Berna Romulo-Puyat has only managed a few hours' sleep since Tuesday. That day, late into the night, the undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture was declared the new Department of Tourism secretary after Wanda Teo resigned.
She made farming "sexy," described a Town & Country article of the woman who launched the vital but sleepy department into relevance. Suddenly, we cared that we were eating local. Suddenly, we knew that there were grapes in La Union and rice wine in Sagada and shallots in Batanes and adlai in Bukidnon and Rizal. She was nearly always in some farflung province looking into their produce and working with farmers. Suddenly, farming became interesting.
Romulo-Puyat busied herself to making Filipinos care about the Philippines, so when the position of Tourism chief opened up, even the president understood that it made perfect sense—she could make the whole world care, too. (She already kind of did thanks to her staunch advocacy of Madrid Fusion Manila.)
We caught up with the busy new DOT secretary to talk about her immediate plans.
Q: How did you find out you were appointed as the new Tourism Secretary?
I was in Malacañang for a meeting on agriculture when the President told me that Secretary Teo had resigned. He told me that the post suited me given my experience in government and clean record. Because he said it so casually, i thought he was joking! When we moved to another room where former Senator Serge Osmeña and Secretary Bong Go were staying, he introduced me as the new DOT Secretary.
Q: What are the most important points to highlight in the PH as far as tourism goes? Do you have any immediate plans/ideas to implement?
We will continue with our current programs with the Department of Tourism. As DA undersecretary, we promoted food products/ingredients coming from the different parts of the country (e.g. heirloom rice from the Cordilleras, cacao, durian, marang, pomelo from Davao and Cotabato, coffee from Negros, etag from Sagada, etc.).
With the increasing popularity of Philippine cuisine worldwide, we have noted that culinary tourism is one of the best ways to attract tourists. Another program that we would like to continue is farm tourism. It Is an effective way of attracting tourists to our country. We hope to make farm tourism experiential (e.g. tourists can plant/harvest their own food, visit farms, talk with farmers/fishermen, immerse themselves with the locals) so that tourists would have a holistic experience of our country, especially the countryside.
Q: The department has been plagued with controversy in the past couple of years—including plagiarized campaigns, Boracay, and Buhay Carinderia. Moving forward, how will you handle these kinds of situations?
Upon assumption to my post, I will be conducting a thorough review of our policies, programs, and strategies to see how we can avoid such incidents.
Q: What changes do we need, moving forward?
Following the marching orders of the President, I will make sure that there will be no corruption in the DOT, and that everything is transparent in the department. Everything will go through the proper process.
Q: This may be a loaded question given your past involvement, but Madrid Fusion Manila: what will happen, since you’re now technically in charge of it as DA Undersecretary, you were very vocal about its importance.
The previous MFMs (2015-2017) have proven that the event has not only promoted our food destinations, but also have helped in educating the public about the abundance and diversity of our produce in the country, as well as the contribution of our farmers and fisherfolk in feeding the nation. It has helped both our tourism and food industries by encouraging consumers to go local. Because of these outcomes, we are aiming to make MFM 2018 happen; and with my new capacity as Secretary, I will see to it that all preparatory activities are completed without delay so that we can hold the event this year.
Q. What are you feeling right now, half a day after your appointment?
I am currently overwhelmed, but at the same time grateful for the trust that the President has given me to head the Department of Tourism. I will do my best to implement programs that will boost the tourism industry in the country.