, DECEMBER 9, 2006 (STAR) By Tanya T. Lara - Kevin the cabbie chuckles as he tells the story. He drives around the streets of London and he sees them waving, pointing at his cab, excitedly jumping up and down, and taking pictures.

That’s when he knows they’re Filipinos.

This native Londoner drives one of 51 black cabs decked out in Wow Philippines livery. His cab is covered with a Philippine beach scene – a woman in a bikini under a colorful beach umbrella, and beyond the white sands, a colorful paraw is floating on the blue waters framed by an even bluer horizon. And in a city notorious for its gray weather and freezing winters, a sunny beach scene is a welcome sight indeed. You can say that the Wow Philippines fleet has turned London’s trademark black cabs (famous for being, well, black) into "sunny cabs" with pictures that tell people the sun shines on our 7,107 islands 365 days a year (except for the occasional freak typhoon, of course).

The advertising campaign was launched last year and this year the Department of Tourism (DOT) strengthened its fleet of Wow Philippines taxis in London, in time for last month’s World Travel Mart (WTM) 2006, a forum that brings together travel sellers and buyers from around the world.

Malaysia and Dubai – countries with bigger promotional budgets – have followed suit, launching their own fleet of cabs. We were not the first tourist destination to do it either. Kevin says some years ago he drove a cab decked out in Antigua livery – but he had never had that kind of reaction from natives of this Guatemalan town whenever they saw his or got into it as passengers.

With Filipinos however…well, the kababayan spirit is something else. Once they get into his cab, he’s grilled about what he knows about the Philippines. Has he been there? Has he seen our beaches? Does he have many Filipino friends? Sometimes, he just wants to tell them: hey, I just drive the cab, okay? And, no, he hasn’t been to the Philippines yet, but yes, he would love to go.

This kababayan spirit that Filipinos display wherever they are is what the DOT London Office is counting on to bring more tourists to the Philippines. At the WTM held last month at the ExCel Center in London’s Canary Wharf, apart from promoting the country to the European market by bringing in tour operators and resort representatives from the Philippines, DOT also kicked off a campaign to get Filipinos in the UK to promote the country.

London-based Tourism Attaché Domingo Ramon "Chicoy" Enerio, who handles the UK and Scandinavian markets, says Travel Philippines is one of the most promising campaigns of the DOT. For one, the Filipino community in the UK –about 180,000 Pinoys, according to Ambassador Edgardo Espiritu – is mostly composed of white-collar professionals who have a better network and access to the traveling class.

"The profile of Filipinos in the UK is 70 percent professionals – mostly in the medical field such as nurses and doctors – and 30 percent domestics, compared to Italy where the numbers are reversed," Chicoy says. "Our medical professionals have had so many years of experience in the hospital service here that the UK system can no longer do without them. If the Filipino nurses pulled out of the national health service, it would collapse."

Apart from that, about 30 percent of Filipinos in the UK are already British passport holders – they are either married to British nationals or were born there. "Filipinos are growing in stature here, there is a growing respect for them for being industrious, diligent and a dependable workforce. Their social standing in their local communities is getting better, too. What we want is for them to become actively involved in marketing the country to the British."

DOT is giving incentives such as free roundtrip tickets to the Philippines to those who register with the program and become top marketers. It is giving supporting materials such as brochures and other mailers which they can use to entice their British friends to visit. Filipino tour operators are also offering packages that are competitively priced.

With Chicoy Enerio as tourism attaché, you can’t ask for a more passionate – or enthusiastic – cheerleader for the country in the UK. And to think that the Tourism Office in London is composed of – drum roll, please – two people: Chicoy and Chit Afuang, the latter being the public relations officer (who also handles marketing and operations of the London office) and a tourism veteran of 35 years. It’s an understatement to say the office runs on a "skeletal staff," but between the two of them, and Team Europe head Verna Covar-Buensuceso, another 20-year veteran based at the DOT office in Manila, they’re doing the impossible task of making headway in the UK market – a market that sunny Asian destinations such as Thailand and Indonesia are going after with all their guns blazing.

Previous to his London posting, Chicoy was tourism attaché of the Paris and Frankfurt offices. He knows the European market like the back of his hand – and is also familiar with the Filipino communities there. Never mind if Filipinos themselves sometimes lead in bashing the Philippines (it’s a prevalent syndrome among our people, which infuriates him no end) – he believes Travel Philippines will complement DOT’s usual participation in travel fairs abroad.

Chicoy says they’re counting on the Filipinos’ love of country to get them to do their part in promoting it. After all, Filipinos who do well abroad never lose that sense of duty to family and country – you just have to create that spark to get them to convert this into action. As Tourism Undersecretary Oscar P. Palabyab says, when you tell people that one tourist is equivalent to four jobs, and one occupied hotel room is equivalent to 10, it makes them realize just how important tourism is in improving the economy. Of course, with Congressmen Edgar Chato and Del de Guzman being at the WTM to observe, we couldn’t help but tease them: "But isn’t one less congressman equivalent to a thousand jobs?" To which they responded good-naturedly, thank God!

