(STAR) BIZLINKS By Rey Gamboa - Fortunately, and as expected, billions of dollars in revenues were again generated by the country’s ever promising but still underdeveloped and underappreciated tourism industry last year.

The number of international tourist arrivals breached the three-million mark, generating revenues of $4.89 billion — a significant leap from the $2.7 billion generated from 2.84 million visitors in 2006, largely due to the longer stay of visitors and bigger spending on shopping, dining and other leisure activities.

Tourism officials have described 2007’s boom in international tourist arrivals as monumental, buoying optimistic predictions for a 10-percent increase in arrivals this year due to sustained intensive marketing efforts in major and emerging markets in Europe and Asia.

We recall that several years ago, the tourism department was harping on breaching the two-million mark in terms of international tourist arrivals. Now we are at three million. Kudos! But that’s just part of the story.

The steady increase per se is something to cheer about. Our numbers when compared to neighboring Thailand and Malaysia, however, are embarrassingly incidental, indicating that the Philippines has to exert additional effort in cornering a more significant share of international tourists vacationing in Southeast Asia.

Let the disparity serve as a wake up call for tourism industry leaders, government, even the legislature to act and not be content with encouraging but only incremental gains by our tourism industry.

After receiving 13.8 million tourists in 2006, Thailand last year exceeded its 14-million mark – almost 80 percent more than the three million visitors we’re so happy about. Malaysia meantime recorded close to15 million visitors last year, with over seven million of them coming from Singapore alone.

The three countries are located in the same region, and their natural wonders, including beaches, mountain ranges, dive sites and other attractions are quite similar and comparable to each other. The question then that must be addressed by government and tourism industry players and officials is: What do the tourism programs of Thailand and Malaysia have that we don’t?

Seasoned travelers can easily say that among the major factors contributing to tourism growth, incremental or otherwise, are the host country’s adequate facilities and infrastructure which ensure the comfort, safety and convenience of travelers out to spend good money on well deserved and sought after vacations.

And when travelers experience lousy airports or hear about it from others, that’s one major turn off. When they do decide to come and visit, the lack of accommodations and facilities see them dismayed and swearing to stick to other more prepared and equipped destinations instead. Sadly, such are descriptions of the Philippines.

Even before we go into the intricacies of tourism development and promotion, a basic element that has been curiously overlooked for decades is the sorry state of our airports, an issue we continuously bring up in this corner.

We can never really approximate or match the level of growth of tourism in Thailand and Malaysia if we continue welcoming and sending off tourists in technologically-challenged ticketing terminals, glorified waiting sheds that we call lounges, and crudely-paved fields passed off as airports.

To further beef up its tourism development and growth efforts, Thailand recently opened the sprawling state-of-the-art, multi-billion dollar Suvarnabhumi Airport. In the first nine months of 2007, the airport opened its doors to 6.6 million international tourists.

The construction and operation of the airport, reputed to be the biggest and most modern in the world, was likewise surrounded by controversy, but the Thais managed to confine the disputes to the backroom, focusing instead on immediately utilizing and maximizing the facility.

In contrast, we have a NAIA III terminal whose operation remains in limbo and whose physical condition has been severely and dangerously deteriorated.

Likewise, we have ideal international-standard airport locations and facilities at Clark Field in Pampanga and Subic Bay in Zambales which are underutilized while we keep shooting ourselves in the foot by showing the world how congested, backward and ill-managed our premiere airports are.

Even the American and European chambers of commerce have made observations and recommendations on how to improve our air and transport system for the sake of tourism development. Still, we see no definite, strong-willed action from our leaders and election-time-friendly politicians.

Almost two decades after the Americans vacated their military bases in Clark and Subic, its world class air and seaports are still underutilized.

Shortly after the Americans left, the idea of developing Clark as the new premiere international airport was raised. But to this day, no major development toward that goal has been accomplished, nor serious planning for the same. What a waste of opportunity.

Clark Airport, renamed Diosdado Macapagal International Airport (DMIA), just needs a bigger and more modern passenger terminal and ample transportation links to Metro Manila as it already boasts of two international-standard parallel runways with extra space for the construction of a third one to maximize the operational capacity of the facility.

The foreign chambers cited that the distance between DMIA and Metro Manila is almost the same as the distance from the capitals of Korea and Malaysia to their newly built airports located away from congested metropolitan areas.

Of course, a highly efficient and modern railway and road network made their airports highly and conveniently accessible to the capital city and vice versa. That is what Clark needs if it is to be converted – as it should be – into the new premier airport of the Philippines. Relying on the NLEX alone is a joke.

In 2006, DMIA handled 470,000 international arrivals and registered a 35-percent growth in the first quarter of last year. The three runways alone could easily boost air traffic to 75 flights an hour compared to the current 15 to 20 per hour at the NAIA due to runway limitations, congestion and the fact that all traffic is in limbo once an aircraft stalls on the one and only runway of this undeservedly called international airport. Pathetic, indeed.

More on this topic in succeeding columns.

‘Pag-usapan Natin’ at IBC-TV 13

Watch “Pag-usapan Natin,” a segment of the IBC-TV 13 news program News Tonite, from 10:30 pm to 11 pm (Mondays to Fridays) as we discuss issues that have relevance to our everyday living. The topic this week is our ailing sports program and the stark possibility that we would face another bleak harvest of Olympic medals. Viewers may send their comments to Sunshine Television c/o Valle Verde Country Club, Pasig City.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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