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.

“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

According to her, the policy direction of her department generally involves a review of its mandate and the National Tourism Development Plan (NTDP) to keep the focus on their role as mandated by Republic Act 9593 or the Tourism Act of 2009. This is being complemented by efforts to “continue working with partner government agencies, such as the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) and the Department of Transportation (DOTr) in improving policies on access, connectivity, and security, as well as on enhancing programs on tourism infrastructure.

“We will consistently be holding consultations with our key stakeholders and make such consultations a venue for the exchange of ideas, suggestions, and best practices. I am proud to note that, last June, the DoT hosted the meeting between Cabinet Secretaries and officials representing different government agencies (e.g. Department of Public Works and Highways, Bureau of Customs, etc.) wherein we discussed the most pressing issues affecting the tourism industry, as well as possible areas of collaboration in order to address these issues.” Recently, the Secretary has shared the inter-agency cooperation focused on the recent closure and planned reopening of Boracay island to see to it that efforts are sustained to protect its natural resources.

Romulo-Puyat is also utilizing her experience in the Agriculture department to implement the DoT’s plans. Under the National Tourism Development Plan, the DoT has been promoting various tourism products such as, but not limited to, nature-based tourism (nature recreation and adventure, cultural tourism, sun and beach tourism, health, wellness, and retirement tourism, cruise and nautical tourism, leisure and entertainment tourism, diving and marine sports tourism, education tourism, and MICE [meetings, incentives, conferences, exhibition]).

“Similar to what I practiced in the DA, I have already started my regional trips to learn more about how our regional offices operate, and to learn more about the tourism products being offered in our various regions and provinces,” she explains. “While I was an Agriculture Undersecretary, I was in charge of the department’s market-linkage initiatives and in promoting various agriculture and fishery products from our regions. While my plans and activities for those concerns have been abruptly stopped due to my appointment to the DoT, I feel that I can still continue what I have started since I will not only be focusing on local, food but will be promoting the whole country as well.”

Romulo-Puyat implemented this approach last June at the 9th edition of the Philippine Harvest Trade Fair that was held in cooperation with retail distributor Store Specialists, Inc. The event, conceptualized during her time in the DA, shifted its goal from promoting food to showcasing the best culinary destinations in the country. Among the provinces promoted were Cebu, Albay, La Union, Guimaras, Negros Occidental, Quezon, Davao, and Dumaguete.

“This is our way of promoting the Philippines through food and culinary tourism,” she explains. “Through Philippine Harvest, you can go around and taste the food from all over the country in just one place. This also gives our farmers, fisherfolk, and agriculture practitioners the opportunity to have an interactive dialogue with the consumers during the exhibition…Farms have become tourist spots as more and more people are becoming interested in healthy living, our local cuisine, and the whole value chain.

“I hope that our tourists, as well as partners in the industry, will continue supporting and developing the said tourist products in order to make tourism a more vibrant industry in the country. It is worthy to note that under my leadership, the overarching theme for all our programs and initiatives will be creating a culture of sustainable tourism, so as to balance development with environmental protection. I believe that a sector cannot significantly contribute to the economy if it is not sustainable, thus I encourage my colleagues in the industry, as well as our tourists, to advocate this campaign in order to contribute to countryside development and create a dependable source of income for the Filipinos through tourism.”

MULTIPLE HATS
Aside from business as usual, Romulo-Puyat is participating in the ongoing investigation of the corruption charges at her department, and is implementing internal changes to facilitate it. One of her initial decisions was to request Undersecretaries and Assistant Secretaries to submit courtesy resignations to give her a free hand in choosing who can work within the agency. The new officials holding these posts under her office “were chosen based on their credentials and track record,” she says, and adds that the “team will be able to deliver on our targets given their expertise and experience gained from their respective fields.”

The Tourism Chief also requested the Commission on Audit (COA) to look into already approved projects—all of which she has temporarily suspended. “After the completion of COA’s review, our focus now would be the concerned offices’ and agencies’ compliance to COA recommendations in order to prevent them from happening again,” she maintains.

Other “internal house-cleaning” reforms, she shares, include coordinating with COA and the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) for advice on systems and controls. “COA is helping us strengthen our audit system to ensure that no government money is wasted,” she declares. “We hope to transform the DoT into a champion of good governance and integrity.” The Cabinet Secretary’s decision is aligned with the President’s marching order during her appointment: “No corruption.”

“With the support of the President…and through close coordination with COA and the OSG, we have been getting sound advice and are in the process of strengthening our internal system.”

None of Romulo-Puyat’s political decisions will lead to her running for elective office, by the way. “I have no plans,” she asserts. “I think other people are more suited and qualified for an elected position. I think I can help the country more at my current position.”

She is really all business, and has her eyes set on being able to do her job. “I focus on my tasks and make sure that they are satisfactorily delivered. I see to it that all my programs, projects, and activities are in line with the organization’s mandate, and that they follow existing rules and regulations—most especially those pertaining to accounting and auditing. I also ensure that all my decisions are guided by industry and legal experts in order to ensure that our initiatives are legally sound and effective.

“As a leader, I value efficiency, honesty, professionalism, resourcefulness, and cooperation. I also give value to consultations—specifically with our stakeholders—so that the Department remains relevant to the demands of the industry.” — JOYCE REYES-AGUILA 

COA is helping us strengthen our audit system to ensure that no government money is wasted…We hope to transform the DoT into a champion of good governance and integrity.

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