MANILA, MAY 29, 2006 (STAR) SHOPSIFTED By Ana G. Kalaw - Sugoi is the Japanese counterpart for "wow", a word that has become very essential to the Department of Tourism’s campaign to market the Philippines’ tourist attractions to the rest of the world. Based on visitor arrivals (and not merely the montage of Philippine tourist sights so wonderfully exploited in karaoke videos), the Japanese have reason to exclaim "sugoi" about the Philippines.

The Japanese comprise the third-largest tourist group in the Philippines (after tourists from the US and Korea). In 2005, Japanese visitors to the country amounted to over 415,000, posting almost a 9 percent growth rate from 2004. The Japanese seem to be attracted to both our lowlands and mountainous regions, based on the number of tourists that have come to Boracay and Banaue in the last couple of years. But they are also curious about what goes on beneath the land, as evidenced by the sizeable amount of interest the Philippine open water diving industry has been getting from the Japanese. Of the 415,000 Japanese that visited the Philippines last year, about six percent or 30,000 came to the Philippines intending to go scuba diving, a figure the Department of Tourism hopes will increase tremendously in the next few years, mainly due to a visible presence in events such as the annual Marine Diving Fair in Tokyo.

Now on its 14th year, the Marine Diving Fair (MDF) is the largest dive fair in Japan and is organized by the Marine Art Center, publishers of major dive magazines such as Marine Diving, Travel Diver, Marine Photo, and Diving School. It is held every April at the Sunshine City Convention Center in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district and attracts a variety of exhibitors: tourism offices, airlines, travel agencies, dive operators and dive resorts from all over the world, and suppliers of dive equipment and supplies. In 2005, the MDF attracted 250 exhibitors and 46,865 visitors.

The Philippines has been a major exhibitor in Japan’s MDF since 2000. Each year, the DOT invites Philippine resort and dive operators to be part of the delegation. This year, the Philippine delegation included major partner Philippine Airlines, dive operator Scubaworld, resorts such as Amanpulo, Marco Vincent, Club Paradise, the Tokyo-based Pacific Cebu Resorts Inc., and the Philippine Tourism Authority. The participation of the Philippines in the MDF sustains interest in the country as a premier dive destination among Japanese. It also boosts dive tour packages through familiarization tours for travel agents and the media.

Japan has one million active divers, more than 70 percent travel abroad. They are willing to spend to be able to experience the beauty and wonder the sport offers (Japanese divers spend more money on their trip compared with divers from other countries). The overseas dive destinations popular to the Japanese are Maldives, Guam, Saipan, and the Philippines. The Marine Diving Awards, held during the Marine Dive Fair, ranked the Philippines as the third best diving destination in 2004 and this year, after Maldives and Palau.

The Philippines, though, has the capability to become the best overseas diving destination for the Japanese. Says Tourism Secretary Ace Durano, "We have a distinct advantage in capturing the (Japanese diving) market because of our rich marine life, wide range of dive attractions and land-based activities, and proximity to Japan."

Aside from having the most number of dive destinations in the Asia Pacific Region, scientists also believe that the country is the center of the world’s marine biodiversity: Dive sites in Cebu, Palawan, Bohol, Batangas, Boracay, Mindoro, and Dumaguete all bear evidence these scientific claims, housing spectacular marine attractions, thriving coral reefs, and a diversity of marine life from the smallest sea creatures to the most impressive pelagics. According to Yasuhiko Yokoyama, section chief of the DOT Tokyo office, "Japanese tourists are looking to see and experience something different." Within the Philippines’ waters, they are sure to encounter something they’ve never seen before.

Our proximity to Japan is a plus factor (Japan is only four hours away from the Philippines). Direct international flights from Japan to Cebu have also helped make the province one of the Japanese’s preferred diving destinations. These flights, as well as the dive packages are considerably cheaper compared with other countries. Kazusama Kitamura, assistant manager of ST World, a prominent Japanese travel agency, cites that Philippine dive tours are equal to or even cheaper than the dive tours offered in the Okinawa area (touted as the most popular dive destination within Japan).

It is the intrinsic beauty of our white sand stretches and clear waters which attract the Japanese. Philippine Tourism Authority (PTA) general manager Robert Barbers believes that our very own Palawan has everything the Maldives (the top diving destination for the Japanese) has. We just have to concentrate our efforts on marketing and promoting the campaign against dynamite fishing, which damages coral reefs and kills marine animals.

If we are to continuously attract the Japanese, and eventually other foreigners into the country, it is also important to upgrade resort facilities and build more rooms, a fact that was raised in a meeting between Robert Barbers and the Japan Philippines Tourism Authority. The PTA is particularly keen on realizing this intent. As an attached agency of the Department of Tourism in charge of tourism infrastructure development especially in underdeveloped areas with huge tourism potentials, the PTA took advantage of the MDF to relaunch the Balicasag Island Dive Resort. Located in Panglao, Bohol, the 25-hectare Balicasag island is now being touted as one of the top dive destinations in the Philippines, an underwater sanctuary with steep coral slopes that house schools of barracuda and jacks, banner and butterfly fishes, batfish, and numerous varieties of anemone with their resident clownfish. Diving equipment and even lessons, as well as watersport services and equipment are provided by the resort’s new upgrade dive shop.

The newly-renovated Balicasag has 20 Filipino-style, air-conditioned cottages, arranged in duplexes, make up accommodations. There are two pools within the resort grounds, one an infinity pool that looks over the ocean, a spa area, and a bar. The restaurant comes with a newly-installed chef and a refurbished menu, which, expectedly, includes a wide selection of Japanese dishes, a very important factor in attracting Japanese visitors. Familiar cuisine, preferably presented in the menu through pictures, is a must for the visually-inclined Japanese.

In the recent Marine Diving Fair, the Philippine booth displayed images of a beautiful girl lying atop a bed floating on pristine turquoise waters. She is model Anne Watanabe, the latest addition to the Department of Tourism’s campaign daughter of famed actor Ken Watanabe (Memoirs of a Geisha, The Last Samurai). Anne’s delicate features and waist-high legs merit a closer look, but it is not these traits that captivate you. In each of the images she shot for the Department of Tourism, whether lounging near a pool or smiling candidly on a white sand stretch, Anne seems to be a woman comfortable and "at home" in a Philippine environment. This is exactly the vibe the Department of Tourism is hoping the Japanese, diver or not, wants to experience in the Philippines, and cause them to exclaim "Sugoi Philippines!" over and over again.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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