Even from the outside, the past few months must have appeared as an overwhelming stretch for Tourism Secretary Bernadette “Berna” Romulo-Puyat.

Her role in public service took a sudden turn with her appointment to President Rodrigo Duterte’s Cabinet early this year. The circumstances were unusual. The Department of Tourism (DoT) was embroiled in corruption allegations, owing to deals entered into by its outgoing administration. Romulo-Puyat, then an Agriculture Undersecretary, was tasked to lead an agency in dire need of both fixing and direction.

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“While former DoT Secretaries had a honeymoon period, I had none,” the Tourism Chief admits. “The issues involving the (department) were indeed intimidating for an incoming Secretary.” Romulo-Puyat’s appointment was simultaneously framed by headlines on the controversial P60-million tourism advertisement allocation signed off by her predecessor’s office. Romulo-Puyat’s untarnished reputation was the saving grace the administration needed for a troubled department.

CLEAN SLATE
Citizens familiar with Romulo-Puyat prior to her current post instantly understood why she is a perfect fit for the embattled agency. As an Agriculture Undersecretary, she focused on agribusiness and the promotion of the country’s food produce and culinary talent worldwide. Her previous role entailed going around the Philippines to help implement the 10-point agenda of Department of Agriculture (DA) Secretary, Manny Piñol, and the Duterte administration.

“Being in the DA for close to 12 years, I was able to travel around the country and see how beautiful our country is,” she says. “Each province has its own unique tourist spots, food, and leisure activities that tourists can enjoy. (Knowing all these) convinced me to accept the President’s offer to become Tourism Secretary.” On social media, where her Instagram account @bernsrp is followed by more than 15,000 users, the Secretary’s feed features a mix of Filipino food offerings, traditions, scenic spots, and inspiring stories. As an Undersecretary, she traveled to learn about the Punnuk end of rice harvest ritual of the indigenous people of Ifugao, promoted Philippine produce in food fairs, and recognized the country’s food entrepreneurs. Her duties included finding ways to ease farmers’ burdens of high cost of inputs and lack of access to credit, increasing inter-agency coordination to protect our natural resources, and a relentless campaign on the enforcement of agricultural and fisheries law.

“When the President talked to me about my appointment,” she recalls, “he mentioned that I have credentials and a government service track record, which qualify me for the post. He also noted that I have not been involved in any corruption issue ever since I started serving the government.”

Romulo-Puyat belongs to a family of noted public servants. Her father is former Senator Alberto Romulo, who has also held several cabinet posts in previous administrations—including Executive Secretary and Foreign Affairs Secretary. Her brother is former Congressman Roman Romulo, and her grandfather is the late Filipino diplomat, statesman, soldier, journalist, and author Carlos P. Romulo.

IT’S MORE FUN
At the DoT, the Secretary, who has a degree in Economics from the University of the Philippines (UP)-Diliman, says she and her team are learning the ropes. “I have been orienting myself through various meetings with our officials and attached agencies, our partner agencies, as well as our stakeholders in the private sector, on the issues surrounding the tourism industry. This is my way of learning firsthand the things that we should focus on and ways on how to address them.

“In addition to this, I am also meeting with ambassadors or representatives of various agencies on possible areas of cooperation with other countries, and on how we can increase tourist arrivals from various markets,” continues Romula-Puyat, a former Macroeconomics professor at UP. “I have also been attending various speaking engagements and networking events to discuss the DoT’s policy direction and work plan for the coming years.”

Photo by Ed Santiago

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