MANILA, DECEMBER 3, 2007  (STAR) By Rudy Santos - Officials at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) said yesterday that overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), balikbayans and foreign tourists have been arriving in the country in droves since last week.

“We are expecting more than 200,000 passengers this December alone,” which will exceed the more than 100,000 arrivals during the same period last year, Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) general manager Alfonso Cusi said.

He noted that the number of arrivals for the whole of 2007 – there have been nearly 4.3 million as of October – may surpass last year’s 4.7 million arrivals.

Last year’s figure includes OFWs who were repatriated from war-torn countries in the Middle East.

Cusi said with the help of Tourism Secretary Joseph Ace Durano, who has been actively marketing the Philippines as a desirable tourist destination, more tourists are expected to fly in from South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, the United States, Russia and countries from Europe.

With the expected influx of Filipinos and foreign tourists, Cusi said they have 20 to 24 immigration officers on duty during peak hours, which are from 10 a.m. up to 3 p.m. and from 9:30 p.m. to midnight. Sixteen to 18 immigration officers are on duty during non-peak hours.

He added that the MIAA and the Department of Tourism are preparing prizes for lucky OFWs, who could win in a raffle when they arrive this December.

“Hopefully President Arroyo will be our guest of honor and the one who will welcome our unsung heroes at the airport this month,” Cusi said.

The British are coming! The British are coming! CRAZY QUILT By Tanya T. Lara Sunday, December 2, 2007

It took very little convincing for one British national to help promote the Philippines in the UK. He loves the Philippines and is very passionate about it. He and his wife stayed in Manila for three years and they made a lot of friends here. She enjoyed shopping at the pearl market in Greenhills; he enjoyed his travels to Mindanao where he was interested in the political process of the autonomous region.

And he liked Jollibee.

Soon after he arrived in the Philippines, he and his wife attended the dinagyang festival in Iloilo and his host asked him, “Have you ever had a Filipino burger?” He said no, so they went to Jollibee.

This British friend of the country happens to be former Ambassador to the Philippines Paul Dimond. As the UK’s ambassador from 2002 to 2005, he met the leading members of the government and congress, civil society, the business sector and what he terms as “members of the lively Philippine media.” Now retired from diplomacy, he acts as adviser on human resources for the British Foreign Ministry in London.

Dimond is chairman of Friends Philippines, a group composed of British nationals based in the UK who want to promote the Philippines — as a tourist destination and business partner — in their own country.

“We set it up because we believe there are many British people who have lived and worked in the Philippines and they are enthusiastic about developing the relationship between the two countries,” Dimond said.

The Ambassador was at the Philippine stand in the recent World Travel Market (WTM) at Excel Exhibition Center in London’s Docklands to help spread the good word about the Philippines.

The London Tourism Office, headed by Tourism Attache Domingo “Chicoy” Enerio III, organizes the Philippine participation to the WTM, one of the world’s biggest travel trade events. This year’s private-sector delegation included representatives from Annset Holidays Inc., Baron Travel Corp., Blue Horizons Travel & Tours, Intas Destination Management Inc., TRIPS Travel, Rajah Tours Philippines, Inc., The Ananyana Beach Resort & Spa, Dos Palmas Island Resort & Spa, El Nido Resorts, Eskaya Beach Resort & Spa, Casa Amorita, Shangri-la Hotels & Resorts, Marco Vincent Dive Resort, Mandala Spa Boracay, and Philippine Airlines.

In 2007, on the heels of WTM and a tourism road show, Friends Philippines was formally launched.

Enerio said the group started under chance circumstances. “There was an event that both the Ambassador and I attended, and I asked him, ‘Don’t you miss the Philippines?’ He said, ‘I miss the Philippines dearly. I miss my friends, I miss my office there, I miss traveling around the country.’ The idea of a group such as this just popped in my head. People like the Ambassador who can speak so well of our country even after they’ve come back from their tour of duty are very valuable and essential in trying to promote the Philippines. Being an ambassador and British, he can relate to his friends how beautiful and safe the country is.”

The group is composed of seven core organizers — four British and three Filipinos — and now has 250 “friends” who have registered online.

Listening to Ambassador Dimond, you start feeling good about your own country. He was here three years, starting in 2002 right smack in the middle of another headline-grabbing Abu Sayyaf kidnapping. Asked if he wasn’t afraid then of being posted here, he said, “Oh no, nothing scares me.”

Before Manila, he was posted in Los Angeles and he quipped that when he first landed in LA, he thought he was in the Philippines. His diplomatic service also took him to Japan and the Netherlands.

During his time in Manila, Dimond saw and understood so much of our culture. Today, he believes the country’s tourism efforts can “raise the game to a much higher level.”

“In a British way of putting it, I think the Philippines still punches below its weight in the tourism world. It is undersold, it is not attracting the attention that it should. First of all, let me mention the strengths of the country: the wonderful, spontaneous hospitality of the people, the natural attractions that are unspoiled compared with some other parts of the world where resorts have been overdeveloped and tourists get rather bored because one resort in one country looks exactly the same as another in another country. The other thing is that the Philippines is an English-speaking country, so there is no communication problem.

