told me:

 

"The Philippines isn't a poor country...it's a rich country full of poor people."

 

Even worse, if I was Filipino and tried to point out issues like these, forget persona non grata - I would likely be ignored. A foreign voice seems to have much more weight in the Philippines, and that is a sad fact. I look forward to the day when this is not the case.

 

Has Change Come to the Philippines?

There is a new administration on the horizon now, and whether you support it or not, let's hope it spells the end of these kinds of abuses. Rampant nepotism and unchecked egos have done great harm to the Philippines. I would love to see a merit-based system embraced by the country, and it seems the new President does as well. Allegedly, he is also tired of irresponsible media reporting, and wants to expand the freedom of press. Seems like a good start.

 

I'm so grateful for all the opportunities I've had to learn, grow, and explore in the Philippines...as well as the opportunity to share these incredible experiences with all of you. However, I don't think I'll come back until the situation gets cleaned up a bit.  Oh, one more thing...here's my Facebook page. Ask yourself. Does that look damaging to Philippine tourism to you?

 

Thanks so much for reading.

 

Mabuhay ang Pilipinas!

 

- Nathan Allen

www.idreamedofthis.com

 

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Nathan Allen has spent 6 years taking photos and documenting life in Asia.  A long-term traveler, he lives by the motto "spend less, see more".  Follow him HERE.

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