Monday, August 29, 2005

RP's Chief Salesman

Tourism Secretary Joseph Ace Durano: Ace Salesman
By Tanya Lara
People Asia Magazine

Being- a "tour guide" to visiting heads of state is just one of the many roles Joseph Ace Durano assumes as Tourism secretary, the others being the official spokesperson, cheerleader and salesman of 7,107 islands.

"It's a privilege for me to be showcasing and talking about the great things about this country," Durano says.

That he says this in an interview the week after all hell broke loose in Metro Manila, when every single politician signed up for the circus, leads one - not even a cynic at that - to raise an eyebrow. What's so great about the Philippines? From where ordinary citizens are standing, the situation borders on lunacy, and if we can't see the beauty of living here, why would anybody bother to visit the country?

Durano believes you can have thousands of people rallying in the streets and the country will still be beautiful, the people still warm. "We just have to communicate to the foreign markets that this is just in Metro Manila and most of the tourists go to the beach destinations. The political situation has not affected the beauty or the hospitality of these areas. It's business as usual for us at the department. It would have been a different story if the industry was down but it's doing really well."

Statistics on tourist arrivals as of June 11 show an increase of 15.13 percent compared to the same period last year, and Durano doesn't see it slowing down in the future. "The strategy of the department and travel industry in the country has been paying off. We're more market-driven now and more focused, which has facilitated our allocation of energies and resources, and brought us a stronger linkage with the private sector."
Young Man in a Hurry
In fact, Durano's appointment last year was met with trepidation by tile travel industry, partly because he was a mystery. Not much was known about him except that he was a young lawyer, he was a third-generation politician from Cebu and he didn't fit people's notion" about Cabinet secretaries. He knew that "the red carpet would not be laid out" for him, but there weren't exactly placards either. He laughs and says, "If I had mishandled it, it would have turned out to he that way."

In the first two months, he reached out to the stakeholders in the private sector. He has restructured a department where before "the left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing," he put in place teams that made it possible for the young rank-and-file to contribute ideas, he gave people a sense of ownership of the department's projects, he put money where it should be (markets where we have a fighting chance against equally beautiful, richer and more secure destinations), he forge a common agenda for the industry, he's opened his office to new ideas no matter where they're coming from, and he energized a department that always had lofty projections and an embarrassing bottom line compared with our neighbors'.

Not bad for a 35-year-old government head who was once mistaken for an elevator boy in Congress and at the Department of Tourism. Questions about his age have indeed become the icebreaker in media interviews abroad and he takes all this with a sense of humor, often playing along with people's confusion. When he's met by official welcoming delegations abroad, he's often mistaken for " the son of somebody - not even the Tourism minister's son.

"When I come down the tube where the official party meets us, you can see them scanning our faces, looking for somebody else even when I'd be standing in front of the crew. The guys would point to me and tell our counterparts, `That's the minister'."

Durano is used to this. He was 28 when he started his first term in Congress and he had to deal with barangay captains who were more than twice his age. "I take it as positive reinforcement. I'm keeping myself young and fit that I can still be mistaken for an elevator boy," he says. "The good thing about the tourism industry is that it's really run by young people. You go to airlines, travel agencies and hotels and they're all young."
Going the Distance
As for the vigor that department insiders like to say has influenced the office culture, Durano says modestly, "They think it's my energy, but it's not. It's their energy. In fact, I tell them now that they're the slave drivers. That's one of my principles of management - if you push your people, you have to allow them to push you as well. People feel an ownership over our programs now, otherwise you have to be dragging them all the time. Each team is taking on a life on its own, a life that's not dependent on me anymore."

In a smaller room in the secretary's office is a Precor treadmill that he uses every time there's a half-hour break in his schedule. "I've been running since I was 12; my body looks for it. If I don't run for three days I have restless nights," he says.

He says it took him a long time to decide if he would accept the post and that it was a family decision. He and his wife Carmi and their two lids - AJ, 11, and Cara, 10 - toyed with the idea of moving the family to Manila. It wouldn't have been the first time. The kids spent their first four years in Manila while he studied Law at Ateneo (or as his wife puts it, "the kids went to Law school with him") and returned to Cebu when he ran for Congress in 1998, slipping into the post vacated by his father, Ramonito Durano.

"They were wiling to give up their lives there to be with me. But I realized that even if they were in Manila, I still wouldn't see them because I'm at the office early and 1 leave late. I didn't want them to blame me for leaving their friends and the extended family in Cebu. In a way, it's worked out for the best, since I can focus on work."

Because he doesn't get to go home every weekend to Cebu, Durano makes sure he talks to or texts his kids before they go to sleep. Being away from his wife is a big sacrifice for him as well, but one that she already had an idea might be coming when they got married. "I told my wife that I have to be doing something bigger than myself. I'm a person who, to be a good father and husband, has to be fulfilled and I couldn't be a fulfilled person if I were a full-time father and husband. I always explain it with this analogy: Children with parents who are doctors most likely end up as doctors. My grandfather was a politician, my father is a politician, I grew up seeing them with their constituents talking about where this country is going, about national issues. It was brewing for me all this time."

The only time he was away from the political environment was during his adolescent years when he studied III the US at St. I.aurence Academy in Sta. Clara for high school, and at University of Redlands in Redlands, California, for his BA in Asian Studies. There, Durano experienced for the first time being independent when he lived in a coed dorm (even the bathroom was coal and to a Cebuano who remains "rural in his values and a conservative at heart," that was nothing short of a culture shock).

Durano met his wife Carmen Luzuriaga at the engagement party of his older brother Red to her twin sister Carmel. Six months later, they were engaged; a year from the time they met, they got married.

"She's the most apolitical person in the entire world, which is good for me because she gives me a more down-to-earth understanding of things," he shares.

In the Philippines, his favorite destination - and he's been from north to south and all the places the DOT is marketing abroad - is Carascal, where the ancestral home of his mother's side of the family, the Hotchkisses, is located.

"We have our family reunions there. The house is on a riverbank and the river is just so pristine. The river's width is probably that of a six-lane highway and across it is a forest, and in the morning, you hear the sounds of the forest. It's only there that you can sleep at eight in the evening and you wake up at noon the following day."

Sometimes, you can travel around the world and find that the best place for you is actually the one closest to your heart.