MANILA, JULY 10, 2006 (STAR) By Julie Cabatit-Alegre - John Nabong left the Philippines when he was 13 years old to live with his family in San Francisco, USA. He has not been back since, but he plans to visit the land of his birth after he finishes high school. He is now 16. John belongs to that second- or even third-generation of Fil-Ams to whom the latest campaign of the Department of Tourism (DOT) is directed.

"There are an estimated 3.3 million Filipino-Americans in the US alone," says Rene R. de los Santos, tourism director for Northwestern USA. Add to that an estimated 750,000 Filipino-Canadians north of the border, and what you have is a huge potential North American market. Last year, over half a million from the US and Canada came to visit the Philippines. With the aggressive DOT campaign dubbed "The Philippines: Explore, Experience, Return," the number of arrivals is expected to increase by at least 30 percent by yearend.

During the two-day Fiesta Filipina 2006 event to celebrate Philippine Independence weekend from June 10 to 11, which was held at the breezy Civic Center Plaza right in front of the City Hall in San Francisco, the DOT put up a tent where Internet-ready laptops were set up. By simply logging on to the DOT portal www.experience, lucky participants instantly got a chance to win a free roundtrip ticket to the Philippines via Philippine Airlines.

As the first phase of the two-phase DOT campaign, the "Free Flight Giveaway" promo is open not only to Fil-Ams but also to all North Americans. The online raffle promo is the perfect medium to reach the young techno-savvy market targeted by the campaign.

"As much as 80 percent of Asian-Americans are on line," says Asian Institute of Management (AIM) professor Tomas B. Lopez Jr., who helped conceptualize the campaign. The built-in questionnaire also serves as a data-gathering and survey tool.

Upon logging in, the participant earns an electronic entry point after providing personal profile and demographic information. On the second level of participation, the participant earns an entry point per answered survey section designed to determine his travel personality with questions that inquire into his travel destination preferences, purchase habits, and impressions.

"The information that we are able to gather will help us fine-tune the campaign and even develop future campaigns," Lopez explains.

More points can be earned if the participant can refer family and friends who will also register, or if participants would confirm booking to any of the destination packages offered.

If he is able to answer a trivia question correctly such as, "What is the rodeo capital of the Philippines?" he earns one more entry point.

"Thus, the participants have the option of increasing their chances of winning depending on how much they want to get involved or how deeply they wish to explore and experience the Philippines," Lopez concludes.

The first 50 free plane ticket winners were drawn during the popular Wowowee show, which was telecast over The Filipino Channel from the Civic Center Plaza where it was held on June 11, a day before Philippine Independence Day. Two hundred more lucky winners will be drawn within the next months until the end of the third quarter of 2006.

For the second phase of the campaign, dubbed "Out-of-the-Box" promo, to be implemented later in the year, winners will get balikbayan boxes full of prizes, such as free hotel accommodations, car rental, tour packages, and even a fully-furnished condominium unit.

"It is a new twist to the original iconic balikbayan promo of years back," Lopez recalls. When Basil David, together with his wife, kids, and mother, came to visit in 2003, he brought home 10 balikbayan boxes of pasalubong for his relatives in Pampanga.

"And we still had to buy more pasalubong items at duty free," says David, a retired accountant who now greets and assists guests at the front door of the Crowne Plaza at the corner of Powell and Sutter, just a stone’s throw away from the Philippine Consulate.

Jojo Mariano had just completed his military service in Iraq, and he came to spend a relaxing day at the Fiesta Filipina at the Civic Center with his wife Editha and their infant son Ethan. He did not have to think twice about logging on and participating in the DOT "Free Flight Giveaway" promo. He came to live in the US when he was 10 years old 20 years ago. He has happy memories of his last visit to the Philippines when he attended the graduation of his sister from medical school a couple of years ago. He welcomed the chance of winning a free plane ticket so he can visit again.

Unlike Jojo, Gloria Marie Araneta has never been to the Philippines. She belongs to the third- generation of a family of Filipino migrants. Unfortunately, all she has heard about the Philippines are the negative news coming from media. But she might just be enticed to visit, with the free flight promo. On a Sunday afternoon, she could be found outside Macy’s at Union Square giving free stress tests to passersby.

