MANILA, JUNE 18, 2007
(STAR) PENMAN By Butch Dalisay - I don’t get together with the folks at the Department of Tourism very often, but I recently had a chance to catch up on developments in the sector when I spent a few days on the road with Eduardo “Edu” Jarque Jr., DOT Undersecretary for Tourism Planning and Promotions. Edu was on top of a project to promote the Philippine spa industry at the 9th International Spa and Wellness Conference and Exhibition in Shanghai, and The STAR had sent me to cover the event — possibly because of my incurable addiction to foot massages, but also, I suspect, because I’d loudly made it known that I’d last been in Shanghai 20 years ago. Once upon a time in China I was a young grasshopper… But that’s another story for another week. (I’ll do my Shanghai story when the full impact of my impressions sinks in.)

I hadn’t met him before, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that Edu Jarque was the kind of seasoned but still sprightly and irrepressibly optimistic career official you want to see in the job he’s holding. A veteran of long postings in LA and London, this ebullient man won’t let pesky problems like politics and natural disasters get in the way of selling the Philippines abroad. In Edu’s world, there may be some things we can’t do much about, but tourism definitely isn’t one of them.

There’s something of a boomlet in Philippine tourism going on, and thanks to DOT Secretary Joseph “Ace” Durano, initiatives like the Philippine presence in trade shows like this one in Shanghai have been part of the reason. International visitor arrivals exceeded 2.8 million last year — with Koreans overtaking Americans for the first time on top of the list; the Japanese came in a close third. That’s still a long way from Thailand’s 12 million visitors, but things are looking up.

“Our best selling points are our beaches and our proximity,” says Edu, “plus the uniqueness of our culture — our Spanish influence, for example, which you won’t find anywhere else in the region. Here, the visitor gets the whole experience, from the water to the golf course to the old church to the mall. They get great value for money. And, of course, it’s the people — in all the exit interviews, it’s the warmth and friendliness of our people that visitors remember the most.”

When Jarque talks about “proximity,” he means our closeness to North Asia, which has accounted for much of the sector’s recent growth. “Focus marketing has been the key,” says Edu. “We’ve targeted China, Korea, and Japan in particular. These people know what they want, and don’t worry about travel advisories.”

Integral to that campaign are the sorties that the DOT has made around the region and in Europe, including participation in trade fairs and exhibitions such as the Shanghai spa convention, which showcases the best and the latest in the international spa and wellness industry, a major tourism driver and domestic employer. China alone has some 157,000 spas and spa-related companies employing 10 million people.

The Philippines had only 87 spa facilities as of November last year, but some of our best spas have already won prestigious international awards, such as The Farm at San Benito in Lipa City, which last year won the second AsiaSpa Baccarat Award given in Hong Kong by AsianSpa magazine. The year before that, Philippine spas also won five out of 16 categories in the first such awards.

The Philippines was represented on the exhibition floor in Shanghai by two very pleasant and well-trained therapists, Catherine Cuesta of Nurture Spa in Tagaytay City and Charisma Berdin of Plantation Bay in Cebu. They were assisted by DOT officials Niel Ballesteros and Gerard Panga, both young and capable professionals eager to answer every inquiry from the visitors who streamed to our seemingly sunlit booth.

Spas are being promoted by the DOT as part of its health tourism program, which draws on our strongest and most abundant resources: our friendly and talented people, and Mother Nature. That’s just one component of a larger effort to bring the best of the Philippines to the world’s attention.

In Shanghai, in particular, not only the DOT but also the Department of Foreign Affairs has been working aggressively to put the Philippines on the economic horizon of the Shanghainese. Last week, the Philippine Consulate under Consul General Jesus Yabes and Consul Aileen Mendiola-Rau were busy overseeing a flurry of activities to celebrate Independence Day.

The Bayanihan Dance Company — which is marking its 50th anniversary this year after touring in 62 countries and winning numerous international distinctions — performed in Shanghai and Beijing. Filipino artist Beth Parrocha-Doctolero exhibited watercolors inspired by her recollection of books she read as a child. A Filipino Food Fiesta was held, with the dishes prepared by the master chefs of the Century Park Hotel in Manila. The venue for all these activities in Shanghai was the new Eton Hotel — which, not incidentally, is 100 percent owned by Filipino-Chinese taipan Lucio Tan.

