Monday, March 19, 2012

the 7 most gullible

First off, I just want to say: I love Cebu to death. Born here, raised here, lived here all my life. I love the proximity of the beaches, the taste of the food, the relatively low cost of living, the laid back environment, the nearness of family and friends. For me, it's the best city in the world.

And we're currently ranked #2 in the South East Asia and Oceania sector of the New 7 Wonders Cities competition


Isn't that awesome?!

Except that it's not. Because there's nothing awesome about placing in--or even winning--a competition that has less to do with being a "wonder" city and more to do with the willingness of well-meaning, gullible people to spend time and money voting for the places they love.

The New 7 Wonders Cities is not the first competition of its kind to be organized by the New 7 Wonders organization (N7W). Last year, there was the New 7 Wonders of Nature. It made a big splash in Philippine media, especially when the Puerto Princesa Underground River was said to have won a spot in the final 7. (For some reason, the New 7 Wonders of Nature site does not have a list of the final 7 yet, just the 28 finalists. Their FAQs say a "provisional" list of 7 was announced on 11/11/11. No reason is given as to why the results are still not final after more than 4 months.)

Before that, there was The Official New 7 Wonders of the World, which were announced in Lisbon on 07/07/07. The title makes it sound, well, official, and the organizers touted the attendance of a UN representative as some sort of official endorsement from the United Nations.

But here's where it gets interesting. The United Nations Office for Partnerships, in a July 8, 2007 release, did recognize the efforts of N7W to promote the UN's Millennium Development Goals. However, one day after, the UN body governing World Heritage sites, UNESCO, released a statement stressing that there was absolutely no connection between the world heritage sites and the N7W campaign. It emphasized:

"There is no comparison between Mr Weber's mediatised campaign and the scientific and educational work resulting from the inscription of sites on UNESCO's World Heritage List. The list of the '7 New Wonders of the World' will be the result of a private undertaking, reflecting only the opinions of those with access to the internet and not the entire world.  This initiative cannot, in any significant and sustainable manner, contribute to the preservation of  sites elected by this public."

Wait, you might say. What's the big deal? So the N7W campaigns are just popularity contests. They're the American Idol of tourist spots. What's wrong with that, right? No one gets hurt.

Except that there's money involved--lots of it.

First, there's the fee for each place's Official Supporting Committee. The N7W Cities Official Support site says: "As with the New7Wonders of Nature campaign, participating cities in New7Wonders Cities will need to have an Official Supporting Committee recognised by N7W in order to participate." The fee for each Official Supporting Committee for the New 7 Wonders of Nature was $199. With that last contest's success, I can only guess what the fee is for this new competition.

Then there's the voting. In the last contest, we were all encouraged--by our government, our media outlets, our Facebook friends--to vote online or via SMS. We pay for the text messages, of course. To vote online, there was no fee, but we had to agree to N7W's Terms and Conditions, which I'm sure we didn't read, and which included provisions like:
  • "NOWC’s primary goal in collecting personal information is to provide you with the best and most useful content and services." (The New Open World Corporation, or NOWC, is the private company operating N7W.)
  • "NOWC collects personally-identifiable information when you provide it to us.... Several of the services that we offer on our sites, such as voting, may require registration as a condition of use. Once you register...you are no longer anonymous to us. NOWC may also receive information about you from other sources and add it to the information you have provided to us."
  • "NOWC does not warrant that the functions contained in the website content will be without delay or interruption or that the voting or other data transfer will be accurate or complete...."
  • "Where possible and relevant the charges for participating in the [Global Voting Platform] are as notified in the relevant section. NOWC will update this pricing information on a timely basis, but is not responsible for any incorrect information or incorrect charging."
  • "NOWC ultimately decides whether a nominee, Finalist or wonder is able to participate and or retain its status in the New7Wonders campaigns."

Well, you might say, what's $199, privacy compromises, and the lack of a guarantee that the results will be accurate, when compared to a significant boost in tourism to the winning "wonders"?

That's where the real controversies start.

According to Indonesia's vice-minister for tourism, N7W threatened to remove the Komodo National Park from the list if Indonesia refused to host a declaration ceremony for $35 million. (Check out the Al Jazeera report, or Google it.) The possibility of disqualifying winners is specifically provided for in N7W's Terms and Conditions, and in fact, their FAQs tell us that there will be no worldwide official declaration event. Instead, "[e]ach confirmed New7Wonder of Nature winner will host their own Official Inauguration event."

Tourism authorities in the Maldives withdrew support for the N7W campaign last year, claiming that the organizers demanded nearly $350,000 in sponsorship "fees" and additional hundreds of thousands to organize a world tour event.

Tour operators to winning "wonders" were asked to pay NOWC for the use of the N7W trademark if the "New 7 Wonders" label was used to promote the tourist spot.

And on and on. If this doesn't smell like a scam to you, you've gotta get your nose checked.

I don't know what the Philippines or Palawan paid to get the Puerto Princesa Underground River into the final list (that hasn't been officially declared), but the exact amount doesn't matter to me. What matters is that there are people out there who are taking advantage of our national pride to line their own pockets. A tourism official in Maldives said it best:

"Essentially we’re paying a license fee for the right to throw a party, at our own cost, for an unproven return."

Again, I love Cebu, and I love the Philippines, and I would love it if everyone in the world came to realize how much beauty and culture there is here. I just don't like being made a fool of.

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