The program starts with educating Pinoy marketers on how to promote the Philippines, and how to answer foreigners’ questions about the peace and order situation, which according to Rajah Travel and Tours general manager Jojo Clemente, is still the No. 1 concern of foreign travelers.

"With so many Filipinos living in London, the British should have a better idea of what the Philippines is all about," says Clemente, whose company was one of nine operators that participated at the WTM. "The DOT can do all these projects but if it doesn’t have the support of the Filipinos themselves, it’s all for naught. It’s become incumbent upon our kababayans to spread the good word about the Philippines."

Bayan Ko Tours and Travel owner Renato Contis, an Italian who has lived and raised his family in the Philippines (who also happens to be the dad of actor Paolo Contis), is another vociferous cheerleader for the country. He points out: "You have to be in the travel business for a deeper reason. It’s not just about money, it’s about your love of country, it’s about helping create jobs."

Last month’s World Travel Market (WTM) attracted about 47,000 travel professionals, representing a 13-percent rise from last year’s figures; 134 government ministers and ambassadors and about 3,000 journalists covered the event. WTM boasts the quality of visitors that it gets – those in the travel trade that have the purchasing power.

Chicoy says, "London is a smaller market in terms of volume, but it’s a bigger market in terms of quality and return on investment (ROI)." The British spend an average of 15 nights when they come to the Philippines; spend about $100 per day; and 66 percent of them are college-educated. With an average income of $2,500 a month, they have a lot of money to spare for travel.

Clemente says that of all the travel fairs his company participates in, WTM brings in the most business. "The Philippine exposure at WTM has gotten bigger through the years, we get nicer booths, bigger space, and the promotional materials are created specifically for this market. I like DOT’s strategy because it’s conservative, they don’t do more than what they can handle. We’re taking it slow, we’re taking it very systematically. Although some people might complain it’s too slow, it’s better than doing it haphazardly."

DOT’s strategy in promoting the Philippines is to go into niche marketing, and in the UK, that means the diving market. "In Britain alone they have a lot of divers and the people are adventurers and explorers. They have a long history of navigation and love of the sea," says Chicoy. "Europeans generally dive in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, pero corny na doon. Hardcore divers look for the best kind of underwater encounters, the best corals, the rarest of species."

Chicoy excitedly tells us about the last dive show DOT participated in. British TV host Monty Halls, a leading diver and explorer whose documentaries have appeared on National Geographic channel, had filmed in the Philippines and enjoyed himself so much he practically volunteered to promote it at the dive fair. A former Royal Marines officer, Halls became famous for leading a team of explorers and scientists on an expedition to Southeast India to discover the ruins of a lost civilization under the sea.

"Halls went to Malapascua to film the thresher sharks," relates Chicoy. "He had a wonderful time there not only with the sharks but also with the people. They made such an impact on him that during the ‘Dive Birmingham Show,’ we asked him if he could say a few words about Malapascua. He did a seminar for us for two days for free. The response was fantastic; so many people approached us for brochures after his talk."

Chicoy explains that like the whale sharks of Donsol, the thresher sharks of Malapascua can attract divers from around the world. "They’re very mystical, almost like mermaids and very rare. Malapascua is just one of the few islands in the world where you can find Pacific threshers."

On their first day alone, Halls’ team sighted a number of these sharks and produced awesome footage. "The thing about the leisure market is that the Philippines is not always on the list, but when you talk about the diving market, we’re right on top of the list. The British want to go to the Philippines mainly for diving and they’re willing to pay a lot for a good experience. The common package ranges from $2,000 for about seven days, six nights."

Which brings us to another program the DOT has hatched: Friends Philippines. This time, they are going to mobilize the British who have lived, worked, studied or traveled around the Philippines and have had a good experience here.

The membership, according to Chicoy, is mostly top level – former ambassadors, businessmen, government ministers and members of parliament – with fond memories of the country.

Friends Philippines and Travel Philippines kicked off with a roadshow with the Bayanihan Dance Company and ABS-CBN artists towards the end of the WTM. At the first one at the Baden Powell Center in London, actor Carlos Agassi opened the show with a song (effectively smashing the myth that all Filipinos can sing), followed by singer Nikki Valdez and the Bayanihan dancers. Then the show went to Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, and Bradford.

All shows were well received by Pinoys and their foreign friends, says Chicoy. Indeed, when you see the Bayanihan dancers performing almost forgotten dances that have shaped our culture, there is that incredible swell of pride – the kababayan spirit that never lets us forget who we are and what we can do for the country.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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