Philippines struggling to boost its tourism
The Philippines has hundreds of tropical beaches, some of the world's best dive sites, ancient rice terraces and a unique culture that mixes Asian, Spanish and American influences.
The Philippines has hundreds of tropical beaches, some of the world’s best dive sites, ancient rice terraces and a unique culture that mixes Asian, Spanish and American influences.
So it has plenty to offer potential tourists.
Yet, when compared with other countries in the region such as Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, it only gets a fraction of the visitors.
The official tourism figures for 2011 came in at 3.9 million. That is a definite improvement on previous years, but still nothing like the almost 20 million who visited Thailand during the same period.
The government has made it clear that promoting tourism is one of its key priorities, and to do this it has launched a new campaign with the slogan: “It’s more fun in the Philippines.”
The aim is to compete with the region’s more established tourism catchphrases, such as “Amazing Thailand”, “Malaysia Truly Asia” and “Incredible India”, by promoting something for which Filipinos are famous – their fun-loving spirit.
“This is our core strength – making sure our visitors have a fun and enjoyable stay,” says a cheerful tourism department spokesman Benito Bengzon.
“It’s not manufactured, it’s not staged. It’s something that comes naturally to us and I believe that gives us a competitive edge.”
Mr Bengzon has a point.
This is a country where restaurants have singing waiters, sales staff are regularly in fancy dress, and when you give someone directions by mentioning the dancing traffic warden, you have to specify which one.
But will a slogan promoting this natural joie de vivre be enough to bring in more visitors?
Mr Bengzon, unsurprisingly, is optimistic.
He says early feedback from tourists has been positive, and he is so confident of success that he expects the Philippines to get 10 million visitors by 2016, more than double the current annual number.
Travel groups also seem to have reacted positively.
Alexander Stutely from Blue Horizons, which organises tours in the Philippines, says the new slogan has resonated with his clients.
“It really rings true,” he says. “Filipinos are really fun people, and you experience that if you come here.”
It is a very different story from the last attempt at a new campaign slogan, “Pilipinas Kay Ganda”, which was launched in November last year.
Almost as soon as it was introduced, the slogan – which means “Beautiful Philippines” – was panned for being unintelligible to a foreign audience.
And to make matters worse, the tourism department was accused of copying the logo from a campaign in Poland.
“There wasn’t as wide an acceptance for our last campaign as we would have wanted, so we decided to abort,” admits Mr Bengzon.
Mr Stutely puts it more succinctly. “That slogan was dreadful,” he says. “A real mess.”
In fact, the “Pilipinas Kay Ganda” slogan was so widely derided that Alberto Lim decided to resign as the tourism secretary shortly after it was launched.
But even if the new campaign does take off, the tourism department still faces some major hurdles.
For one thing, it is significantly more expensive and time-consuming for Europeans and Americans to fly to the Philippines than to many other Asian destinations.
Only one European carrier, KLM, still flies directly from Europe to Manila, and that route is expected to be axed soon.
Then there is the reputation of the country’s own carriers, whose reputations are in tatters.
A few years ago, the safety ratings given to Philippine carriers was downgraded by the US Federal Aviation Administration, and they have also been blacklisted by the European Commission – not because of a bad safety record but because of inadequate documentation.
This means that many foreign tour agents cannot insure internal Philippine flights, so their customers are either confined to Manila or have to sign an insurance waiver to fly elsewhere.
This is obviously a big turnoff to the package tourism market.
Then there is safety in general.
Ever since eight Hong Kong tourists were killed by a hostage-taker on their tour bus in August 2010, the Hong Kong government has issued a black alert to warn its citizens against travel to the Philippines.
The only other country deemed to warrant this type of alert is Syria – and visitors from Hong Kong to the Philippines have virtually disappeared since the warning was issued. The Philippines has lost an estimated $12m (£7.6m) in revenue as a result.
It is not just Hong Kong that issues alerts, however. Many countries issue warnings against travel to the southern Philippines, where several insurgent groups and kidnap gangs operate.
Mr Stutely recalls that one of his firm’s most popular tours was to the remote southern islands of Basilan and Tawi-Tawi in the 1990s, something that would not be considered safe today.
But despite all these problems, there is a real sense of optimism here that, finally, tourism looks set to become one of the country’s major earners – and that “It’s more fun in the Philippines” will help bring about this success.
“We are really excited at the moment,” says Mr Stutely. “We’re getting far more interest from China and India, and despite the current problems in Europe we’re still getting more bookings from there too.”
The tourism department has chosen to roll out its new campaign in an unconventional way, concentrating on social network sites before placing adverts in the mainstream media.
Filipinos are being invited to go onto the department’s website to upload their own photos to illustrate what’s fun about the Philippines, to generate their own posters.
In typical Philippine fashion, this is already yielding some humorous results.
Among the flood of beautiful images posted on Facebook, Twitter and blog sites, I’ve seen images of Manila’s badly congested traffic and the current impeachment trial of the head of the Supreme Court, both with “It’s more fun in the Philippines” emblazoned across them.
But Mr Bengzon is not worried about these sarcastic pictures.
“It’s just Filipinos having fun,” he laughs.