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Special report: Philippines tourism, a tough sell?
Perfect beaches. Friendly locals. Fascinating history. So why is the Philippines still a laggard in the regional travel market? And will a new promotional campaign help?
As a tourist destination, the Philippines is loaded with the attractions travelers dream of: lots of sun, gorgeous beaches, world-class scenery, adventure opportunities, friendly outgoing locals, fascinating history and lots of little-roamed territory.
Yet for all its advantages, the nation of more than 7,000 islands has a big problem attracting travelers.
According to the United Nations World Tourism Association, with about 3.5 million international tourist arrivals in 2010 (its most recent published figures), the Philippines nets just 1.7 percent of tourist arrivals in the booming Asia Pacific region, and a mere 1.1 percent of international tourism revenues in the region.
With 27.3 percent, China leads the region in arrivals, but the Philippines also trails nations such as Malaysia (12.1 percent of Asia Pacific’s international tourist arrivals), Thailand (7.8 percent), Singapore (4.5 percent), Taiwan (2.7 percent) and Vietnam (2.5 percent).
In 2010, the Philippines accounted for only 8.1 percent of the international air seats flown per week within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes the Philippines, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
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Tourism officials are currently hoping to improve these numbers by pushing the optimistic but generic slogan: “It’s More Fun in the Philippines.”
Unfortunately, after the government recently unveiled its new slogan, the media discovered it had been used by Switzerland in 1951.
Philippines Tourism Secretary Ramon R. Jimenez, Jr. dismissed the duplicate slogan as a coincidence, but the challenges facing Philippine tourism go deeper than simple advertising pitches.
Perception becomes reality for many
The Philippine Islands are scattered off Southeast Asia’s mainland, making them costly to reach, especially for budget travelers and backpackers who can easily travel overland to tour Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam.
“The Philippines is a volcano-, typhoon-, flood-, and earthquake-prone country,” says the U.S. State Department in its warning about possible dangers that await the unlucky.
The U.S. State Department has long been a thorn in the side of the Philippines’ tourism industry for consistently issuing dire travel warnings. Posted on its official site in January 2012, a typical alarm began with the ominous admonition, “The Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the risks of terrorist activity in the Philippines.”
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Longstanding fears of rebel groups and kidnappers -- particularly on the Muslim-influenced island of Mindanao -- certainly do not make the country seem “fun.”
The February 2012 abduction of two European tourists in Mindanao led Philstar.com (a well-read “Filipino global community” news source) to headline a story, “Abductions in Mindanao seen to derail Philippine tourism campaign.”
Although according to International Monetery Fund data reported by Global Finance magazine it ranks ahead of Cambodia, India, Laos, Vietnam and several other Asian nations in terms of Gross Domestic Product, the country remains beset by widespread poverty and all of the problems and perceptions that come with it.
The Manila Times added to the pile of tourism concerns with a January 2012 editorial that stated, “For the beautiful Philippines to have an attractive, clean and healthy tourism industry, much effort has to be done in eradicating the tarnished image made by the influx of thousands of single men seeking sex.” The op-ed detailed tragic stories of underage Filipinas being sold into the sex trade to accommodate foreigners.
Substandard travel infrastructure
Even for travelers who get past the negative stereotypes -- and as with most hysterical complaining, the negative reviews on the Philippines are almost always wildly exaggerated -- getting to the Philippines can be a physical burden.
Because the country is located in the South China Sea, 98 percent of international visitors arrive by air, according to Narzalina Lim, president of Manila-based Asia Pacific Projects, Inc., a tourism and hospitality consulting firm that prepared the 2011-2016 National Tourism Development Plan for the Philippines’ Department of Tourism (DOT).
“Flight frequency and capacity, airport infrastructure, the number of international gateways in the archipelago and a hospitable aviation policy are very important in attracting tourists to the Philippines,” said Lim in an email interview.
“The country rates poorly in all these points, although under President Benigno Simeon Aquino, a lot of progress has been made in liberalizing aviation policy.”
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There are also not enough direct international flights. European travelers suffer the most.
