MANILA, Philippines – World’s best beaches, traditional hilot, Western-oriented hospitality services, crafts and arts, nature and food at reasonable prices are among the reasons Philippines is now one of the most-desired destinations worldwide.
Department of Tourism figures showed that tourism arrivals to the Philippines grew by 8.7 percent last year, placing the country in the number 6 spot in Asean.
The improved ranking was achieved despite the numerous crises last year, such as the Glorietta mall explosion, the Congress bomb blast, and the siege at the Manila Peninsula.
Oscar Palabyab, undersecretary for tourism services and regional offices, said the incidents were isolated and didn’t hurt tourism at all. In fact, the DOT’s participation in the recently-held 26th Asean Tourism Forum (ATF) in Bangkok was quite a success, an indication that the country’s tourism industry is doing well.
Eduardo Jarque, undersecretary for tourism planning and promotions, said global events such as the ATF have opened more opportunities for Philippine tourism.
The ATF, with the theme this year of “Synergy of Asean towards Dynamic Unity in Diversity,” is a regional cooperation group that promotes Southeast Asia as a tourist destination to the global travel market. The forum is an effort among the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian consisting of Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia and Brunei.
Its main feature was the Travel Exchange (Travex), where buyers of wholesale tourism packages from all over the world got the chance to meet major tourism players in the region, set up new business contacts and learn about tourism trends.
The nine-day event involved a series of talks, ministerial conferences and business forums among participating countries, with discussions on new market plans and common tourism-industry concerns.
The event was also an opportunity for each member country to showcase each country’s culture and traditions, sights and natural attractions.
The Philippine delegation consisted of key officials from the DOT. Officers from top travel associations and representatives from major hotels and resorts came in full force.
As part of its attempt to secure a larger influx of tourists, the DOT is refurbishing the country’s major destinations and tourism services.
For instance, Metro Manila is being repackaged as an entertainment, leisure and shopping destination. Jarque said Manila is now considered as an end destination with many attractions and no longer as a mere stopover to the islands.
“The malls in Metro Manila have become more than places for shopping,” said Jarque. “Shopping malls have evolved into lifestyle centers—places to celebrate special gatherings, to hang out with friends and to spend quality time with the family.”
Palawan, on the other hand, is gaining international prominence in high-end adventure travel programs. Several investors, including Singapore’s Banyan Tree, are eyeing Palawan for integrated resorts.
Cebu is being developed as an ideal destination for meetings, incentive travels, conventions and exhibitions (MICE).
Bohol, aside from its pristine beaches and natural attractions, now boasts of boutique properties like Eskaya Beach Resort and Amorita Resort.
Boracay has implemented a one-entry, one-exit policy.
DOT is also exploring volcano and surfing tourism. “We are pushing Mt. Pinatubo more than ever,” said Jarque. “There is now kayaking on the volcano lake.”
Festivals showcasing the country’s rich cultural heritage are also major draws. “First-time visitors are looking for something new—culture and places of history, the reason why they love to see festivals,” said Jarque. Some of the most sought after festivals are the Sinulog of Cebu, Mindoro’s Bakya Festival, Iloilo’s Dinagyang and Bacolod’s Masskara festival.
The department has engaged in market-specific campaigns carrying the same umbrella tagline, “Beyond the Usual,” promoting the countries 7,107 islands.
Jarque said the DOT is designing specific programs to cater to the different needs of the market. It is also building on existing strategies that worked.
Research in Korea, for instance, showed that Koreans were attracted to the diversity of the islands, that one island offers something unique than another.
“Koreans love adventure,” Jarque said. He added Koreans usually come to the country Friday night, play golf the following day; then enjoy a relaxing massage and eat Korean food; and play 18-hole golf before flying back.
In Japan, the DOT built the campaign around the beach destinations, such as Boracay and Bohol. This is based on a survey that said the beaches were what the Japanese loved about the Philippines.
The Chinese, according to DOT, are happy and contented with the package tours and shopping. So DOT offers budget-shopping tours designed specifically for the China market.
And what are the new markets the department is eyeing to penetrate?
“We are now focusing on Russia and India,” said Jarque. “For Russia, we have just implemented the 21-day visa-free entry to the Philippines.” Waiving the visa requirement would encourage more contacts and tourist relations between the two countries.
“Russia is a valuable market for us. They stay an average of three weeks in the Philippines and they hop through the islands of Palawan and Boracay. By spending a long time here, they tend to spend more,” explained Palabyab during the ATF conference.
The Russian tourists today, according to dealers, are very rich and prefer tailor-made holidays over off-the-shelf packages. They usually stay between three to four days in the city before moving on to beach resorts for at least a week. Singapore Tourism Board (STB) reports show Russian arrivals have been growing steadily in the last few years, making it an important market for Asia.
In 2007, the average length of stay for visitors across all markets was 16.7 nights compared to 12.6 nights in 2006.
The continued growth of foreign arrivals however put more pressure on the country’s infrastructure. Currently, hotel occupancy rates in Metro Manila are close to 80 percent. The good news is, according to DOT, there are significant investments being made on infrastructure.
DOT said it would continue to develop new facilities to cope not only with the increasing tourism arrivals but also with the changing needs and demands of the growing market.
“More and more hotels are opening while some are being upgraded,” said Jarque.
This year, Boracay welcomes its first international branded hotel, the 217-room Shangri-La Boracay Resort and Spa. The 150-room Microtel Inn & Suites Mall of Asia and the 100-room Manila Ocean Park Hotel will also be inaugurated.
Several domestic and foreign visitors—Banyan Tree and the Kingdom Holdings from Saudi Arabia—announced new projects in key destinations such as Cebu, Boracay, Negros Oriental, Bicol and Palawan.
Provincial airports in Iloilo, Kalibo, Puerto Princesa and Bacolod are being upgraded to accommodate international flights. As a result, several global airlines have opened new regular and charter flights not only to Manila but also direct flights to key tourist destinations. China Eastern Airlines has mounted direct flights to Cebu.
“Low-cost carriers have contributed a lot in terms of tourism arrivals to the country,” said Jarque. “In fact, there are tie-ups made with airlines to lower ticket prices.”
For 2008, the DOT is targeting US$5.8 billion in tourism income, surpassing the medium-term goal set two years ago of US$ 5 billion in 2010.
The department pledged further investment in promotions, including education travel and medical tourism. Participation in trade and consumer events primarily to attract holiday-seekers, honeymooners, families and students will be DOT’s top priority this year.
Jarque said 2007 was indeed a fruitful year for Philippine tourism and he hopes that new investors will flock to the country this year.