Florence, Italy—After almost three years without traveling abroad due to the coronavirus pandemic, my wife and I joined several friends from the art circle on a trip to three European countries. As of this writing, we’ve covered Rome and Florence, which I last visited during the backpacking days of my youth. From Florence we took day trips to the Tuscan towns of Pisa, San Gimignano and Siena, and they certainly did not disappoint with their impressive medieval brick buildings, huge churches, soaring bell towers, piazzas, trattorias, their ice cream parlors and quaint shops.
Hardly anyone wears a mask in Italy anymore, except for some foreign tourists. We struggled to buy masks because stores and pharmacies no longer offer them. The tourist spots, especially the Vatican grounds, are packed with so many vacationers, even though it’s already off season. Italy has been one of the most affected by the pandemic, but it seems to have evolved.
We did not bring our four year old on this trip due to health issues, and that was the fly in the ointment of this otherwise perfect trip. We constantly miss his company and the video calls only add to the desire. For a few weeks, we experienced what Foreign Workers Overseas (OFW) endure of being away from their children for so many years, while toiling in foreign lands. Imagining how OFWs work overseas, while their children grow up without them, is heartbreaking.
One of the many cognitive benefits of travel is that you see and experience many aspects of a different way of life that serve as teachable moments. From food, drink, designs, architecture, gardens and so many cultural facets, we notice so many expressions of creativity that make us think about how to also use ingenious means to transform things at home. From transportation efficiency, etiquettes, community ties, and multiple manifestations of government service that work for the common good, we wonder why the same forms of social agreement and public service have not taken root in our country.
Italy is in the top five of the most visited countries in the world, with 64.5 million foreign tourists in 2019. Travel and tourism contributed 194.8 billion euros to the Italian economy this year- there, before the pandemic wreaked havoc on the global economy. There is no doubt that tourism is a major driver that has caused a chain reaction of growth in multiple sectors of the Italian economy. Competition between restaurants, hotels, clothing brands and all other objects of commerce and leisure services sought by tourists stimulates the development of real estate, manufacturing, employment, service facilities and a plethora of other occupations.
While some companies have a linear impact on other industries – they create growth in companies that are either in their upstream or downstream chains – in contrast, the impact of growth in the tourism industry is multi-pronged as it creates a chain reaction of consumer demand from many ancillary industries vertically, horizontally and diagonally connected to tourism. Tourism can allow our country to achieve a growth spurt, bypassing our handicaps in other sectors on which we base our hopes.
Traveling to other countries makes us realize that like all tourists, we are looking for something different, something indigenous and something considered “exotic” by people from other cultures. A perfect example of a country that has benefited immensely from its exotic culture is Thailand. In 2019, Thailand was in the top 10 countries most visited by international tourists, with nearly 40 million foreign visitors, even ahead of the United Kingdom and Germany. In contrast, only 8.3 million foreign tourists visited the Philippines in 2019.
The success of other countries in making tourism a major force that drives the growth of their economies shows us that there are enormous benefits to preserving, maintaining and showcasing our unique cultural heritage, instead of promoting our affinity for anything Western. Combined with the beauty of our beaches and natural landscapes, the unique characteristics of our way of life can make tourism an engine of growth for our dormant economy.
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