MANILA, NOVEMBER 21, 2007  (STAR) By Butch Dalisay - Kunming isn’t the first city most people would think of when they plan on touring China. It can’t come anywhere close to Beijing, Shanghai, Guilin or Xian in drawing power. While it can boast of its Stone Forest, its year-round temperate climate (for which it’s been called the “City of Eternal Spring”), and its rich variety of ethnic minority cultures, Kunming is far enough off the usual path — out in southwestern China’s Yunnan province, close to the Burmese border — to be ignored.

Indeed, when you motor on the sleek highway from the airport to your suburban hotel — plowing through the downtown area and its McDonald’s and KFCs — you’ll wonder quickly where old Kunming has gone. There may have been a time when this 2,000-year-old city, like many of China’s frontier outposts, possessed a certain roughness of character that today would be worth traveling thousands of miles to see, but it’s all been replaced by high-rise apartments and swanky new hotels with bling-bling lights and splashy signs.

But for a few days earlier this month, all tourist roads in China led to Kunming, where the eighth edition of the China International Travel Mart (CITM) — one of that country’s biggest travel expos — was being held from November 1 to 4. Since anything in China is big, this is how big it was, exactly: over 2,000 exhibitors from 90 countries, spread out over six exhibition halls, each one of which could have hangared four 747s.

The CITM alternates each year between Kunming and Shanghai — an interesting idea, because the two cities couldn’t be more different: one provincial and mile-high (at an elevation of 1,900 meters), the other coastal and cosmopolitan. They share, however, the same commercial energy, drawing from the same trough of China’s mind-boggling 10-percent annual growth rate (some cities in the interior are growing even faster, like Kunming’s and Chengdu’s 13 percent).

In Kunming, the economic engine is driven primarily by industry, minerals like salt and phosphate, and crops like tobacco, but tourism is rising, driven by such major events as the 1999 Horticultural International Exposition and the CITM. (You know it’s a work in progress when you see an office building with a sign that says “Yunnan Service Center for Sparse Tourists” — yup, I also did a double-take.)

The CITM, of course, serves not only Kunming but all of China, and all the world. That’s where the Philippines’ Department of Tourism comes in. This year was its fourth foray into the CITM market, and our small but lively contingent was led by the DOT’s “Team China” (one of seven such teams organized by Sec. Ace Durano to focus on our strongest and priority markets — China, Korea, Japan, India, the US, the Asia-Pacific and Europe) under Usec. Eduardo “Edu” Jarque. The urbane but unpretentious Edu is as enthusiastic and as indefatigable a promoter of Philippine tourism as you’ll ever meet, and he was ably supported by team members Arlene Alipio, Marian Obispo, and Shanghai-based Gerard Panga, as well as a 12-member troupe of Bayanihan dancers and musicians.

Just as importantly, private tour operators and related entities also represented the Philippines, including Jeron Travel and Tours, Winfar Cebu Travel and Tours, Direction Travel and Tours, CK & Philippine International Travel, the Panoly Resort Hotel, Best Cruises ‘N Resorts, the Philippine Retirement Authority, and Cebu Pacific. With the Bayanihan’s day-long and unflaggingly high-spirited performances drawing in the crowds to the Philippines’ 90-square-meter booth — dressed up as a beach with a sunny blue sky, and strategically located near the entrance to the middle hall — all these representatives pitched in to sell the Philippines to both casual passersby and travel professionals.

With all the political travails we’ve been going through — including that explosion in Makati the investigators have yet to figure out — you’d think that selling the Philippines to tourists would be an unenviable and even fruitless task. Think again. As it turns out, tourism demand is rising at an even faster pace than we can accommodate potential visitors.

I witnessed this myself when a tour operator pleaded with Team China to open more flights and hotels because more of his clients wanted to fly to Boracay. I was incredulous — weren’t these people the least bit apprehensive? — but as Edu Jarque explained it to me during a similar sortie last June in Shanghai, tourists from China “don’t worry about travel advisories,” unlike their Western counterparts. “They know what they want, and they’ll go and get it.” (Most interestingly, Jarque says, Chinese tourists value souvenirs with the word “Philippines” stamped, silk-screened, or etched on them.)