“There are no more direct flights from Europe to Manila,” says Lim. “The last one, KLM, stopped flying this April. The problem of attracting foreign carriers to fly to the Philippines is the imposition by the Philippine government of the Common Carriers Tax and the Gross Philippine Billings,” Lim says, referring to “taxes imposed on airlines.”
“There are two bills -- one in the Senate and another one in the Lower House of Congress -- proposing the elimination of these onerous taxes,” Lim says. “We stakeholders are lobbying for passage of these two bills. In the end, the president will decide, and we should know the results before June.”
"The DOT is exerting all efforts for the amendment of these tax laws," Philippine Tourism Secretary Jimenez told CNNGo in an email interview last week. "Efforts are now being undertaken by the Department to have the bill certified as urgent so that this important piece of legislation will be passed immediately."
People who do arrive at the country’s main international gateways -- Manila, Laoag, Clark, Mactan-Cebu, Davao, Kalibo, Puerto Princesa -- face “inadequate air, sea and road connectivity” to reach their holiday destinations, says Lim.
Many travelers, meanwhile, describe Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport as abysmal.
The government is responding to complaints with a rehabilitation of Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) 1, the country’s premier gateway, says Peter Perfecto, executive director of the Makati Business Club, one of the nation’s most prestigious business organizations.
“The NAIA 1 upgrade project is ongoing,” says Perfecto. “This involves structural retrofitting, mechanical, electrical, fire protection and plumbing improvements and the construction of new and more check-in and immigration counters, improved toilet facilities, a walkalator and additional rapid exit taxiways."
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"We are happy to share that the much-needed upgrade and rehabilitation is already underway with the completion expected by end of 2012," Jimenez told CNNGo. "Many operational as well as design improvements are in the works. NAIA Terminal 3 is also expected to be fully operational by next year, most of the international flights will be departing from here."
"Awareness" is the problem, say officials
Aside from airport concerns, however, Jimenez mostly sees a more benign problem at the root of Philippine tourism's sluggish performance, one demanding a seemingly simple solution.
In February, Jimenez told reporters, “The biggest reason for our low numbers [of tourist arrivals] is not our infrastructure, crime, negative reports in the media or even the cost of flying into the Philippines.”
The problem, he said, “is ignorance.”
“They just haven’t heard of the Philippines,” Jimenez said of international travelers.
According to Jimenez, nearly 4 million foreign passport holders visited the Philippines in 2011. Earlier this year, he announced the ambitious goal of boosting that number to 10 million by 2016.
"Raising awareness" is at the heart of his plan.
"It’s plain and simple the lack of awareness about the Philippines is the major contributing factor as to why tourists from [foreign] countries have not visited our shores," Jimenez reiterated to CNNGo.
If nothing else, Jimenez has clearly gotten virtually everyone in his department onboard with his message ... and with staying on message.
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Asked to identify the main problems associated with attracting foreign visitors, David Guerrero, chairman and chief creative officer of BBDO Guerrero | Proximity Philippines, says, "Above all: awareness."
Guerrero is the man charged with overseeing the creation and promotion of the Philippine brand. It was his company that won the bid to create the new tourism "Fun" slogan.
"(Awareness) is surprisingly low for the world’s 13th-largest country by population," Guerrero says. "There are many reasons for this. But the best response is to turn this into a positive and position the country as something wonderful waiting to be discovered."
"In many markets, the lack of awareness on the Philippines as a tourist destination is our biggest obstacle in attracting a bigger volume of visitors to the Philippines," echoes Rene R. de los Santos, Philippine Department of Tourism attaché/director for Northwestern USA and Western Canada. San Francisco-based de los Santos has been with the Department of Tourism for 30 years. The United States is the Philippines second-largest tourist market by nationality, just behind South Korea.
"One key challenge confronting Philippine tourism is the problem of perception around the globe," Jimenez says. "More tellingly, it’s also because of the world’s lack of awareness about the Philippines. We hope to change all of that through our 'It’s More Fun in the Philippines' campaign that will show to the world that the Philippines is not just a place to see, but a place to be."
