Unpretentious, straightforward, strong-willed, consistent, sincere yet soft-spoken. These may all describe the character of Dept. of Tourism-VI regional director Helen J. Catalbas.
A lot of people may have developed an impression that they are not getting enough from this government executive and public servant, especially during official public gatherings. She is shy and without much flair and flamboyance probably for the reason that she is so down-to-earth and yet so disturbingly comfortable and secure being herself.
Helen Catalbas undoubtedly epitomizes what many people define as “what you see is what you get.”
“I want to be judged on a day-to-day basis,’ underscored Catalbas, because for me, I am only as good as I was yesterday. Everyday should be a better day for me and it follows that my yesterday must be better than the day before that.”
Catalbas is one of the very few government executives who now occupy the director position without the familiar badge referred to as Career Executive Service Officer (CESO). In spite of that, however, she earned the nod of President Rodrigo R. Duterte putting end to her almost 5-year stint as acting regional director of the agency in Western Visayas.
“I am humbled by the appointment of the President, because for me it indicates recognition of my performance and contribution to the people through government service despite not having political backers,” she shared.
“I had been prodded upon by my former bosses at the national agency to consider taking the CESO for purposes of career security,” explained Catalbas, “however, taking that step is self-contradictory on my case, because of my strong personal values which I carry in public service since I entered government.”
Catalbas who is a lawyer, served 28 years on a supervisory position at DoT-VI before she assumed OIC regional director in 2012, and eventually appointed regional director by President Duterte.
“I am aware of my self-worth even without a CESO and I can go out from government service anytime if it will be used as a yardstick. I believe that the world is waiting for me and willing to embrace the kind of person and worker that I am – one who possess strong personal values and which I carry on my work,” she narrated.
Catalbas emphasized that she is not being self-righteous, but she had internalized what her parents have taught her, and she lived with it ever since. Hence, she made it a point to cultivate the same values among her children.
The values I embrace
Catalbas is the eldest among 5 siblings of Segundino and Marina Jancorda of Brgy. Bandan, Buenavista, Guimaras.
“I value and put into practice good standards in my work and in my personal life,” she intoned, and “I have always been conscious and mindful of the standards required from us being public servants.”
Catalbas’ day-to-day work is guided by the three standards which she enumerated one after another.
“First, I follow the standard set for us by government; second, the standards expected from us by our agency; and third, the standards by our stakeholders,” she highlighted.
“But, on top of all that, and for me the most important of all, my personal standard. It is the highest of all the standards that I follow. And because I carry it in my life and apply it on my work, it is sometimes hard for people to comprehend,” explained Catalbas.
‘Experience Western Visayas First’
These set of values has allowed her to implement her vision for tourism development for Western Visayas. In such a short period time that Catalbas led the regional agency, tourism programs intensified which focused on building capacities of people at the frontlines of tourism service.
My flagship program was “Experience Western Visayas First,” shared Catalbas, “the campaign was developed from our realization that our people are well-traveled and had visited many places, yet they had barely saturated Western Visayas.”
The campaign program attempts to instill positive behavior and allow people to internalize the pride of place.
Catalbas believed that the agency need to raise people’s awareness, therefore they conceptualized programs to address needs; initiated partnerships with different sectors; and established collaboration with local government units and private sector.
The agency has invited people who shared the same vision and commitment with people working at the agency and approached competent individuals who possessed the skills to become part of the effort.
“It was not easy when we started considering the fact that our agency stands among others with the lowest budget allocation in government,” recalled Catalbas, “yet we outlasted many challenges and attained the results we desired.”
The strategy that the agency implemented certainly offered more opportunities for business activity to thrive, creating more jobs and launching careers of young people. Tourism activities expanded with the emergence of new tourism venues in the last 7-years and reinforced by improvements on infrastructure.
“What all of these programs are about is not to memorize slogans or gain good economic figures, although these are likewise important. But at the core of all of these efforts is our aim to reshape the Ilonggo attitude to become proud of their place,” she underscored.
I strongly believe we are gradually realizing it, the Western Visayas pride of place,” expressed Catalbas.
Building blocks to gain advancement
Yet more efforts are needed said the tourism executive considering the demand for sustainability in the midst of growing economic integration like that of the ASEAN and APEC economies and the intensified external and internal competition in the industry.
“We certainly need more infrastructures especially roads so that visitors can travel with ease to their destinations,” she said, “and we need to craft more programs that can adopt to the fast-changing tourism environment in order to improve the working condition of our workers.”
The agency’s response under her leadership was to step up capacity building especially among frontline service providers who handle transportation services, porterage at ports of entry, and salespersons who attend to a myriad of services needed by visitors and tourists.
The agency’s effort is like building blocks, illustrated Catalbas, for they build on from each gain in order to advance to the next level of engagement.
Pawns are not to be neglected
Catalbas have long recognized that frontline service providers play a significant role in the tourism industry.
The strategy that the director employed can be likened to a chess game. “The frontliners are your pawns yet they need not be neglected,” demonstrated Catalbas, “because once you start failing to put up a good line of defense for your frontliners (your pawns), you will begin to lose them one by one to the enemy.”
“Once you allow that to happen, it’s only a matter of time that your king and queen, and all the rest within your ranks, will be captured by your opponent,” gestured Catalbas.
For her, tourism is a national industry and wars are won by the generals who occupy positions at the highest echelons of government up to the President. The actual engagement, however, is being handled by ground warriors – the frontliners; as such, they are among the most important people in the industry.
“We have advanced a lot, but we need more improvement. So, we cannot be complacent in spite of our gains and despite the popularity of our globally recognized festivals in Western Visayas. Festivals are important yet we must not consider it as the only major component of regional tourism. Rather we must treat it as necessary convergence to highlight our tourism achievements.”
“Tourism activities are flourishing in our region all year round. These activities serves like an inter-connected stories described in a paragraph of a written composition, and festivals, for me, are the exclamation points,” emphasized Catalbas.
*All photos were lifted from Atty. Helen J. Catalbas’ Facebook photo album.