, APRIL 3, 2007 (STAR) KRIPOTKIN By Alfred A. Yuson - It seemed ironic that as our traveling party made its way by ferry back to Hong Kong after a full day in Macau, on the second day of the Philippine Tourism Products Presentation 2007, a video documentary aired onboard would feature rather gruesome images of trash-mountain scavengers.

Most of the passengers onboard were napping, ensconced on the hovercraft’s comfortable seats. It was late at night, nearing ten o’clock. But any eye that opened drowsily and caught the stark images on the flat screen would have easily identified them as that of the Smokey Mountain or Payatas variety.

Dark brown kids were shown attacking a sea of garbage with hooking implements that could gather up plastic and other salvageable refuse. It seemed like a BBC channel, too, or at least the content provided had come from BBC; the telecast itself was in Chinese.

We didn’t understand what was being said, but the few of us in our party who did catch sight of the discomfiting images for a few minutes recognized these as of Philippine provenance. Notably, the docu wasn’t particularly about Manila and environs; nor did it touch on environmental degradation, rather on what seemed to be global social inequities.

Still and all, it was difficult to sidestep the paranoia that someone in Hong Kong had it in for us, or more specifically, our country’s image. How often had we heard in the past, after all, that for some strange reason, Hong Kong authorities seemed to consider us as rivals for tourist arrivals. Or maybe even in matters of investment. Why, instances of mayhem occurring in the Philippines were quick to gain splash treatment among the front pages distributed in the Crown Colony.

Did they think we were out to grab foreigners by the planeloads when their host hub was hit by the Asian bird flu and SARS scares? That we could effectively "poach" on their market? Or did, say, Macau feel threatened by the upsurge of gaming tables in Manila and Northern Luzon, which drew in the Taiwanese, as well as some Japanese and Korean heavy rollers?

It all seemed inconceivable, but there had been all that talk in Manila, once even making it to the halls of Congress: the question of why our country kept getting terrible press in HK. Why, in Singapore it wasn’t that bad, nor did KL make it a habit to put us down, apparently content with what it had to offer — "Truly Asia" — in marketing its own strengths at no expense to any neighbor.

Hong Kong and Macau are of course a jetting spit across the South China Sea. Hardly do they have tropical beaches to offer, let alone much more of territory to develop as diverse tropical come-ons.

Maybe there was some basis for that concern that they had to keep out-crabbing us in the Southeast Asian tourism and investment bucket. Who knows, once us Pinoys mastered the art of the spa resort, streamlined international carrier operations, got our act together by having NPA and Muslim terrorists obliterate one another — well, this source for domestics could dry up.

Whatever the case, we used to have a Tourism office in Hong Kong, one that has since been given up, maybe because the results from the official effort weren’t deemed worthwhile. And while our Department of Tourism has established a Team South Korea and a Team Japan to lead and coordinate specific efforts at building up more tourism revenues from those countries, no Team Hong Kong/Macau exists.

It is still up to our Consul General in Hong Kong, the honorable Ambassador Alejandro A. Vicente, to grace official functions having to do with tourism interchange.

Last week, the DOT also sent Undersecretary Phineas A. Alburo to head a modest delegation for the two-day presentations that targeted potential tourists among Hongkongites and Macanese. Given the relatively small if combined population of these two SARs (Special Administrative Regions beholden to mighty China), the seduction effort was also directed at the foreign expatriates and tourists already enjoying themselves in the former British and Portuguese dependencies.

The PHILTOA or Philippine Tour Operators Association president, Joselita Pestaño, and secretary general Catherine de Mendoza were also on hand for the travel mart aimed at tour agencies and buyers of Philippine tourism products, the local press corps, and partners in the travel industry. Rounding out the delegation were private tourism sector participants.

On April 17, the Pine-Maple Room of the Intercontinental Hong Kong at Tsim Tsa Tsui was the venue for lunch, speeches and PowerPoint presentations. Leading off with the welcome remarks was the dapper ConGen "Al" Vicente, whom we know to have an abiding interest in literature. Parts of his speech should serve as evidence, as much as they render honest appraisal:

"... The Philippines considers Hong Kong an important bilateral partner in many areas, including tourism. Through the years, by virtue of our geographical proximity and the historical and cultural links that bind our nations, the Philippines and Hong Kong have enjoyed productive relations in this field. While visitor arrivals from the Philippines to Hong Kong hit a record high in 2005 at a little over 391,000, visitor arrivals from Hong Kong to the Philippines have decreased owing to a number of factors, one of which, I’d like to believe, is adverse publicity.

