The new Tourism Secretary, Berna Romulo-Puyat, says the Philippines, with all its assets, is the easiest to market—and she is just happy to be given the opportunity to lead the efforts

Once when she was still an Undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture (DA), Bernadette “Berna” Romulo-Puyat was asked if she would want to be the department’s secretary someday. The question did not even faze her. The answer was “no.” However, as certain as she was of what she did not want in terms of government positions, she also knew what appealed to her.

“But do you know what I would like to be one day?” the petite and pretty, passionate and perspicacious public servant told the people she was talking to. “I want to become a DOT [Department of Tourism] Secretary. I believe that anyone who is in that position is lucky because he or she gets to promote a country that is so easy to sell.” She initially named two reasons: “Look at the people, we’re the most hospitable. And we can all speak English so there is no language barrier.”

To support her position, she continued, “A Filipino does not even say ‘Mabuhay’ in greeting. He says ‘Kain na [Have something to eat]’. Hospitality is in our nature and just the aspect of people makes selling the country winnable.

“After the people you have our beautiful beaches and other destination spots. And then our food! We have graduated from just balut-and-adobo cuisine. We’ve gone beyond the fear factor angle of our food. With our cuisine’s exposure in Madrid Fusión Manila [the only Asian edition of an international gastronomic congress] and Filipino chefs doing well abroad, the world is now aware of our delicious fare.

“And last, our fashion. More and more women have taken to wearing local, not just during Linggo ng Wika [National Language Week]. I started as early as when I was in the DA, when I discovered the barong [a traditional Philippine attire]-inspired shirts and dresses of Anne Marie Saguil,” said Romulo-Puyat who, during this interview, was wearing an ethnic-inspired bomber jacket by Len Cabili of Filip + Inna over black pants.

She was now rattling off, with an uncontrolled excitement in her voice that strongly suggests the passion within. But this is she. Someone who walks her talk. While at the DA, she regularly visited the farms from north to south, gathering as many experiences as she can, from planting rice up in Banawe to joining in the ritual tug-of-war of a tribe. By wearing Filipino-inspired clothes every day and relentlessly promoting local and heritage foods in every forum as possible, Romulo-Puyat has turned herself into a believable promoter of Philippine food and fashion—because she, herself, is a satisfied patron.

Today, the package she is promoting has expanded to include everything and anything related to tourism. Her dream of becoming the Tourism Secretary came to be—although transpiring in an awkward situation, at least from her end.

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Above Against a gold backdrop, Secretary Romulo-Puyat is the picture of elegance in Dennis Lustico’s sheer evening gown and jewellery by Helena Alegre

Elements of Surprise

In early May, Romulo-Puyat was called to Malacañan to explain something about agriculture. After her presentation, President Rodrigo Duterte asked, from out of the blue, if she could be his Tourism Secretary. The top position in the Department of Tourism had just become vacant after the President accepted the resignation of Secretary Wanda Teo, following public uproar over issues of nepotism and anomalous transactions. Duterte stressed upon the surprised undersecretary that he has long known her parents (Development Bank of the Philippines Chairman Alberto Romulo and the former Lovely Tecson); he is her third president in the DA, hinting perhaps that she has already served the department well as an undersecretary and it was time to move on; and that she has kept her name clean.

“I was in shock!” Romulo-Puyat recalled. “I did not think it was real!”

Later in the day, she posted the photo of an espasol (sweet rice cake) on Facebook and one of those who instantly commented was Secretary Bong Go, special assistant to the president, with the simple, and, short but enigmatic, “Congratulations, Madam!” For someone so close to President Duterte to post in this public forum something related to what she had just been offered must be a statement about the seriousness of the appointment.

Romulo-Puyat’s first instinct was to consult with her daughter, Maia (Vito, her other child with the late lawyer Dave Puyat, is now back in Manila after studies in the Newcastle University, UK, where he graduated with a psychology with honours course). “I told my daughter that I may have just been offered the post of Tourism Secretary, that it may be a joke but if it was for real, what should I do?” she said. “Maia answered, ‘Mum, you have always been passionate about our country.’ I took this to mean she approved and believed in my capacity to do a good job.” 

Without being served an official appointment yet, Romulo-Puyat did not want to make presumptions. She still went about her normal routine, attending DA meetings and reporting for work. This amid the outpouring of congratulatory remarks and speculations in the media, so much so that even her mum asked her if what she’s heard from the news was true. “It was so surreal!” Romulo-Puyat recalled.

On the 15th of May, the dust settled: the Agriculture Undersecretary became the Tourism Secretary. Her first day at work was 15 May and her appointment was confirmed on 30 May, one of the swiftest actions from the bicameral Commission on Appointments—six minutes.

If the appointment was a surprise, the task was not anything new to her. After all, she has been promoting food—slow food, particularly—and farming. Romulo-Puyat’s only concern then was the closure of Boracay. The prime tourist destination of the country was ordered closed by President Duterte on 26 April for the island’s six-month environmental rehabilitation programme. The Tourism Secretary remembered thinking then, “Oh my gosh, Boracay is closed. Tourism numbers will definitely go down and people might say this was because of me.”

To her surprise, and delight as well, tourist arrivals in June increased by 11.35 per cent as compared to the same month the year before; and July figures increased by 5.8 per cent. “I believe that when Boracay closed, our tourists, be they local or foreign, discovered other destinations like Siargao, Bohol, Bicol, Palawan, Cebu, that the Philippines is not just Boracay.”

Romulo-Puyat credits the private sector, specifically the tour operators, for this good performance. “A Tourism Secretary can never be successful without the private sector. In our case, we make sure we maintain a close relationship with the Tourism Congress of the Philippines. I regularly meet with them and am always accessible whenever they need me. They are the movers of tourism, really,” she said, adding that she met with this sector as early as on her second day in office.