For all its problems, the Philippines does have its share of dedicated fans who don't need upbeat sloganeering to convince them that the Philippines is home to some of the planet's great tourist sites and adventures. Traveler favorites range from the gorgeous beaches of Boracay and UNESCO World Heritage Site rice terraces of Banaue, to world-class diving in Palawan and perhaps the globe's most well-preserved World War II historic site on Corregidor, as well as others in Leyte and around the country.
Addressing problems? Or ignoring them?
It might be argued, however, that not only has the international traveling community heard of the Philippines, it knows the country well. Perhaps too well.
When many North Americans and Europeans fly halfway around the world to see exotic cultures, they’re more easily thrilled by Southeast Asia’s other societies, which are heavily influenced by ancient Buddhist, Hindu and Chinese traditions, and offer ornate temples, unique ceremonies and other experiences rarely encountered elsewhere.
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The Philippines, by comparison, is one of the most Catholic nations on earth, and layered by previous Spanish and American colonialists.
The Philippines does have Buddhists, Hindus, animists and Muslims. But Spanish influences often appear to dominate.
Pesos are used as currency. Spanish surnames are plentiful. Many English speakers pepper conversations with a smattering of Spanish language. Christian churches and crucifixes are ubiquitous.
North Americans and Europeans can find those sorts of things closer to home in Mexico, Spain or other Latin American societies.
Tourists who might be more intrigued by the Philippines’ Spanish and Catholic heritage could include visitors from China and other places where those symbols are rare.
But many visitors from China have difficulty securing tourist visas because of the Philippines’ bureaucracy.
South Korean arrivals have been increasing, however, in large part because the Philippines offers a nearby tropical holiday.
With Asia emerging as a major outbound tourist market, the Philippines will undoubtedly see a surge in arrivals from around the region, allowing the country to rely less on the long-haul visitors from North America and Europe that have traditionally been the targets of marketing efforts.
“The Philippines is really looking into the near-haul market and this makes a lot of sense when you look at the boom that is happening in the region,” says Vernie Morales, director of Philippine Department of Tourism offices in Chicago and New York, and whose territory spreads to Canada. “It goes without saying that if you know your economics and mathematics and geography then you will look more closely now to nearby countries.
"That’s not saying we will necessarily give less importance to North America and Europe, because there really is a desire to get the world to really know the country better.”
There are more encouraging signs.
Citing positive first quarter trends, Philippine president Aquino predicted in March that the country could come close to stamping the passports of 5 million visitors in 2012. Aquino said that the more than 400,000 visitors welcomed by the country in January 2012 was the “highest monthly visitor count in our history.”
"We are living in exciting times," says Jimenez. "This is the first time we have a President, His Excellency Benigno Aquino III, who fully supports tourism. It is the vision of the country to rebuild a vibrant tourism industry."
As for considerations of whether existing tourist infrastructure and services are up to the task of accommodating an influx of visitors -- saying you'll attract 10 million people is one thing, providing them with top-rate service is quite another -- Filipino officials say improvement plans are in place.
"The Aquino administration has identified tourism as a top priority industry," adds de los Santos. "Almost half of the government infrastructure projects have been aligned to support access to our cluster tourist destinations."
Filipino food: Helping or hurting?
The warmth, hospitality and smiles of Filipinos are major lures for tourists, says Peter Perfecto of the Makati Business Club.
The archipelago offers a gorgeous sunset over Manila Bay, a perfect cone-shaped Mayon Volcano, plus the Taal Volcano, the world’s smallest volcano, he raves.
“The Puerto Princesa Underground River [was] recently voted as one of the new Seven Wonders of Nature,” Perfecto adds.
But while natural attractions are proven lures, food is often of equal concern to travelers when choosing where to spend vacation funds.
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Critics describe much of the Philippines' cuisine as focused on relatively mundane meals and fast food, which may be why there is a scarcity of Filipino restaurants abroad.
