June 14, 2004  (MALAYA) By RUBY GONZALES  -  BOHOL made its maiden bid in tapping the international dive market with the 1st Bohol Dive Fiesta, which was held in Tagbilaran from May 28 to 30.

Over 20 Tagbilaran and Alona-based dive shops, hotels, resorts, tour operators and transport companies met with more than 50 buyers and media who flew in from Australia, Belgium, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and US, and participated in a travel exchange, ocular inspections of resorts and hotels, and dive excursions and tours around the province.

High hopes were pinned on the first-ever dive event in the Central Visayas.

During the opening ceremony, Bohol governor Erico Augmentado referred to the event as "the deciding moment for Bohol tourism."

Bohol started gaining popularity among tourists as a jump-off destination from Cebu because of accessibility, especially with the introduction of fastcraft ferries. Arrivals steadily firmed up as tourists discovered more reasons to visit the island province.

On top of the textbook knowledge of the Chocolate Hills, there are, among others, the tarsiers (whose "poster boy" Charlie was presented to no less than his namesake Prince Charles at the Malacaņang during the term of President Ramos), river cruises, centuries-old churches, caves, beaches and dive sites.

And it is the latter which tourism stakeholders would like to find their niche in international tourism.

To prove the local government's intent to fully support the program, Augmentado announced that Danajon Reef will soon be opened to divers. Danajon, which boasts of a double barrier reef is one of only five such reefs found in the world as well as being the only one of its kind in Asia.

Bohol got the recognition it deserved when it was named destination of the year by Kalakbay Awards. Meanwhile, accessibility has improved much, much more when airlines started offering direct links to Manila. With this development, it became even more viable to push for Bohol in the international market as a stand-alone destination where tourists who come would not have to rush back to catch the last ferry ride to Cebu at the end of the day.

The three-day Bohol Dive Fiesta ended with the results that made both sellers and buyers satisfied.

According to feedback received by the Department of Tourism (DoT) and the Philippine Conventions & Visitors Corporation (PCVC), a good number of buyers gave firm commitment to start sending divers as soon as possible.

The Dive Fiesta was conceptualized by the DoT to give worthy dive sites all over the Philippines their own moment to shine. The first Dive Fiesta was held in Anilao in October 2003, the second in Davao earlier this summer.

Holger Horn, president of the Alona Beach Community Foundation (ABCF), was among those who attended the event in Anilao. He liked what he saw, particularly the quality of buyers.

ABCF comprises hotels, resorts and dive shops in the beach section of Panglao Island. Part of its thrust is to market the destination by attending travelmarts. He said that they were never lacking in interested people going to their booths and getting brochures. But only five percent of such inquiries led to sales.

At the Anilao Dive Fest, the buyers who came had serious intent to do business. It was the kind of seller-buyer encounter that the members of ABCF could benefit from. The group got in touch with PCVC and the DoT and got the preparations going.

The formal meeting of the sellers and buyers was initiated at the Travel Exhange on the first day. Inquiries of that meeting was complemented by dives and oculars the following day. Certified divers among the group were finally given the chance to see for themselves what the underwater attractions of Bohol are all about. Among those who deemed themselves luckiest was the Singaporean group. During their first dive, what would they have swimming in their watery midst but a whale shark?

Late morning was spent on the island of Balicasag, where the Philippine Tourism Authority (PTA) owns and manages a dive resort. The island's waters are teeming with marine life. More snorkeling was done before a picnic lunch was served. A local band serenaded the visitors.

The buyers had time to see more of Alona Beach after lunch. Its busiest strip is where most of the ABCF members are located. There are a range of accommodations that cater to backpackers and to the middle and upscale markets. Several of the member resorts on Alona have swimming pools and a host of other sports and leisure facilities.

Aside from marketing, ABCF likewise bats for the preservation of the environment.

Rates and accommodations were discussed, products tried and the local scenery imbibed. But there was one more important number in the Dive Fiesta's program: It was a visit to the Philippine Coast Guard's Rescue vessel, the BRP Batangas.

Less than a year old, the US$18-million vessel has a decompression chamber that could save the lives of divers. The vessel which is currently deployed in the waters of Central Visayas has, among others, a helipad.

A medical officer explained in great detail the importance of the decompression chamber and how it functioned. To highlight the vessel and crew capabilities, a mock rescue effort was conducted wherein a couple of fishermen were saved from a burning boat.

The visit to the vessel gave the buyers one more very good reason to push for the dive sites of Bohol. A buyer was very impressed; he said that even they don't have such a vessel in his native country, Singapore.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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