She also makes sure communications lines are open with stakeholders. In DA, these were mostly the farmers; in DOT, almost everyone. As was the first action she took regarding the Boracay problem. “I first met with the island’s stakeholders because I must first listen to all their problems,” she shared.

Boracay’s scheduled opening was 26 October. The new Tourism Secretary, upon whose lap landed the much-publicised island rehabilitation, cautioned against high expectations but promised enough significant changes towards sustainable tourism. “Six months is not enough to rehabilitate an island!” she first said, before proceeding to mention what Task Force Boracay, with a two-year mandate to finish its mission, had done. The list included the enforcement of the 25-metre easement as well as the no-drinking and no-smoking laws on Boracay’s world-famous beach. Only e-tricycles will be allowed but fireworks will be banned as, she said, this is against sustainable tourism.

“You see, the laws are there; it’s just a matter of enforcing them,” stressed Romulo-Puyat.

Skip the two-hour long land transfer from Kalibo to Boracay with Mabuhay Maritime Express

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Above Secretary Romulo-Puyat is in a green gown by Patty Ang and jewellery by Helena Alegre

Because of the Boracay example, the DOT was tasked by President Duterte to do the same for other tourist destinations. “He set Boracay as an example, a model so everybody will follow environmental laws, local ordinances, executive orders that focus on sustainability. He added that we should not focus on numbers alone, we must take care that the environment does not suffer,” she reported her presidential mandate which she is just so happy to follow, believing that sustainability is the direction tourism should go.

Apart from the revelation to many tourists that the Philippines offers more destinations than Boracay, Romulo-Puyat also cited several tour packages that can be developed, like those involving diving, adventure, heritage, crafts, and food.

“But everything can, and must be sustainable,” she reiterated. She is most pleased about how the fashion industry is practicing sustainability. “The young designers are not just into local materials, they also recycle fabrics,” she said, adding that this has also attracted a young clientele.

Redesigning the Landscape

The tourism statistics are good. The 2022 goal for the National Tourism Development Plan was 86 million domestic tourists. “It hit 96.7 million in 2017,” Romulo-Puyat reported. The 2022 goal of tourism contribution to economic growth is 10 per cent; last year it already hit 12.2 per cent.

Because of this picture, the new Tourism Secretary saw a great potential in domestic tourism. She cited the island of Siquijor as the popular destination now which, like many of the places in the Philippines, was discovered by foreigners. “Sometimes, it’s the foreigners who discover us,” she said.

For heritage tourism, she mentioned Vigan. “Even the design of the McDonald’s there is not modern,” she said. She also gushed over Dapitan, where the country’s National Hero, Dr Jose Rizal was incarcerated. “I learnt more about Rizal during my visit to Dapitan,” she said.

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Above On the grand staircase, in a modern laser-cut terno by Cary Santiago and jewellery by Helena Alegre

According to her, the private sector is ready and raring to go with its promotions of these different destinations as well as varied theme tours. She believes it should be given ample support by government, especially with infrastructure.

“Connectivity is important in the Philippines, given that we are an archipelago. 98 per cent of our tourists enter the country by air, quite different from our neighbouring countries in the Asean region which are mostly landlocked and may be simply accessed through land travel,” she said, obviously happy over the fast construction of airports, which she calls “our doorways.” She cited the new Mactan Cebu airport and the soon-to-open Panglao airport as well as the secondary airports that the Department of Transportation and Communications [DOTC] is constructing.

To attract more tourists, she also saw the need to provide an easier system for tourists at immigration. “We asked the Department of Justice [DOJ] to find some way to shorten the usual long lines that happen when tourists embark and go through immigration. And they did! A month ago, the DOJ developed a system for Philippine passport holders to just swipe their passports and not queue anymore. That is just one solution,” Romulo-Puyat said.

Romulo-Puyat’s long-standing and unsullied career in government sees a parallel in two of her kin who went before her. 

First is the late great Carlos P Romulo, her great granduncle. The diminutive hero wore many hats—from war correspondent to general, from diplomat to Cabinet Secretary—the highlights of which could be his stint as president of the Fourth Session of the United Nations General Assembly (1949-1950), the first Asian to hold the position; winning the Pulitzer Prize in Correspondence in 1942, the first non-American to do so; and being named the country’s National Artist for Literature.

Second is Romulo-Puyat’s father, Alberto or Bert, who served in government under several administrations as Executive Secretary, Finance Secretary, Budget Secretary, Foreign Affairs Secretary. He was also elected senator and became a member of the national legislature from 1987-1998.

Like these two gentlemen, the Tourism Secretary, an economics graduate from the University of the Philippines, has been serving in government in many ways since 2001, with her first appointment as a consultant for the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council. This was followed by a consultancy with the Presidential Management Staff in 2005, deputy Cabinet secretary with the Office of the President in 2006, Undersecretary of Agriculture in 2007, and Secretary of Tourism in 2018.

Life in the corridors of power is tough but this woman, in all her femininity, is surviving. “Just work and stay away from politics,” she gave the secret of her survival. She follows this up with a bit of a sage advice from her father: “Lawyer up. Never sign anything until your lawyers have looked through it thoroughly.” 

One last thing. “You just have to love what you do,” she concluded.

According to Romulo-Puyat, her appointment as Tourism Secretary is co-terminus with the Duterte administration. But if her path is, indeed, like the two Romulos before her, she’s still got a long way to go.


Photographer: MJ Suayan | Art Direction: Anton San Diego | Styling: Monique Madsen | Make Up: Jonathan Velasco | Hairstylist: Jermelson Celestino | Location: Ayuntamiento de Manila