I had a lively chat over dinner with Ambassador Yabes, who turned out to be the youngest son of a scholar I’d admired since my student days, the late Prof. Leopoldo Yabes, who put together what remains the definitive anthology of Philippine short stories (in several volumes, from 1925 to 1955. I reminded him of one Philippine-Shanghai connection I knew of from a book project I was working on: SGV founder Washington SyCip had spent his earliest years in Shanghai with his grandparents, his grandfather having owned the largest printing press in Asia in the mid-1920s, the Chinese Commercial Press. The ambassador emphasized the fact that among all Chinese, the Shanghainese — who speak a different and somewhat difficult dialect — have always been the most cosmopolitan, with Shanghai having been and still remaining as one of the world’s most important ports. There are about 2,400 Filipinos in Shanghai, Consul Mendiola-Rau told me, most of them businessmen and professionals. Our local taipans, like most Filipinos with Chinese blood (myself included, though no taipan) have ties to Fujian, but Shanghai’s industrial and commercial power in China and the region just can’t be overlooked.

The charm offensive has begun to pay off. On July 12, China Southern Airlines will be inaugurating a Shanghai-Cebu route on 180-seater planes, twice a week; the planes offer business class seats, guaranteeing a range of visitors. Five different travel wholesalers are packaging the flights out of Shanghai, catering to different classes of tourists, from families to gamers to scuba divers. These wholesalers expect to move about 50,000 visitors to Cebu over the next six months.

But it won’t be just Cebu they’ll be hankering for. “It used to be that people went to Cebu, then took a side trip to Bohol,” the Cebu-born Jarque says with just the slightest hint of regret. “Now it’s the other way around.” Bohol has become another prime Philippine destination, buoyed by stellar attractions and new world-class facilities such as the Eskaya Resort on Panglao Island, beside the Bohol Beach Club, opened recently by a local businessman. “We have about 4,000 rooms in Central Visayas, spread out over many different kinds of hotels,” adds Edu. “And so many new investors are coming in — Donald Trump has expressed an interest in The Fort — that a DOT unit has been created just to deal with them. The airlines have also responded positively, with Cebu Pacific ordering new planes and SEAir offering a ‘Paradise to Paradise’ route that will shuttle people from Boracay to Busuanga in Palawan.”

Boracay, of course, remains the jewel in the country’s tourism crown, bringing in some 250,000 visitors a year from here and abroad, many of them Filipinos coming over for the first time. That popularity has produced both its benefits and problems. In the meantime, Boracay’s boom seems unstoppable. “Marketing used to outpace infrastructure,” Edu says, “but infrastructure has been catching up. The building boom in Boracay best attests to this. The Regency has 90 rooms, the Discovery Hotel 88 rooms, the Microtel 30, and the Shangri-La, when it opens, will add 175 rooms and 50 villas. This is on top of any number of smaller boutique hotels that have sprung up to meet demand. Arriving visitors now land on a new pier so they no longer need to be piggybacked ashore.”

I asked Edu about the environmental impact of all this new construction and of unbridled tourism on the island — particularly the problem of garbage disposal. The government, he says, has allotted P10 million to addressing the garbage problem, and the DOT is taking care of sewage and re-piping.

Other, gentler forms of tourism are taking shape. In Donsol, Sorsogon — recently made famous by its resident whale sharks or butanding — the DOT has encouraged the development of a homestay program for the hordes of visitors who have flocked to the town to observe the gentle beasts, only to find that they have few places to stay and little else to do. Twelve homes have signed up for the program, which is part of a new effort to promote Donsol that also involves an exploration of the old town and a firefly tour along the river that tracks incandescent swarms of these insects.

The smart, clean streets and the towering skyscrapers of modern Shanghai reminded me again of how much work needed to be done at home to get from here to there, literally and figuratively. I don’t think even a gung-ho promoter like Edu Jarque believes that tourism can be a magic wand that will banish our woes and deliver us to the 21st century. But he knows it’s a great start and an option that’s so obvious it would be criminal to ignore. “Excuse me if I sound too optimistic!” he tells me more than once with a bubbly, almost breathless, enthusiasm. From a government official, it’s a refreshing change.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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