(STAR) JACKIE O’ FLASH By Bea Ledesma — China’s moving on up — on the list that is. The country that brought us bargain shopping and chow mein is now climbing up the tourism ladder at an almost exponential rate. At the recent China Incentive Business Travel and Meetings Exhibition (CIBTM), an event organized for meets-and-greets between travel tour operators between China and other countries, the Philippine Department of Tourism (DOT) set up their signature Wow Philippines booth, a vignette of white sand beaches and palm trees waving in the wind against a cerulean sea.

The DOT team, helmed by Secretary Ace Durano, was present to brief the press on the growing Chinese market, beginning with a photo exhibit featuring exotic Philippine locales and followed by a press conference, detailing the team’s plans for future deals with local trade groups. “We are here for three reasons,” Durano announced to a media conference filled with Chinese reporters. “To celebrate the DOT Beijing office’s third year of operation, to visit the booth at the CIBTM and to hold our first tourism awards night.”

Held in honor of tour operators, media and businessmen who’ve played a part in the burgeoning tourist ties between the Philippines and China, the awards night began with welcome remarks by Philippine Ambassador Sonia Brady, followed by Secretary Durano’s follow-up speech. Both toasts highlighted the progress of the DOT in China.

“Last year, we attracted 2.84 million visitors,” says Durano, “that’s an 8.4 percent growth rate over the previous year — and the highest in our history.”

Thanks to the Philippine tourism office in Beijing, traffic jumped a remarkable 171 percent. “In 2004,” he says, “Chinese arrivals to the Philippines numbered only 39,000.” A year and a half after the Beijing office opened, tourist arrivals hit the high notes at a record-breaking 107,456.

Top Of The List

“China is now our fourth biggest source of tourism,” claims Durano. With the opening of the tourism office in Shanghai sometime this month, the DOT expects the growth rate to at least double. While team members remain conservative on the numbers front, the chart, graphically detailing the quick growth rate, is proof enough.

With daily flights between Manila and Shanghai, Beijing and Xiamen via PAL, expectations are high, with the DOT team postulating that demand for air seats will grow instantly.

“I have therefore instructed our tourism attachés and Team China, back in Manila, to work more closely with the airlines based here in China to encourage more charter flights,” says Durano. “Our hardworking people at the DOT have immediately taken the cue so I can announce that we’ll be having our first charter flight from Shanghai to Cebu within the month.”

The team has made plans to expand the Shanghai-Cebu flight from twice to five times weekly, with an anticipated 10,000 tourists to arrive during the last months of the year.

Growing Up

Durano credits the growth to the sudden maturity of the Chinese outbound market. “We’ve positioned the Philippines as a premium destination,” he explains. So instead of competing with mass-market tours, compared to the likes of Thailand, which can accommodate a huge volume of tourists, the DOT has optioned niche markets, which include lucrative tours like diving and leisure. On a previous DOT trip to Guangzhou, DOT Undersecretary Eduardo Jarque noted that golf tours are gaining in popularity each year. Members of sports-oriented tours tend to have deeper pockets — they’re more willing to spend on luxury resorts with beautifully-maintained grounds perfect for golfing. Another major market is honeymooners, a particularly successful niche since exotic beaches tend to make for ideal honeymoon settings.

Diverse Business

“We’re gearing towards business groups,” says DOT attaché Jazmin Esguerra. “When they travel for seminars, they purchase things in bulk and tend to book a considerable number of rooms.” These groups travel during the low season, which ensures a steady round of visitors for resorts and hotels within the country. And they tend to spend quite a bit. “They book conference rooms, go out on tours. And they tend to shop because their entire trip’s been paid for by the company,” Esguerra says.

Already the DOT has received word that out of every 100 tourists from business groups, 45 plan to extend their stay.

That’s good news indeed for a tourism market that got off to a slow start. Now, thanks to a more competitive scene, tourism is picking up.

“Last year, yours truly was bestowed the destination marketer award by Travel Week China, one of the world’s leading tourism and travel publications,” shares Durano. “I see this as a vote of confidence, not for me alone, but for the Philippines as a destination.”

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved