MANILA, Philippines – It’s like owning a Ferrari and never driving it.
That’s how Dave Allen likened the majority of Filipinos who don’t scuba-dive. Allen is an American marine videographer and president and publisher of www.ScubaMagazine.net, an online forum for the international diving community. He has taken a special interest in the Philippine dive sites since his first visit three years ago.
“Do you realize that you’re in paradise and you’ve never been able to experience what Americans and Europeans will pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of going to see?” he asked rhetorically at the Dema (Diving Equipment and Marketing Association) Show 2008 held recently at the Las Vegas Convention Center in Nevada, USA.
Allen is just one of 6.9 million scuba divers in North America whom the Philippine Department of Tourism (DOT) hopes will buoy the country’s tourism industry through the global economic crisis.
The DOT bolstered its bid with its biggest participation yet in the Dema this year, targeting one of the “least affected” markets, according to Mary Anne Cuevas, Philippine tourism attaché in the US Southwestern State and Latin America.
Diving is one of the DOT’s so-called “special-interest” markets, which it believes to be “recession-proof.” (Others are the adventure sport, wellness and medical tourism markets). Meaning, divers may not go as often but will go at least once a year.
“Let’s say there are 6.9 million divers and 20 percent is wiped out,” cited Vernie Velarde-Morales, Philippine tourism attaché in the US’ and Canada’s Midwest Regions. “But there’s still over 5 million. If we target one percent of that, that’s 50,000. That’s big.”
Lynn Funkhouser, a veteran underwater photographer based in Chicago who comes to dive in the Philippines for at least two months every year since 1976, shared that opinion.
“It’s pretty scary. I’ve never lived through anything like it,” she said of the US economy. “But you always have people wealthy enough to travel and they will go. And those of us who have to save and scrimp may not be able to go as often, but the moment we have two nickels, we’ll go.”
Funkhouser, a former flight attendant who found herself in the country for the first time on a side trip at the height of martial law, now calls the Philippines her second home.
“If I couldn’t go, I’d feel deprived,” she said. “It’s like diving on LSD: It’s out of this world!”
She also operates dive travels to the country, and speaks at dive shows promoting Philippine dive sites titled “Simply the Best.”
“Well, it’s the best,” she said emphatically. The Philippines is right smack at the center of the “coral triangle,” the most biologically diverse marine environment, according to the industry rag Scuba Diving. On the borders are Bali, Indonesia; the Solomon Islands and parts of Malaysia; Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste.
“You have 2,500 species of fish,” Funkhouser said. “Australia has 1,500. Who cares?”
A subspecies of soapfish that has eluded her for decades she found only in Philippine waters.
Funkhouser, who was on a boat that was fired on while on a medical mission during the Marcos years, pooh-poohed US travel advisories against the country.
“It has nothing to do with safety,” she said. “It has everything to do with what we want to put economic sanctions on…When Saddam was chucking scuds in Israel, the Philippines was in the travel advisory, but not Israel, and there was no war going on in the Philippines.”
“The average American is safer in Davao than in LA,” Allen, a Los Angeles native, also said.
Funkhouser’s fliers underscore that there’s “No malaria!” in the country, contradicting a claim of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I’ve talked to professors…There’s none, except for a small corner of Palawan, which I’m not going to if not via helicopter. I don’t listen to the State Department. I’ve gone there and I know it’s wonderful.”
Cesario Calanoc III, a former ABS-CBN Star Circle talent named JR Herrera and now president of Activentures, a dive and golf travel firm based in San Francisco with its own resort in Anilao, Batangas, says this is the first time there were no queries on security.
“We say it’s safe. Next question.”
“In Europe we never hear that,” noted the Connecticut-based Mercy Agudo, VP of Marco Vincent Dive Resort in Puerto Galera. “But here we used to.”
“I’m not so bothered with the travel advisory because it’s always been there,” said Emma Ruth Yulo, the tourism attaché based in New York. “What’s important is the personal experience,” she added, referring to random incidents of theft and whatnot. “There’s no cohesive tourism awareness in the country…Isa lang ang mabiktima and [word] gets around… Isang e-mail lang.”
Allen said what has been dismaying is that Philippine resorts and some government entities don’t respond to e-mail inquiries—or take forever to do so. “In the Philippines, they expect us to text them. But that’s not what we do in the US.”
This year his group brought in 15 divers and sent e-mail inquiries to 14 resorts. Only three replied and it took them two weeks. Allen’s video was aired on GMA-7, making it a “publicity heaven for the resort that responded.”
“When the Philippines is awake, the US is asleep. We won’t get up at 3 a.m. to make an expensive call,” he said.
“The good thing with the present leadership in tourism,” said Velarde-Morales of Secretary Joseph “Ace” Durano’s administration, “is that there’s a better appreciation of the realistic needs of our country. The approach now is niche-market segments.” Velarde-Morales has been in government service for 32 years.
The DOT’s programs to attract the North American market was strengthened with a 250-airline-ticket giveaway three years ago, which created the 84,000-name database for the department. It continues to rely on this database during low season, where travel agents sell their discounted packages, said DOT Team North America head Corazon Jorda-Apo.
Last year, it raffled off a fully furnished condo unit in St. Francis Square to actual arriving tourists who participated in an online contest.
Recently, it launched the Travel Mall, where travel agents in the US can upload and sell their tour packages on www.experiencephilippines.ph.
The DOT has also been training US travel agents online on selling the Philippines as a destination. It has so far graduated 1,000 agents, with 150 of them invited to the country to experience its offerings.
It’s also eyeing Canada as a possible growth market. “There’s been a double-digit growth in the last three to four years,” said Rene de los Santos, tourism attaché for Northwestern US and Western Canada. “Even with the financial difficulty in the US, we believe Canada will still grow next year.”
In his online forum which has some 3,200 members, Allen said it’s a consensus that the Philippines “represents the best dive destination value in the world.”
“We’re not here short-term,” said Mel Agudo, CEO and president of Marco Vincent Dive Resort. “We’re investing long-term. Whatever happens with the economy, they [the divers] will be there. The Philippines will be there.”