With China’s rising affluence, it’s easy to see why overseas travel is booming among the Chinese, and why everyone in the rest of the world wants a piece of it. The Chinese now account for the second-largest group of foreign tourists in the Philippines, out of a total estimated to hit the three-million mark by yearend. (The list is topped by Koreans, followed by the Chinese, the Americans and the Japanese; the decline in Japanese tourists, Edu says, is a general phenomenon, and not confined to the Philippines.) To bring in even more visitors, the DOT has worked with other government agencies like the Bureau of Immigration to relax the usual requirements, such as by reclassifying Chinese and Indians as “non-restricted nationals” and allowing groups to come in under group visas.

These tourists usually head for the predictable top spots — the beaches of Bohol, Boracay and Cebu. But Edu notes that other destinations and kinds of tourism are cropping up. “Believe it or not,” he says, “the Koreans and the Japanese love volcano tourism. Some of our partners are promoting kulinarya or food tourism. Our spas promote wellness tourism. Our schools are undertaking education tourism by teaching English and by offering sought-after courses like illustration and aviation mechanics. And speaking of film tourism, two Bollywood companies are coming over in November just to shoot their dream sequences here!”

Meeting the challenge of developing new destinations and upgrading facilities are fresh investments that now total some US$4 billion, Jarque says, poured into such places as Marinduque, Romblon, Davao, and Iloilo, as well as into the renovation of old standards like the Manila Peninsula and the opening of a Banyan Tree resort on an island in Northern Palawan. Complementing investments is the lowering of fares by local carriers and the aggressive promotion of Philippine attractions in international fairs like Kunming — for example, Palawan dive tours in Europe, where six travel fairs will be held in just the first half of 2008 (“The Germans have fairs for spark plugs,” Edu observes wryly).

Domestic tourism is also on the rise. Jarque notes how “It used to be that you went to the province to visit an aunt, but that’s no longer the case.” There’s still Tita Mely to visit, of course, but our hinterlands now offer added attractions such as the butanding or whale sharks of Donsol, Sorsogon. For this new, eco-friendly activity, locals who used to drive tricycles if not butcher these animals were retrained to serve as “Butanding Interaction Officers” who now guide limited numbers of tourists to the whale sharks and ensure a peaceful encounter.

Local government units, Jarque says, are beginning to understand and profit from the value of properly managed tourism. To help them along, the DOT provides them with tourism master plans, as well as translators to promote their attractions in Korean, Chinese and Japanese.

Filipino-Americans are no longer as interested in the bahay-kubo experience that might require them to huddle under the roof with a dozen gawking relatives, Edu says. “They’re now looking for more high-end housing,” buying homes in Tagaytay and condos in Libis or Makati as investments and getaways.

Again, with distractions like the Glorietta explosion, it’s hard to imagine all this activity going on, but — as Undersecretary Jarque notes, “not one cancellation” happened because of the Makati incident. Apparently, one of Philippine tourism’s strengths is its imperviousness to politics. (Now, if they can only leave politics out of tourism administration!)

Our target of three million tourists is still a long way off from Thailand’s 12 million annual visitors, and basic problems need to be attended to if we’re to meet that objective, like infrastructure. (Hmm, did anyone say “Terminal 3”?) Direct charter flights will be starting soon between Shanghai and Kalibo — but that means, Jarque says, that Kalibo airport will have to be ready to receive international flights and travelers, not just in terms of the runways and lights, but also in terms of people to provide immigration, baggage, customs, and transport services. Jarque hopes that agencies like the DOTC and the LGUs will pitch in to sort things out.

Let’s pray they do, or all that goodwill our dancers and agents generated in Kunming could go to waste, and what a pity that would be.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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