THE  EX-PAT FILES:  THE  OLD  RAZZLE-DAZZLE

MANILA, NOVEMBER 26, 2007  (STAR) THE X-PAT FILES By Scott R. Garceau - It’s a little known fact:

Filipinos make up the highest-earning group of Asians in the United States with a median yearly income of $70,000-plus per household.

A fact the Philippine Tourism team in North America is keenly aware of.

Why should the DOT care about this figure?

Because it’s money that Fil-Ams, by and large, are not spending in the Philippines.

While OFWs send millions of dollars home every year, many more Fil-Ams are immersed in American life. They are less likely to visit their homeland or home province, and definitely less likely to view the Philippines as a travel destination.

That’s something Vernie Velarde-Morales, the tireless Tourism Attaché for the Philippine Consulate General in the US and Canada, Midwest Region, wants to change.

Based in Chicago, Illinois, a city with about 80,000 Filipinos (including contract workers), she knows firsthand how hardworking — and high-earning — her compatriots are.

“The point is, the Fil-Ams have the money,” Velarde-Morales tells us during a travel expo held at Navy Pier in Chicago recently. “And a lot of them travel. They travel to Europe, South America. They even travel to Asia — Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia. But they don’t go to the Philippines.”

We’re there for the international travel expo, put on by local TV affiliate NBC-5 and AAA Travel Association, to get a look at how Vernie and her team “sell” the Philippines to the Midwest. There’s a Philippines booth in a prime spot, near the entrance, with the usual welcoming traces of bamboo and palm trees. Lots of Fil-Ams — and Middle Americans — show interest.

Another fact: while Filipino-Americans make up one of the largest groups of Asians in America (roughly four million), only about 500,000 ever return home.

“Those born in the Philippines and the US,” continues Vernie, “a lot of them haven’t thought of the Philippines as home. Or as a visit destination. They feel, ‘We work here, we have our families here, we’ve made our lives here, we’re settled.’”

If you think the Philippines is a hard sell to Fil-Ams, it’s even harder to steer Midwesterners — burly types wrapped in Gortex for this late-October expo, though some are wearing shorts and shrugging off the cold — onto a 16-hour flight across the globe.

Velarde-Morales and her team — consisting of Ma. Corazon “Jun Jun” Jorda-Apo, head of the DOT Team North America, administrative officer Milagros V. Escares and administrative assistant Katrina Campana — have developed a multi-pronged approach. There’s the “direct-sell” strategy — Americans sidle up to the gaily-colored “Wow Philippines” booth, ask a few questions, chat up the Filipinas, and usually walk away smiling with a few brochures. Velarde-Morales and her team have also partnered up with Fil-Am travel operators — like Bernie Encarnacion, a successful hospital financial consultant who made the leap to selling Philippine tour packages a number of years ago (her company is Amazing Vacations).

“You have to start with your own kind,” explains Encarnacion. “An American cannot promote it, a Filipino has to promote the country.”

Her staff of 20 or so sets up tour packages (“We give them a taste of five-star hotels and resorts”) and visits US universities to promote adventure and diving trips. Often now, she finds it’s Filipinas married to American men who are luring their spouses back to discover the wonders of the Philippines. (You know the old story.)

But a lot of times, it’s Fil-Ams who need persuading. “We have to explain to Filipinos that the Philippines has better golf courses than Japan,” says Encarnacion. She recalls charming a group of Fil-Am visitors by taking them to the Singing Waiters & Waitresses Restaurant; another group happily left Greenhills Shopping Center with bags and bags of pearls. “Filipinos are better at selling because they can explain the context,” she adds.

The DOT team in Chicago is going after a scattered demographic — Americans, of course, but also older Fil-Ams looking toward retirement; professional Fil-Ams who may be developing an interest in their ancestral “roots”; and younger, second-generation Fil-Ams who might be lured by the Internet.

“We’re having a Fil-Am named Christine Gambito as our online endorser,” notes Jorda-Apo. Gambito’s a second-gen Fil-Am who made a splash on YouTube with snippets from her website (www.happyslip.com); she’ll be taken around on a DOT-sponsored tour of Philippine destinations and post her “findings” on her website.

This is definitely not your lolo’s approach to Philippine tourism.

“We now realize the potential of the second generation,” continues Jorda-Apo. “They’re very mainstream. They’re educated here, so they know the ways. They’ve traveled to a lot of other countries.”

“The second-generation Fil-Ams really are our best partners,” confirms Velarde-Morales. “We’ve started to give them the importance that they’ve had for North America. When we started to do that, they responded.”

