MANILA, October 21, 2005 (STAR) By Lynette Lee Corporal - While the country continues to wallow in its "dis-ease" state due to the endless political bickering that’s putting the economy in a yoyo mode, potential tourists are looking at the Philippines as a place of healing. Ironic, yes, but true.

In the recently concluded Pacific Asia Travel Association Travel Mart held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, queues for a sampling of our very own hilot kept forming at the Department of Tourism booth all throughout the five-day event held at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Center. As the heady scent of lemongrass oil essence permeated the booth premises, Lady Alarba of Total Image Day Spa of Celebrity Club, and Sanctuario Spa manager Meynard Cabagnot ably did their work. Those who wanted to try the Filipino massage had a choice between a 10-minute relaxing backrub and get a taste of a hilot massage, or try the dagdagay, the country’s traditional foot massage. Other delegates waiting for their turn closely examined locally-made spa products on a nearby counter. A lot of queries came up about the healing properties of the virgin coconut oil, as well as Sanctuario Spa’s All-Natural Slimming Oil Aromatherapy line, scrub products and soap, shampoo and body wash products. Both Alarba and Cabagnot are licensed therapists who underwent extensive training in these traditional Filipino massages.

In a talk given by Dr. Michael Galvez Tan at the ISPA Singapore Conference recently he said that hilot was practiced in the country even before the Spaniards came. Due to the country’s active thriving trade relations in the pre-Spanish colonial era, and thus exchange of knowledge and influences, traditional Chinese medicine, India’s ayurvedic medicine and the Yunani-Tibb (Greek-Persian) medicine have influenced our hilot. Eventually, the hilot evolved into the technique as we know it today.

Being a traditional healing practice, it is believed that it’s still being practiced in all of the 42,000 villages in the country. "There are more than a hundred thousand traditional massage therapists — or hilot sa pilay — in the country who are tasked to perform a healing massage several times a day," says Tan. But, as always the case upon the encroachment of modern technology, if this ancient knowledge is not passed on, the healing technique might go the way of the dodo. This is why the DOT’s efforts to promote the country as a wellness destination will help a lot in bringing back interest in this skill.

One distinctive feature of the hilot, says Tan, is the use of "warm strips of banana leaves minimally laced with extra virgin coconut oil, which is applied to the body before and after the massage." The leaves, being naturally ionized, are supposed to "determine which affected areas need an infusion of massage." Apart from its healing effects, banana leaves are also believed to have astringent and cleansing effects. Apart from banana leaves and coconut oil, a variety of herbs are also used. If you belong to that generation where you experienced being bathed by your lola in water boiled with guava leaves, then you’ve experienced a manghihilot’s touch. Or if you’ve suffered from a sprained elbow or ankle and you remembered being massaged by a betel nut-chewing old man who also put some leaves and some other stuff on the affected part, then you’ve been treated by a manghihilot. But those scenes are of the past. The manghihilots now are learning to incorporate modern techniques and products yet remaining true to the old knowledge.

Or perhaps it’s the other way around. How many times have you had a Swedish or siatsu massage and being told, "Ang dami ninyong lamig," or "Pasmado kayo." Those are hilot terms which refer to the "theory of humors." According to Tan, manghihilots believe that everything on earth is labeled as either hot or cold. Having too hot, or too cold, a body is not balanced. And the way to do that is through the hilot.

Hilot is just one small part of the Filipino traditional healing method. There are other healing modalities that Tan pointed out and these include the paligo (that rinsing bath filled with leaves and flowers believed to have healing properties), the oslob (steam inhalation from infusions of air-dried aromatic medicinal herbs), dinalisay (decoctions of a mixture of indigenous medicinal herbs), kisig galing (biomagnetic energy healing), unang lana (virgin coconut oil), tapik kawayan (tapping of thin bamboo sticks to affected parts for circulation and releasing of energy blocks), among others.

