(STAR) CRAZY QUILT By Tanya T. Lara - The picture is of a woman on the beach. She is sitting on white sand, long hair on one side, her bare back to the camera, and she’s looking out to the blue sea. Even if you don’t read the copy on the top of the picture, it’s plain to see what this is all about: a tropical vacation.

This one, however, is not just about escaping to the beach or lying on a hammock that’s tied to two coconut trees and sipping piña colada — it’s also about seeking wellness, creating a balance in one’s life and learning to stop and smell the sea breeze. Thus, the campaign of the Department of Tourism (DOT), “The Philippines: Islands of Wellness,” got great exposure at the fifth annual conference of the Australian Spa Association (ASPA) last month in Sydney, Australia.

It was the Philippines’ first time to participate in the ASPA conference and it was the only country represented where 34 other participants were spa operators, publications, and suppliers of spa products and equipment. Apart from the exhibit, there were talks on how to run a spa, wellness in the workplace, spa tourism and understanding customers. Australian Olivia Newton John even made a brief appearance at one talk.

The Philippine participation was spearheaded by the Spa Association of the Philippines Inc. (SAPI) headed by president Marjorie P. Lopingco. The DOT campaign comes just at the right time, when tourists are focusing on getting away and seeking to heal their body and mind.

It comes at a time when people are eschewing mass movement for individualized itineraries. Tourism Attaché for Australia and New Zealand Consuelo “Lito” G. Jones says the Australian market is totally different from the rest of Asia. “First of all, most Australian travelers are ‘independent travelers,’ which means they travel on their own, they don’t go into group movement. The only time you see that kind of movement is when they go to a conference or when they’re on incentive travel. Of course, they’ll go to an agent for their tickets and accommodations, but when they go to an agency, they already know where they want to go, what they want to do and why they want to go. They don’t travel blindly.”

Maria Rica C. Bueno, head of DOT’s Team Asia Pacific, says the Australian market posted an eight percent increase in tourist arrivals from 2006. From promoting general travel to the country, it is now targeting certain markets with specific attractions and “Pinoy spa” is one of them. In Australia, a country with its own magnificent beaches and underwater attractions (they have the Great Barrier Reef), the wellness campaign makes so much sense.

Rica was part of the DOT team that conceptualized the marketing campaigns of the department back in 2001. “We divided the whole health tourism into two categories — spa and wellness, and medical tourism.” She adds that the DOT’s vision is to have our traditional hilot become as globally known as the Japanese shiatsu, Swedish massage, Chinese reflexology, and Indian ayurveda. “I think we are starting to achieve that goal. In fact, hilot was on the list of the US Spa Finder’s ‘Hot and Getting Hotter Spa Trend’ for 2006.”

At the ASPA Conference, the DOT team brought a hilot consultant, and two massage therapists from the Chi Spa of Edsa Shangri-La Hotel and Shangri-La Mactan to let guests experience the healing touch of Filipino hands. Apart from the deep-tissue massage hilot, which uses virgin coconut oil and warm strips of banana leaves, they are also promoting dagdagay, a traditional foot massage of tribal people from the Cordillera region using two bamboo sticks; and baños, an ancient tradition of simultaneous bathing of hands and feet with warm water and healing herbs; and other spa treatments influenced by traditional Filipino healing.

It’s a promising strategy for the Philippines, especially now that several government agencies — including the departments of tourism, health and trade, and Tesda — are working with the Spa Association of the Philippines to get funding, develop a module, train and create awareness of the country’s wellness industry.

SAPI president Marjorie Lopingco explains that their association is made up of 150 member spas and suppliers. “Spa is a major pillar of the wellness industry, which also includes alternative medicine. The multiplier effect of having a well-organized industry is that the products are developed and particularly important is the human resources component, which is a huge export potential because there’s a huge demand not only for therapists but also for middle management. Without a qualified staff, you cannot develop the industry.”

A pioneer in the local spa industry in the 1990s, a time when the industry was just developing globally and realizing its tourism potential, Marjorie is a veteran of conferences. At one of her meetings with the Asia Pacific Spa and Wellness Council, she was able to network with other representatives from around Asia who wanted her to speak on the country’s healing arts. At one of these conferences, her group was invited to participate at the ASPA, and that’s how the Philippines became the only country represented in the conference.

“The world is looking for an alternative to Bali. We’re not getting that market and we should. In the ASPA, we’re getting the educational benefit and the exposure we need. It’s a tight, high-level show where the people who matter are present.”

Tourism Attaché Lito Jones has been handling the Australian and New Zealand markets for the past 20 years. She says these markets are mostly composed of travelers in their 30s and 40s, and go on vacation from nine to 12 days. “The holidays here are based on school holidays, that’s why the long one is a school holiday.”

That Australia has its own seas popular with surfers and divers doesn’t prevent its people from traveling abroad to seek whiter sands? “They’re very adventurous, they still want to go to beaches abroad to experience different cultures. ASEAN is still getting the majority of Australian travelers. Of all those who travel international, over 50 percent go to Asia.”

Lito says Australians have four holidays in a year — three short ones and a long one, the last of which is from December to January (summer time in Australia, when the kids have their school break). And they also travel in the winter, which is June to August.

One thing people forget is that Australia’s four seasons occur at the “opposite” time of the year compared with countries above the equator.

“People want to go away when it’s so cold. The waters of Australia are not warm all year unlike ours where it’s always warm,” says Lito. “Most of those who travel to the Philippines are from the states of New South Wales, then Victoria and Queensland.” (Melbourne, according to those based there, is a whole other story. There, you can experience four seasons in one day.)

How promising is the spa and wellness industry to get tourists to come? “The more we get ourselves into it, the more we will be competitive. Our hotels and spas have to get more publicity and we should keep hosting educational tours of Australian media and tour operators to promote the Philippines. Plus we gotta advertise here.”

Rica adds that when she went on a spa tour around Sydney, she found out that while Australia is very strong in promoting its own spa products, it does not have its own traditional massage. “We saw some spas offering Thai and Swedish massages, but nothing indigenous to the country.”

She points out that that’s where we can come in to promote our healing arts. “Most of the spa operators and suppliers who came to our booth during the exhibit asked us how they could get trained with our hilot experts.”

Lito says that apart from wellness tourism, the Philippines as a shopping destination is also a very good way to entice the Australian market. “In Australia, we’ve never been really known as a shopping destination. For them shopping is Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand. I’d say that we’re becoming more known for shopping and that it’s become very competitive because they get value for their money in the Philippines.”

The consulate in Sydney has done advertising in train stations, local publications, and soon their posters will go on buses in Sydney and the tram in Melbourne.

The only problem Lito sees is seat capacity. “The rise in tourist arrivals is modest, but then we also don’t have the seat capacity. We only have three direct-service flights on Qantas and three flights a week on PAL. We have less flights a year from the Philippines than they have in a month to Singapore!” She points out that on the short holidays, tourists want to go direct from point A to point B. “We have to have a continuous presence here.”

We all know that in these stressful times, nothing is as stressful as having to fly to a country with multiple stopovers in between. When what you have in mind is to heal and relax your body, you want to get there as fast as you can.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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