CLARK FIELD, PAMPANGA, December 3, 2003  (STAR) By Ding Cervantes — The peso may be plunging to all -time lows against the dollar in other currency markets, but in duty free shops in this former American air base, the peso can be worth less than 40 to the dollar.

Desperate for survival, duty free shops here are resorting to all sorts of promotional gimmicks to lure early Christmas shoppers by offering rates of as low as P39.90 to the dollar and discounts as high as 70 percent.

The strategy seems to be picking up during weekends as residents of towns around Clark and even from Metro Manila and other provinces fill up parking areas at the shops for Christmas decorations and noche buena fare this early.

"I don’t know how they survive on such promotional strategies but it is possible that some of the duty free shops have calculated their rates and discounts in a way that would still yield profits," said Oliver Cagungun, officer-in-charge of the enterprise operations and management department of Clark Development Corp. (CDC), which runs the Clark special economic zone.

Still, prices of many goods, particularly Christmas decors, have been noted to be much lower at the 16 duty free shops which have survived heavy losses through the years.

Christmas lights that sell as much as P300 at malls in nearby Angeles City fetch only P100 at one duty free shop, which also recently imported assorted Christmas trees from China in time for the holidays.

While there have been nagging reports that some of the shops have survived by smuggling out imported items for sale in markets elsewhere, the CDC has initiated moves to curb illegal activities by strictly imposing import quotas and establishing close links with the Bureau of Customs in the monitoring of movements of imported goods within the 4,500-hectare economic zone.

Cagungun stressed, however, that frozen meats are no longer sold at the shops, although cigarettes are again being sold after an import ban earlier this year.

"With the country’s trade liberalization commitments to the World Trade Organization, these duty free shops are likely headed towards being ordinary groceries," Cagungun said. Six duty free shops have already shut down in recent years.

Meanwhile, the shops have not lost hope of at least recouping investments with the lure of low peso-dollar rates and considerable discount offers to the thousands of residents of Angeles, Mabalacat and Porac in Pampanga, and Capas and Bamban in Tarlac, who are entitled to purchase a maximum of $10 worth of duty free items daily.

Those outside these areas are also entitled to purchase a maximum of $25 per month while foreign tourists can buy as much as $1,000 worth of goods within 48 hours upon arrival in the country.

Balikbayans are given the bigger privilege of a maximum of $2,000 purchases also within 48 hours of arrival.

Apart from Christmas decors, the duty free shops remain stocked with liquor, household wares, canned goods, candies and chocolates.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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