While the residents of San Francisco remember the devastating earthquake that shook the city in 1906, Filipinos in the United States commemorate another major event that also took place a hundred years ago. This year is the centennial of the first significant migration of Filipinos to the US. From the manongs who worked in the sugar plantations of Hawaii to the farmhands who labored in the West Coast fields to the Alaskan canneries, the profile of the Filipino migrant has changed through the different waves of immigration through the years.

In the 1960s, Filipino professionals, mostly in the medical field, came to the US. Filipino-Americans are said to constitute the second largest Asian Pacific American group, next only to Chinese- Americans. A number have carried their Filipino heritage with pride at the peak of their success. Diosdado Banatao, the so-called "techno-preneur" in Silicon Valley, is considered the Filipino Bill Gates of America. Atty. Rodel E. Rodis was elected to the San Francisco City College Board in four citywide elections from 1992 to 2004. It’s been said that the Filipino voting block is the tipping point in the San Francisco political arena.

On June 12, Philippine Independence Day, the Philippine flag was raised at the City Hall in San Francisco by Mayor Gavin Newsom no less, together with Consul General Maria Rowena Mendoza Sanchez and other Philippine officials and guests, as well as consulate staff in attendance. The day June 12 was declared Philippine Heritage Day. In November, Mayor Newsom will be coming to visit Manila, San Francisco’s sister city. It will be a sentimental journey as well since the mayor’s maternal grandfather was a World War II hero in the Philippines.

But even before the mayor’s visit, the ambassador’s and consuls general’s "Tour of the Philippines" is scheduled from the second to the third week of July. Now in its second year, the tour is led by highest-ranking officials of Philippine embassies, consulates general, tourism offices, and trade offices in the United States and Canada. It is meant to be not only a journey of discovery, and for returnees to re-experience the wonders of our country, but also to present opportunities in areas for investment, business, and retirement.

The DOT campaign "The Philippines: Explore, Experience, Return" targets not only Filipino-Americans but also non-Filipinos.

"First-time visitors are encouraged to go around and ‘explore’ the country," explains Ma. Corazon Jorda-Apo, head of DOT’s Team North America. "Those who have been here before are encouraged to re-experience or ‘experience’ the new Philippines, while retirees are enticed to ‘return’."

Prof. Lopez elaborates: "There are three layers of images of our country. The first is the image of instability, as projected by news media, such as CNN. The second is the touristic image, of Mayon Volcano and beaches and rice terraces. And the third is the image of the Philippines in the 21st century, of mega malls and advances in telecommunications."

The resulting advertising copy makes use of the so-called disruptive approach. The ad for white-water rafting in Cagayan de Oro, for example, has for its copy "Go and feel how tough life can be," while "Go back to the stone age" is the unexpected copy for an ad featuring a massage and spa treatment. Medical tourism, which includes holidays for health and wellness and even beauty treatments, is also one of the newest packages in the basketful of packages on offer. Thematic and lifestyle packages include adventure packages, beach holidays and heritage tours.

As for the matter of security, this, too, is being addressed.

"We will have a 24-hour tourist desk and 1-800 number that visitors can call," Jorda-Apo assures. "For the first time, our campaign is being promoted online, in search engines such as Google and Yahoo."

It is also now more convenient to make bookings online. "Our target market is computer literate," says Oscar P. Palabyab, DOT Undersecretary for tourism services and regional offices. "We must take advantage of technology advances in the 21st century."

Evelyn Causing could not stay for the flag-raising outside City Hall that Monday morning since she had to return to work at the State Office nearby after taking her short morning coffee break. For the past 10 years that she had lived in the US, she had been coming home to the Philippines to visit every two years. But even as she walked away, she held the small Philippine flag tightly in her hand. If she had stayed just a little longer, she would have heard the Philippine national anthem being sung by the Philippine consulate staff, and it would have brought a lump to her throat.

Consul General Sanchez deftly defined that moment when she said, "Keep faith, believe in our country, and love our country more."

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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