, FEBRUARY 13, 2007 (STAR) THE X-PAT FILES By Scott R. Garceau - Every year, hundreds of thousands of Germans, Europeans, and a sprinkling of Asians converge in the peaceful town of Düsseldorf near the Rhine River, population 580,000, for the biggest water sports exhibition on the continent.

Spread out over 17 halls of the massive 220,000-square-meter Düsseldorf Exhibition Centre, Boot Messe ("Boat Show") is the place for speedboaters, sailors, surfers, yachtsmen, fishing fanatics and, of course, divers to meet and network, sell their wares, and — for the colorful Dive Philippines contingent set up in Halle 3 — promote and book diving tours to our 7,107 islands.

"Is this your first time to visit the Philippines?" That’s the usual opening question from cheery Department of Tourism employees here. They ask German passersby what kind of marine life they’re interested in and steer the curious toward dive and resort operators ready to book their vacations. For many Germans, it’s a repeat trip to our shores.

The DOT has done its homework on Germany, learning that people here usually take 10-day vacations, are educated, active, adventure-seeking, and curious about the natural world and other cultures. So far, so good. The Philippines seems ready to woo about two percent of the total outbound long-haul German tourists, some four million people. If they could get those 80,000 tourists to come, then money at Boot Messe Düsseldorf has been well-spent.

Of course, it’s not so simple. Other Asian destinations — especially Thailand, that wonder of self-promotion — are also vying for those German visitors. Closer to home, the Red Sea in Egypt, the Mediterranean, Spain and other more local destinations also attract Germans. But the Philippines hopes that exotic locales with abundant natural marine life will lure these visitors more than, say, sunken ships and wreck diving.

For years and years, dive operators trying to sell Germans on Philippine dive destinations were freelancers, hooking up with travel agencies and tour operators at Boot Messe who would take them under their wing. But now, after some false starts, the DOT has firmly claimed its space in this marketplace: for the second year, the country has a booth here — a colorful, attractive one (with large images of the pygmy seahorse and other remarkable local creatures by young German lensman David Hettich) that’s twice as large as 2006, with 11 tour operators — more than double last year’s number.

Will this help convince more Germans and Europeans to see the Philippines as a tropical paradise — and shed any lingering safety concerns they might have? The DOT hopes so.

Central to this year’s Philippines promotion is the catchphrase "xxs bis XXL" — a familiar way of selling things to Germans: they’re used to things being available from "extra-small to extra-large" size. For the Philippines, this refers to its teeming biodiversity — everything from the microbiotic pygmy seahorse, the smallest fish in the world, to macrobiotic species like the huge whale sharks found in Donsol.

On hand for this Boot Messe was DOT Assistant Secretary Cynthia Carrion and Philippine Ambassador to Germany Delia Albert. They joined in some of the fun during the Philippines’ reception night, cheering on three German divers who took the main stage in a race to assemble their dive tanks. Grand prize tickets from Qatar Airways went to Andre Schnabel, who will visit several resort destinations in the Philippines, including Coco Beach and Club Paradise.

After the raffle draw ended and the exhibition booths had closed down for the day, cocktails were served at the Dive Philippines site as 50 or so tour operators drifted over to the blue, ocean-like carpet that linked the two information desks. Local versions of pancit and fried lumpia were served, along with cocktails devised by a Cebu Hilton bartender, and for several hours, the Philippines was the most popular destination at Boot Messe.

Working with a relatively tight budget, the DOT office based in Frankfurt is largely responsible for planning and organizing the Philippines’ participation in the weeklong event. Starting in 2001, DOT attaché for Western Central and Eastern Europe Venus Tan and her small office began scoping out Boot Messe, making contacts, meeting with local dive operators.

"I realized that diving was an important growth industry," says Tan. "I wanted to put all of them under one roof here, in one booth. At that time there was no budget. In 2004, I recommended that the DOT participate, and in 2006 it happened. At first, (the local tour operators) didn’t believe it, but then they came." The DOT engaged the private sector, worked out what they needed to make it work, and prepared colorful brochures and materials on the Philippines (translated into German, of course). For Boot Messe 2006, the DOT budget was a modest P4 to P5 million. This year, it’s more like P12 million.

"I’m the queen of kulit," Tan says with evident national pride. "The Philippines may not be able to catch up to places like Thailand for mass tourism, but on the other hand, they can’t compete for diving. That’s our strength." All in all, it’s a bigger, more welcoming space than last year’s DOT booth. It’s visible from the hall entrance, while the "pathway" design lures in many interested passersby.

All one could hope for is more Germans. The harsh weather and sub-zero temperatures throughout Europe initially kept some dive fanatics away at the start of the fair on Jan. 20. But by week’s end, the dive hall was packed: almost double the number of visitors, and streams of parka-clad Europeans passing between the twin pillars of the "Dive Philippines" booth, sampling the coffee, cookies and gummy dolphins, and learning more about what makes RP such a hot diving spot.

Germans tend to travel in March, July and December (Boot Messe is traditionally held in frigid January to allow Germans to firm up their post-Christmas travel plans), spending an average 3,500 to 4,000 euros (about P225,000 to P258,000) on their trips. Among ASEAN destinations, the Philippines is number one, followed by Micronesia (Palau, Yap Island), Australia, Maldives and the US.