The dagdagay, meanwhile, is the traditional foot massage practiced in the Mountain Province, specifically in Sagada, Besao, Tadian, Bauko and Sabangan. Also known as kol-kolis, the dagdagay uses two small sticks with which to massage the feet in a scratching and rolling motion from the heels up to the toes to stimulate circulation. For a more practical purpose, young boys who traditionally practiced this massage on their elders would also use the sticks to take off dirt from the soles. Similar to the Chinese foot reflex and even the Thai foot massage, the dagdagay is an authentic Filipino foot massage that has been used for centuries and is now making its presence felt abroad.

"The Philippines has a lot of potential as a wellness destination, as evident in our success in such travel fairs as the International Tourismus Borse in Germany and the International Spa Conference in Singapore," says the DOT’s Philippine Tourism Office attaché to Singapore Gerosel Siquian. "We have successfully introduced the Filipino spa brand featuring our traditional hilot and dagdagay to the international community."

Well, this is just about the right time to promote the country as a wellness destination. With the surge of health tourism promotions among Asian countries led by Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, the Philippines has a lot to offer in this area of well-being. If only this country’s brilliant political minds could make up their, uh, minds on whether to shut up and get back to serious work or to commit hara-kiri just so the country could move on and catch up with its neighbors.

It’s true, we’re being overtaken by our Asian neighbors when it comes to tourist arrivals. The International Arrivals to Asia Pacific Destinations for 2004 figures as gathered by the PATA Strategic Intelligence Center, the Philippines registered 2, 459, 710 tourist arrivals in 2005 (it was 2, 156, 493 in 2004). Seems good enough, but not when compared with tourist arrivals in Thailand (over 14 million and counting), Malaysia (over 19 million as of presstime) and new kid on the block Vietnam (three million and increasing by the minute).

"PATA’s Strategic Intelligence Center predicts that in 2006, international arrivals to Malaysia will break the 20 million mark," says PATA president and CEO Peter de Jong.

As proof of Malaysia’s growing popularity, the PATA revealed that 375 global buyers representing 339 organizations from 54 countries were recorded. There were also 704 sellers representing 307 travel organizations from 37 countries. Four huge halls at the KL Convention Center were appropriated by the exhibitors and which occupied 3,600 square meters of floor space. The PATA also noted that there was an 8.7 percent increase in buyer delegates, which represent 20 percent more countries. Moreover, they registered 42 buyer-seller appointments, more than the 38 last year. Three source markets were identified – Australia, India and China – as the ones that will drive much of the tourism growth to Asia Pacific in the coming years.

Despite the stiff competition, the Philippines, as can be seen by the inquiries and interest from buyers at the travel mart, is holding its own fort. With the presence of private entities such as Bayview Hotel, as well as Philippine Airlines and Philippine Retirement Authority (PRA), Siquian is positive that visitors — whether for health purposes, vacation, business, or for retirement — will come. The PRA, for instance, aims to promote the country as a retirement haven for foreigners and former Filipino citizens. It’s a perfect set up. Say, an elderly tourist could experience what wellness tourism, Pinoy-style, is all about by trying out the various Filipino healing modalities, at the same time, be presented with an option – a good package is a must – to retire in the Philippines. Too good to be true? Only if there’s no action undertaken.

"We’re also targeting those who looking for MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions) venues and we’ve received a lot of inquiries already in this matter," she says.

A quick survey of the exhibition halls revealed how some countries are gung-ho about their tourism industry, thanks to a robust budget. India, for instance, had 39 booths. Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, of course, went all out in putting their best foot forward. But at the end of the day, some buyers and sellers –perhaps out of curiosity – found themselves trudging over to the Philippine booth to have a much-needed massage, like tired moths going towards the light. If it’s any indication (and if taken good care of and promoted well by concerned parties), the hilot might just save the day for the Philippine tourism industry. If that happens, Mang Kepweng will be very happy.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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