"To counter this trend, the Department of Tourism has launched new initiatives to improve visitor arrival statistics from Hong Kong and to encourage Hong Kong investments in the Philippines tourism industry. This afternoon’s activity is one such initiative.

"Today’s Philippine Tourism Product Presentation will basically give you new reasons why Hong Kong should invest in the Philippines and why Hong Kong travel agents should promote the Philippines to Hong Kong tourists. The presentations to be given by our collaborators in the industry and by Undersecretary Alburo will showcase the exciting developments happening in the Philippine travel industry today. We believe these developments address the basic factors that the average and even the well-traveled and sophisticated Hong Kong tourists seek in a destination: world-class accommodations that are havens of relaxation from the hustle and bustle of city life; first-class service and hospitality that have made the Filipino world-famous; efficient and reliable air shuttle services; bargains and shopping opportunities that could only be found in the Philippines; and most importantly, value for money..."

Rica Bueno, who heads the DOT Team Asia-Pacific, then introduced the keynote speaker, DOT Usec. Phineas Alburo, who spoke on "Philippine Tourism in the Future."

At six-foot-three, Usec. Alburo certainly lent more than his imposing frame, Cebuano charm and distinctive baritone to the occasion, as he cited major attractions in the "Central Philippines Super Region." He waxed optimistically on the development of existing airports and establishment of new ones, such as four in Palawan alone. Cebu, Bohol, Negros, Siquijor, Panay, Boracay and Romblon were highlighted, with familiar images of white-sand beaches and resorts, hotel facilities and watersports amenities, wildlife and fiestas looming large and bright on the video screen.

Now if I were a Hongkongite, or someone passing through and done with electronic gizmo shopping, why wouldn’t I want to take advantage of over 50 weekly flights to Mactan, seemingly for a song, and in exchange for a wonderful tan, guitar music and fresh seafood, natural bounty and nightlife only our South can offer in such lilting, lissome variety?

Teodoro Locson of the Cebu Chamber of Commerce also spoke on the "Grand Opening Salvo" for this year’s Queen City offerings in May, such as the Shop Cebu program inclusive of mall shows for tourists, and the "Suroy-suroy sa Sugbu" or Cebu Countryside Tours from June 11 to 16.

Foreign speakers included Stephen Wong, Honorary Advisor of the Association of National Tourist Office Representatives (ANTOR), who shared his insights on "Hong Kong Outbound Travel Trends," while AsiaSpa Magazine editor Catherine Nicol offered arguably the best draw to our archipelago when she litanized the wondrous spas she’s been to, and attested to the marvelous hilot treatment and use of virgin coco oil.

The same pitch was made the next day at the Macau Tower, an impressive new facility on a reclaimed swathe that has pushed back Stanley Ho’s once-famous Hotel Lisboa & Casino far inland. (Oh, a Grand Hotel Lisboa now rises in a bid to become Macau’s tallest structure, a lotus-shaped one, too.)

The Macanese, at less than half a million, and their gambling visitors who tire of Las Vegas East, inclusive of Arizona-desert replicas of the biggies such as Wynn’s, MGM Grand, and The Venetian (opening soon), Warner Bros. Studio and Toys R Us outlets, and "The World’s Highest Skyjump (or bungee jump, at 233 meters)," could well try parasailing over Olango Island or gliding on tiptoe up the Canopy Walk off Cagayan de Oro.

After the presentations, one-on-one business meetings took place across the tabletop displays and then some, with the affable Marco Polo Cebu GM Johannes "Hans" Hauri, and Agnes Macapia representing the Bahura Resort & Spa in Dauin off Dumaguete, Anilao Outrigger Resort, as well as Cruise Island Adventure packages receiving the most queries. Only coincidentally did both offer weekend holidays to their respective havens for lottery-draw winners from among the press corps.

So now we should expect increased arrivals from the cities straddling the Pearl River estuary, especially when it’s written how the Mactan-Mandaue Bridge at night could rival all four glowing bridges from Macau to Taipa Island, or how the view from Kowloon of the Hong Kong Island skyline, illuminated, can get tiresome, and should for a holiday weekend give way to the charm of a lightning display above Siquijor, as seen from Bahura’s beach, while a hilot applies coco oil on one’s tropical sun tan.

From Macau to Mactan, Kowloon to Kalibo, it can’t be a bridge or a ferry ride too far.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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