Tour operators from China other countries attend Manila meeting

09/04/2010 - MANILA, Philippines—Despite the heavy drubbing that the Philippines got after the bloody Manila hostage-drama last week, representatives of nearly 100 travel agencies and tour operators from around the world still attended a major tourism convention in Manila on Friday to do business in the country.

Welcomed by the festive beats of drums and gongs, 96 foreign delegates—including two from Hong Kong and eight from mainland China—attended the Philippine Travel Exchange 2010 at the Manila Hotel, where they hammered out business deals with representatives of 112 Filipino resorts, hotels, and other local tourism companies.

The delegates came from Australia, Austria, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, Spain, Taiwan, the US, and Vietnam.

"I am truly grateful that despite the challenges that we faced the past week and a half, we were still able to attract 96 foreign delegates from around the world and 191 Filipino sellers representing 112 companies," Tourism Secretary Alberto Lim told the gathering.

"I believe this is a clear statement of your confidence in Philippine tourism. Moreover, it recognizes the importance of maintaining strong partnerships between foreign and Philippine stakeholders especially in difficult times. For this, I am extremely thankful," he added.

Lim said that the tourism industry in the country continued to grow, with 1,436,735 foreign tourists arriving in the country during the first five months of 2010 or "an increase of 11.19 percent over the same period last year."

"If we are able to sustain this growth rate through your unwavering commitment to support our promotion efforts, we have no doubt we will hit our target of 3.3 million arrivals by yearend," Lim said.

However, the effects of the bloody hostage drama that left eight Hong Kong tourists dead was still felt at the gathering as nearly 30 delegates cancelled their reservations. They included eight delegates from mainland China and three from Hong Kong.

"(The hostage crisis) has a big effect in Hong Kong. The market dropped 80 to 90 percent, especially after the Hong Kong government issued the travel alert," said Percy Kwan, one of the two delegates from Hong Kong and the sales and marketing manager of Wah Yan Tat Travel International Company.

He said that while there were still some Hong Kong residents who come to the Philippines, the cancelled bookings had reached "80 to 90 percent."

So, why did he still attend the convention?

"I understand what happened. It's only a special case. That accident can happen anywhere. That's why it's called an accident," said Kwan. "Actually, I can't see any problem. I didn't feel threatened here."

The partners of Kwan's agency include the One Crescent Place, the Blue Lagoon Villa, and the Alta Vista hotels in Boracay and the Badian Island Resort and Spa in Cebu.

However, Kwan said that if the Philippines wanted to lure back Hong Kong tourists, it should do it only after the crisis and its fallout has subsided.

"We need to do more things to cushion the market like lifting the travel alert and keep pushing through with advertising about the special attractions here. But this should not be done at this time; later," Kwan said.

He said that before the hostage-taking, the popular destinations in the Philippines for Hong Kong residents were Cebu, Boracay, and Bohol.

"We're also pushing for Palawan... all areas like El Nido, Amanpulo, and Coron," Kwan said.

Before the crisis, around 125,000 tourists from Hong Kong arrived the in the country annually, tourism officials said.

Wang Lin Jie of China International Service Shanghai said the hostage drama was a "real pity" because the popularity of the country among Shanghai residents had been “going up, fast and sharply.”

She said that her firm had even noted that, at one time, more of their clients wanted to go to the Philippines than to Thailand.

“Actually this year, the Philippines was really popular in Shanghai. It' was really going up, fast and sharply,” Wang said through an interpreter. “But what happened a few days ago will affect this a lot. It’s a real pity. It might affect the travel market (up to the) first half of 2011. In the short term, people are still afraid of coming to the Philippines.”

“But if the government puts up more effective solutions, a good investigation, and give us answers, after a while, we are sure people will come back to the Philippines for travel,” Wang added.

Wang said her clients were mostly corporate types who attended conventions, conferences, incentive tours, and exhibitions.

“For Shanghai people, the most famous [destinations] are Boracay and also Cebu, and Bohol. We have our own chartered [flights] going to these destinations,” she said. “Palawan is also a very nice place. There might be more but Chinese people are not yet familiar with them.”

Like Kwan, Wang also advised tourism officials not to launch an advertising blitz now among the Chinese because it is still a “very sensitive period."

“Once we start over, we can focus on the high-end market. For Shanghai cluster, one of the suggestions is visa-free [visits to the Philippines]. That’s one of the best solutions to promote people to come here,” she added.

The hostage crisis was also a “big story” in Europe but Europeans were still interested in visiting the Philippines, said Betina Vogeli, of Tui Swiss and Spinout Sports Tours.

“It’s a big story but we told our clients that it does not happen two times at the same place,” said Vogeli. “So, yeah they are afraid but I think [the media reports] are bigger than the actual dangers.”

Vogeli said her company has yet to register any cancellations since most of their clients go to tourist destinations in the Visayas and not Manila.

“We (do) sport tours and so we are offering diving and surfing. Usually, they don't stay in Manila. Maybe for an overnight but most of our clients go directly to the south,” she said.

Vogeli said the top destinations were Bohol, Cebu, and the south of Palawan because “there we have a lot of divers. It's really famous.”

Tourism Undersecretary Benito Bengzon Jr. said the government would refrain from making any promotion blitz in Hong Kong and mainland China, from where 155,000 tourists arrive in the country every year.

“We have to be very sensitive about the situation. What is important now—and this came out of our meeting with the private sector last week—is to continue to express sympathy to the families of the victims to the residents of Hong Kong,” Bengzon said.

“At the appropriate time, we will do our road show,” he added.

Bengzon said that Phitex was a “very encouraging sign” that the tourism industry would recover from the aftermath of the hostage drama.

“For us, it is a very encouraging sign that despite all the negative news, despite all the goings-on, these people flew—some of them flew half way across the globe—to be here,” he said.

He said the 11 percent growth in tourist arrivals during the first five months of the year might “cushion” the blow from the hostage-taking crisis.

“The trend shows an upswing so I think we'll have a cushion. We are still confident that we will reach the 3.3 million target. What it means is that we will have to work harder,” Bengzon said.

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