(STAR) Europeans are flocking to the Philippines for scuba diving.

The number of European tourists in the Philippines jumped by 13.6 percent in the first half of the year as the Department of Tourism began promoting the country as the world’s best diving site.

Speaking to reporters, Tourism Secretary Joseph Ace Durano said scuba diving is emerging to be the magnet for high-spending travelers who look for world-class diving facilities.

“Scuba diving is one product we are very competitive in,” he said.

“The Philippines for the first time this year is focusing on scuba diving. The biggest travel wholesalers in France and Germany began to carry the Philippines again.”

Durano said the DOT has shifted its marketing thrust in Europe to scuba diving to win back the attention of European travelers.

Recently, the DOT signed an agreement with Qatar Airways to include the Philippines in its two scuba diving packages, he added.

Durano said international arrivals for the first half of the year totaled more than 1.5 million, or a 7.6 percent growth compared to the same period last year.

“This will be a milestone year for the tourism industry because for the first time in our history, we are looking at breaching the three-million mark by yearend,” he said.

Durano foresees visitor receipts increasing to as much as $2.9 billion or P133 billion this year.

“Visitor expenditure growth averaged 20.11 percent over the last three years, making the industry one of the top dollar earners,” he said.

Durano said more than $2 billion in investments have been poured into tourism estates, hotel and resorts developments.

“An international luxury resort company is now developing a six-star hotel in Elephant Island, Marinduque – a prime example of the global business community’s revived interest in the country,” he said.

Durano said the investments spread out into other emerging destinations such as Marinduque and Eastern Samar, South Cotabato, Bantayan Island, Pampanga and Camarines Sur.

“It is still very much a supplier’s market for the industry, as resorts and hotels are overwhelmed with the strong demand for rooms. It is a good challenge to have and we need to ensure that infrastructure development preserves and sustains the natural resources in these areas,” he said.

Additional new routes have also been opened, such as Korea-Davao, Korea- Kalibo, Taipei-Cebu, and Shanghai-Cebu, as well as with India and Russia, he added.

Durano said the DOT is on the right track and that it was able to set the momentum for 2008 and beyond.

“Year 2007 is a milestone year, but I believe the best is yet to come,” he said.

Durano led yesterday the opening of the 7th Philippine Travel Exchange (Phitex) at the Cebu International Convention Center (CICC), the first time the event was held outside Metro Manila.

Around 110 foreign buyers from Russia, Korea, China, Hong Kong, Japan, France, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, United Kingdom, Hungary and Poland participated in this year’s Phitex, said Tess Mauricio, Phitex project manager.

The event was also participated in by 147 local sellers, comprised mostly of hotels and resorts, tour operators, three airlines and two convention facilities, including the CICC.

“Phitex is our industry-oriented marketing tool aimed at opening up new foreign markets and reviving the dormant ones by directly tapping the major players or big travel firms in our target countries,” Durano said.

Phitex is part of the DOT’s aggressive marketing campaign to attract three million foreign travelers this year and five million by 2010, he said.

Blaise Borezee, a French marketing consultant hired by the DOT, said the Philippines was selected as the “Destination of the Year” for the Scuba Diving Show to be held in Paris in January next year, where around 50,000 French scuba divers are expected to attend.

Durano said the positive travel advisory for the Philippines given by the French government in June will further boost tourist arrivals from the European country in the coming months.

Edward Grigoriev, DOT’s marketing representative in Russia, said the Philippines is now a priority diving destination in Russia.

“The Philippines has a lot of natural and cultural assets,” he said.

Grigoriev said the Department of Foreign Affairs has recently included Russia in the list of countries with 21-day visa free entry in the Philippines.

“We should be quite aggressive in this country, because it has huge territory,” he said.

Vincent Soriano, in charge of promoting the country in Poland and the Czech Republic, said the Philippines is also getting more attention from the tourists from these countries.

In the first half, arrivals went up by 7.6 percent to 1.529 million, he added. – Helen Flores, Mayen Jaymalin

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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