It may surprise Filipinos to learn that all the dive operators selling the islands here are foreigners. Some are Dutch, some Italian; most are German. They’ve been coming to Boot Messe on their own for years, and have made crucial contacts. It also helps that they speak German. Arguably, these operators — including Patrick Ritter of Ananyana Beach Resort, Tommy Soderstrom of Asia Divers, Georg Bender of Atlantis Beach Resorts, Rene Buob of Calypso Diving School, Tom and Richard Windemuth of Coco Beach, Dirk Fahrenbach of Dugong Dive Center, Michael Deckert of Explorer Fleet, Manfred "Mac Mac" Schmidt of Octopus Divers, Luigi Petrosillo of Sampaguita Resort, Paul Erkamps of Seaquest Dive Center and Nina Rüther of Whispering Palms — have laid the groundwork and tourist contacts over the years. The DOT hopes someday that more "fully Filipino" operators will make it to Düsseldorf; after all, Filipinos have a knack for selling, too. They just need to learn the language, apprentice themselves, and find out what the customers really want.

Mostly, they like taking pictures. "Most of the Germans come for the micro pictures, the small fish," says Erkamps, representing B.J. Schaap for Seaquest. "If you have a group of 10 people, most of the time six have cameras or video cameras." Beautiful photos of rare, exotic and tiny fish are one selling point. Hospitality is another. "The people are so open and friendly. If you treat them with respect, you can make friends for life." And value is yet another: "Before it was a select group of people — they just visited the European countries, the Mediterranean — but nowadays they want to go and explore. And it is easier, the cost is less for Asia, and especially the Philippines, than to go to France or Italy. Only the plane is expensive, but if you make your extension longer, it’s very affordable."

Since the DOT set up here at Boot Messe, the outlook has improved, according to Tom Vindemuth, who is selling Coco Beach along with his father Richard (affectionately known to booth workers as "Papa Coco"): "We’re getting more interest, since there’s more peace and quiet down there. It’s easier to convince people. Before, the dive shops down there were competing, fighting for customers. But with the DOT helping, there’s more cooperation, which means more visitors to the Philippines."

Dirk Fahrenbach, who runs the Dugong Dive Centre at Club Paradise, says "We have a lot of returning German visitors because of the variety of landscapes and the quality of diving opportunities. You might go to Thailand for this, or somewhere else for wrecks, but in the Philippines, you never run out of things to show. It’s a huge country, there’s something for everyone."

He’d been diving for 25 years around the world, but found the Philippines a place "full of hospitality," a place that he "could still enjoy years and years from now." He came, and stayed, 22 years ago. Thanks to coast monitoring efforts by local dive operators, he says the dugong population is as strong as ever, which is good news for tourism. "Last year, there were 20 adults, four babies — the biggest increase."

Safety concerns still spook Germans, though. "People have gone to the Philippines for the past several years because it has had no bad news," he notes, while its neighbors struggled with SARS, bird flu and tsunami fallout. Those problems went away, "but for some reason, the safety concerns for the Philippines remain." Like a stigma, the image of abducted tourists still attaches itself to the destination.

Rene Buob, German operator of Calypso Diving School and Pinjajo Resort, Boracay, has also met this fear head-on. "I’m surprised at people’s negativity. I get a little high-blood because people say, ‘Philippines? Isn’t that where people pop out of the surf with machine guns and take hostages?’ I ask them, how many people were killed in the London subway bombing? They don’t know. Or the war in Bosnia? They don’t know. But they remember that one incident in the Philippines." That one incident was the abduction of three Germans among dozens of other tourists from Sipadan island in 2000. The beheading of one American tourist shocked the world, though the Germans were eventually released. "So it’s an ongoing effort to change that perception. I’m very happy with the way the DOT is handling this now. There’s lots of interest. Plus, when people see me here, they know I live in the Philippines, and their perception changes," says Buob.

Georg Bender of Atlantis Beach Resorts has a somewhat different take on bad news: sometimes it helps. "Bad advertising is still advertising. From a marketing point of view, the abductions put the Philippines on the map. Then, it’s a matter of image correction and education." A smiling, towering German who has attended Boot Messe for the last 10 years, mostly on his own, he thinks the Philippines has to sell its strengths. "Branding is very important. People can’t make decisions based on price wars. It’s a value-for-money destination." Bender senses the Philippines is ready for a big boom in tourism. "The readiness is there. The perception has changed from ‘I can’t go there.’ People are not as hesitant as before."

When you try to get a fix, though, on how many visitors actually book trips to the Philippines while at Boot Messe, it’s not as clear-cut. Some operators say 60 to 70 percent of initial inquiries turn into firm bookings. People take pamphlets, or they give their e-mail information for follow-up reservation forms; but often, tourism takes patience.

"We go in there to create a name, not to sell," reminds Bender. "It’s recognition. It’s a long-term effect." It may take a few years before that initial visit in Düsseldorf turns into a trip to the islands. They may hear from friends who have visited, then dig out that old brochure, visit a few websites. It’s kind of like fishing, or possibly diving. "When people say, ‘How many bookings did you get?’" continues Bender, "I say, ‘Plenty.’" 

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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