Restaurants often act as frontline ambassadors in promoting a country and educating foreigners about its culture. While many worldwide are familiar with Thai, Indonesian and Vietnamese cuisine, fewer are devotees of Filipino food.
“Philippine food is an acquired taste, and one I haven’t acquired in nearly 25 years,” says a longtime foreign resident who worked in Manila’s development community and asks to remain anonymous.
“The food sucks, and it’s not that healthy,” he says.
In addition, the Philippines has been slower than regional rivals to attract numbers of high-profile international chefs who can bring international media attention to local cuisine.
Officials and others quickly dismiss such reviews.
“When we bring guests to Filipino restaurants, popular dishes such as adobo, lechon, kare kare and sinigang are not served in the same way as they are made in fast food chains,” Perfecto says. “There are also popular fried, grilled and boiled street food called kwek kwek, adidas, IUD, helmet and balut. Green mangoes are dipped in a salty shrimp paste called bagoong.”
"There’s so much more to Filipino food that has yet to be tasted. It is unfortunate that it has not yet been discovered," says Jimenez, repeating his "awareness" mantra. "Even President Obama trusts his food in the hands of a Filipino. The first woman executive chef in the White House is a Filipina! Filipino food is not 'uncompetitive' it’s just undiscovered."
Turning the stream into a river
So, is raising the country's international profile all it will take to make the Philippines more internationally renowned as a “fun” destination?
The Department of Tourism clearly thinks so.
But the old bugaboo of budget could hamper the success of its current campaign.
"Many of the neighboring destinations have tourism industries going back decades," says Guerrero. "We only have a fraction of their budgets. However, the one place where we do have an advantage is in social media. Almost 30 million Filipinos are on Facebook. So it’s the people at the heart of the travel experience who are promoting the country via the campaign."
"Our challenge is to penetrate the market in a strategic and compelling way given our limited budget," says Jimenez. "While most countries around the world invest millions of dollars to attract more tourists, we are proud to say that the new campaign has actually spent zero in above-the-line advertising.
"The DOT has only released three official memes, and from our last count, there are around 12,000 versions flying around the Internet, each proving why it’s more fun in the Philippines."
Social media outreach is crucial, of course, but the Philippines is hardly alone in its strategic use of the Internet.
All of this leaves the skeptic to wonder how much benefit can come from pushing a familiar message -- even throwing more money at it, for that matter -- that historically has produced limited gains.
It was more than just mildly embarrassing for the Philippine Department of Tourism to be found recycling a tourist pitch from 1951. It was worrisome.
Philippine beaches, mountains and jungles are spectacular. Filipinos are warm, generous hosts. The food can, in fact, be delicious. The country’s turbulent history and multi-layered culture are fascinating.
But none of these are new messages, and none have yet propelled the Philippines beyond second-tier status as an international tourist destination.
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A new direction, a new way of promoting the Philippines may be required, but it can be difficult even getting officials to address perceived obstacles.
When asked whether that goal of raising foreign visitor totals to 10 million by 2016 is realistic, one overseas-based Philippine tourism official, who asked not to be named, offered a meek: “We are doing our best.”
For his part, Jimenez is relentlessly upbeat.
"We keep telling everyone, the tourism picture, or snapshot you’re getting today will be very dramatically different in two years when a lot of these new gateways start coming out of the chute," he says. "But the time to get excited, the time to start building, the time to start investing in tourism is now."
But that sunshiney outlook has been peddled more than once.
It may be that the first step toward hitting the ambitious 10-million-visitors goal is for tourism officials to shed their blinkered “1951 mentality” and start facing up to the reality that in the travel game, reputation and perception are the backbone of marketing; and to acknowledge head on that the Philippines has a multitude of negative stereotypes to banish before it can successfully build upon its positive attributes.
The Philippine Department of Tourism promotes the country’s attractions, and there are many to brag about. But bathing serious deficiencies with opulent adjectives and optimistic slogans, or worse, ignoring them altogether, isn’t the same as washing away the woes.
Have you been to the Philippines? Have opinions about tourism and travel there? We'd love to read your thoughts in the comment section below.