Tourism Ace on a winning streak

With growth running into double digits, sunny days lie ahead for the tourism industry in the Philippines, says FRANKIE FERNANDEZ

The number of visitors to the Philippines in 2007 is expected to rise past the three-million mark for the first time ever, as the country continues to develop its tourism infrastructure and market itself as a unique tropical destination within Asia.

“We hope to attract 3.1 million foreign tourists in 2007, while our target over the medium term is five million visitors by 2010,” Department of Tourism (DoT) Secretary Joseph ‘Ace’ Durano told TTN.
He continued: “The Philippines’ unique selling points are its natural attractions such as its pristine powder-white beaches spread across 7,107 islands, its rich culture which is a blend of the East and West, and its warm, hospitable people. We offer an experience that is truly different from other destinations in the region.”
However, Durano also sees a need to further educate the market and the travel industry that the Philippines is a safe, tropical paradise, in order to attract more first-time visitors to the country.
Durano has been spearheading a revival in the country’s tourism fortunes since taking over the country’s top tourism post in August 2004, the same year visitor arrivals touched 2.29 million, ending a six-year slump and matching the previous record hit in 1997.
Since then, the former congressman from Cebu has vigorously promoted the Philippines as a destination of choice not just in its primary markets but across the world, while pushing for the development of the country’s aging infrastructure and campaigning for a more sustainable and environmentally sensitive tourism industry.
A target of five million visitors by the end of the decade may appear ambitious, but with arrivals growing by an average 14 per cent over the last three years, Durano has every reason to be optimistic.
Arrivals rose from 2.29 million in 2004 to 2.63 million in 2005 and 2.84 million in 2006 on the back of a substantial increase in tourists from its primary markets - Korea, the US, Japan, China, and Taiwan.
This impressive growth came despite festering separatist unrest in the south, and cautionary travel advisories issued by several First World countries.
This year, the number of visitors between January and June has already hit 1.529 million, up 7.6 per cent over the same period last year, while hotel occupancies in the capital Manila have also been buoyant at 73.89 per cent, up 2.07 per cent over the same period in 2006.
While the DoT continues to focus on its key markets, it is also keen to target the Middle East, which accounted for a mere 4,697 – or less than one per cent – of the 520,256 visitors to the Philippines in the first two months of 2007, down from 4,913 visitors over the same period the previous year.
“Korea, China, Japan and the US remain our major tourist markets, accounting for more than 50 per cent of visitor arrivals, while Australia, Germany, Hong Kong and Taiwan are also key sources,” said Durano. “However, we do want more tourists from the Arab world. We have a lot to offer for business, pleasure, meetings and incentive travel. We are currently working with Philippine embassies in Arab countries to disseminate information on travel to the Philippines as well as the various tour packages available. We’ve also invited travel agents from the Gulf to events such as the Philippine Travel Exchange (Phitex) and Philippine Travel Mart (PTM) to give them a greater insight into our country.”
Other initiatives include tourism brochures in Arabic which are expected to be launched shortly in Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, Durano is focused on implementing a comprehensive programme – the Central Philippines Infrastructure Projects – to develop and upgrade tourism facilities in Cebu, Buhol, Boracay and the rest of the central region.
Foreigners are also pumping money into tourism facilities: the Imperial Resort in Cebu is backed by the Koreans while Singapore’s Banyan Tree and Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Holdings are also reported to be involved in new ventures.
However, there are concerns within the industry that the current infrastructure will not be able to accommodate projected growth.
The Philippine Travel Agencies Association (PTAA) recently complained that they were turning away hundreds of thousands of tourists because of a dearth of hotel rooms. PTAA president Jose Clemente was quoted as saying that travel agents lost out on deals to bring in more than 500,000 tourists last year because of a rooms crunch. This could have translated into an extra $400 million in revenues, based on an average $800 that a foreigner spends in the Philippines, he said.
However, with hotels running at 70-80 per cent of their capacity levels and airlines flying in with load factors of around 70 per cent, Durano is confident the Philippines has enough capacity and room for growth.
Among green initiatives, Durano is determined to protect the popular resort of Boracay against further environmental abuse. With a construction ban already in place, he has urged the environmental ministry to initiate “restorative technologies” to keep its beaches clean and turn the island into a “garden of Eden” once more.
Furthermore, the DoT is focusing the meetings and incentives market, business and medical tourism, and the development of other natural attractions such as Carabao island near Boracay.
Thus, with visitor arrivals on the upswing during the first six months, Manila looks set to achieve its growth targets and perhaps exceed last year’s $2.6 billion windfall in tourism revenues.
But what about next year? Will a strong peso – which has appreciated by more than 10 per cent over the last year to current levels of 44-45 pesos to the dollar – start to bite into tourist arrivals? Or will the 2008 Olympics pull the crowds away from Boracay to Beijing while keeping the Chinese – whose numbers in the Philippines trebled over the last three years to 171,000 in 2006 – at home? 
With inbound travel to the Asia-Pacific region projected to grow at seven per cent, the DoT is not unduly worried. The market is just so big, says Durano, that there’s “no one country that can take them all.”  What’s more important, he notes, is that the Philippines gets its piece of the pie to support the industry.