The web-based approach is less driven by nationalist appeals and more focused on the Fil-Am’s unique ability to “spread the word” about their homeland. Contests — in which Fil-Am visitors can register online to win a condo (www.experiencephilippines.ph) — and certification programs to turn stateside travel agents into “experts” about the Philippines are web devices that have, at the very least, led to more awareness and look-see trips to RP destinations.

The government attitude before, Vernie feels, was to assume that Filipinos would go home on their own. But sometimes they need a push. “We want them to visit not only their parents’ home province, the family drop-ins, but to see some of the great destinations their country has.”

White Middle Americans, on the other hand, require a different sales pitch: “You have to introduce the country, assuming that they know nothing about the Philippines.” But a lot of those Americans dive, a four-million-strong market that the DOT hopes to steer away from nearby destinations like the Bahamas to local shores.

While the US has always been strong in arrivals to the Philippines, Americans now lag behind Korea and China. Travel advisories and lingering security concerns are the reason.

“It’s still a concern,” concedes Velarde-Morales. “When I do presentations to mainstream travel agents, a typical question on security will arise. I cannot assure them of full security, and I don’t think any country can. But I always remind them that what can happen in the Philippines can happen anywhere. So we try to talk to them about what is realistic, and what to expect. We take a personal approach to answering their questions, maybe their fears.”

One “ace” card the DOT plays during the travel expo is Lynn Funkhouser, a Chicago-based marine photographer who has been diving in the Philippines for the past 31 years. She gives an upbeat slideshow seminar on the Philippines’ remarkable marine life to a room of mostly Fil-Ams, and talks about the 150-plus sites she’s visited. As for security concerns, the ex-flight attendant shrugs it off: “I consider bombs landing in Israel more of a threat to me than the travel advisory. I’ve never, ever had a bad experience. I have more of a chance of being mugged in the United States than over there. And I travel alone a lot.”

As Velarde-Morales points out, “Last time we were promoting, it was the Fil-Ams who were saying, ‘The Philippines is dangerous.’”

The other component of this travel expo is cultural, as the regional DOT office has arranged for performances by Hapag (or “Heritage of Asian Performing Arts”), a classically trained vocal group consisting of Fil-Ams led by local Fil-Am Jerry Gaddi; the Philippine Rondalla of Chicago, led by Ester Hana, a nationally known arts director; and the Novo Ecijano Cultural Dance Troupe.

Unfortunately, technical problems with the microphones at the Navy Pier Expo Center means the Filipinos’ mostly acoustic performances fail to razzle-dazzle.

It’s a glitch that Velarde-Morales and her team try to correct, but in the meantime, spectators must content themselves with stylized moves and swirling, colorful costumes during the dancers’ performance.

Hapag sings a tourism jingle — a kind of love song to the homeland, in the style of Ryan Cayabyab, with words that go: “It’s so nice to know that you’ll always be around, it’s your smile, your charm that will always be a part of me…”

Hana’s group — mostly kids aged 10 to 14 — struggle to project their unplugged mandolins and guitars over the booming raffle announcements; they finally give up on traditional Filipino songs and play a Beatles number. “We’re fighting the reality that second- and third-generation Fil-Ams are more and more removed from traditional Filipino music and culture,” Hana concedes.

But her group stages tours abroad and elsewhere in the US to great acclaim. Maybe it’s too much to ask weekend Chicagoans to be patient with the bad acoustics of Navy Pier. Yet this was supposed to be the Philippines’ moment to shine.

Fortunately, the cultural dancers offer enough of a hint of the color that awaits travelers to the Philippines. Hana hopes the cultural show — as diluted as it is — will awaken interest in Fil-Ams and non-Filipinos alike: “I think the farther away you are from home, the more you want to go back.”

With the two-day travel expo wrapping up, I ask how well the effort is paying off. “Arrivals have never dipped down, despite all the travel advisories,” Jorda-Apo points out. Last year US arrivals rose seven percent, up from 587,000 to 600,000. Add Guam, and the total is 610,000. “It’s continually growing, and with a decent budget now, all the better for the creative juices to flow.”

Spreading the DOT’s P65-million budget across all North America is a tough job. The DOT’s office in Chicago blankets much of Midwest America and even covers Canada. But the approach by Velarde-Morales and her team is out of the box, and goes beyond peso allocations: “It’s a personal appeal. An appeal to Fil-Ams to visit their homeland again, an appeal to those who’ve made it big-time in America… We want them to think about the beautiful country they’ve maybe left behind. A lot of things have changed.

“We’re ready to explain the wisdom of spending their dollars in the Philippines,” she says.

It’s a tall order. But barring political mischief, natural disasters or terrorist threats — factors you can never fully dismiss in the Philippines — things are looking good for Philippine tourism.

Time is, after all, on its side.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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