“Why is the Philippines undersold? I think it’s historical. There have been many years of problems on the security side in certain parts like Mindanao. But today, where is safe in the world? We are sitting here in the heart of London, which is a major terrorist target, but life goes on. There’s a bit of a perception problem, too. The Foreign Office for which I used to work puts out travel advice to British travelers to the Philippines. If you look at the travel advice, it covers every country in the world and many of the remarks on terrorism are almost the same for every country. So far as the Philippines is concerned, the advice says that for the overwhelming majority of British travelers to the Philippines, it is trouble-free.”

So, last November 19, Ambassador Dimond, his wife Carolyn, and 34 British nationals left London for a 15-night vacation in Manila, Bohol and Cebu. For some, it was their first time to the Philippines, for the Dimonds it was a homecoming of sorts. Apart from just being a vacation, the group wanted to show their countrymen that travel to the Philippines is indeed a very enjoyable and trouble-free experience.

And it was…except the day before they were to fly back to London, the Peninsula “mutiny” happened.

You can almost hear the collective weeping of the hardworking people at the Department of Tourism in Manila — starting at Room 400 with Secretary Joseph Ace Durano, down the hall at 418 where Team Europe headed by Verna Buensuceso holds office, two floors below at 205 in Undersecretary Edu Jarque’s office — all the way to Cromwell Road in London’s Chelsea district where Tourism Attache Chicoy Enerio and administrative marketing officer Rosario Afuang are working. And around the country in the offices of travel agencies and resorts promoting the Philippines in travel fairs.

That this particular group of prominent British nationals from Friends Philippines was treated to Philippine-style politics — where a senator of the republic throws a hissy fit in a five-star hotel and then appears shocked that no people power comes to his rescue — is so Shakespearean in irony.

(Didn’t Senator Trillanes do the exact same thing a couple of years ago? Didn’t he fail in that coup attempt but was very successful in spreading the negative image of the country all over the world? Why doesn’t he start positive change from within the establishment? And why does he like five-star hotels so much?)

Speaking of timing, the country really does not have the best of luck — or senators for that matter. On the second day of the World Travel Market, the Batasang Pambansa was bombed — less than a month after the Glorietta accident.

When he heard news of the Batasan bombing, Enerio said sadly, “And here we are promoting the Philippines.”

There was a buzz of inquiries at the Philippine stand that day and the days that followed, but the tourism officials and travel operators tried their best to downplay the bombing and answer security concerns as best as they could.

“It’s not widespread.”

“It wasn’t a terrorist attack.”

“Everything is fine.”

To us Filipinos used to the “excitement” (an understatement, for sure) of living in the Philippines, the Batasan bombing and the Trillanes tantrum were just two chaotic days in Manila with, sadly, innocent casualties. To tourism officials and travel agencies, these meant loss of business and jobs, cancellation of tour groups and losing whatever foothold they had gained from months and years of networking, convincing, and participation in travel fairs abroad.

Bombing or no bombing, mutiny or no mutiny, Verna Buensuceso says the Friends Philippines tour was a success. They pushed through with the farewell party at the Polo Club and, because the Brits were billeted at Makati Shangri-La, some of them were watching the Peninsula episode from their bedroom windows.

You wonder how they would tell their stories back home.

Perhaps Ambassador Dimond was right when he said at WTM three weeks ago: “The more noise about it (travel advisory), the more negative the image of the Philippines will be. We want to work with the DOT to help promote visits to the Philippines.” He hopes to see direct air flights between the two countries, believing this will boost tourism traffic. “I’m hoping Philippine Airlines (PAL) will be the one to do that. I hope they will conclude that there is sufficient business — from the volume of economy class passengers, both Filipinos returning to the Philippines, and their friends and relatives who are coming to the UK — and the very important business-class executive passengers.”

Dimond is also a member of the organization Philippine-British Business Council (PBBC), which has two groups — in Manila, chaired by Ambassador Jesus Tambunting, and in London, chaired by Nigel Rich. The group aims to encourage more business links between the two countries. He says Britain is the top investor in the Philippines, with companies such as Unilever, HSBC, Standard Chartered Bank and the Shell Group (part-British, part-Dutch) representing old investments.

The British are some of the highest-spending tourists in the world. Thanks to the strong sterling, travel to countries like the Philippines offers value for their money. A five-star, two-week package costs about 4,000 pounds on the average including airfare. Last year we had about 68,000 British tourists; this year the goal is 75,000. The London office is pegging the number for 2008 at about 80,000.

Chicoy Enerio pins his hopes on Friends Philippines to raise awareness among the Brits. “We have a very small budget from the DOT so we try to spend it wisely for very important logistics. The Friends program is not a profit organization, it is out of volunteer service and people are doing it for love of the Philippines.”

Those who register with the program automatically become part of an e-mail group that sends info about where to visit, special offers, business opportunities and things to do.

What are Dimond’s favorite places in the country and where would he take his friends? “We should start in Manila, visit the historical parts, because the British are always interested in history. Also to the newer parts of Makati for the new, world-class developments and maybe do some good shopping there. And there are many other parts of Luzon and the Visayas that are attractive.”

Then there are the younger generations of Brits who are into diving and are very concerned about environmental matters such as damage to coral reefs around the world. “There are some very enterprising tourism bodies that are combining holidays in the Philippines involving diving with some research in trying to help preserve coral reefs. Among the young generation, that’s a very specific area that I see growing as well.”

According to the Ambassador, the average tourist impression of the Philippines is very positive. “I think they are overwhelmed by the hospitality, vibrancy and talent that they see. Most people I talked to say, well, we should have stayed longer. You know my definition of heaven? It’s a place where Filipinos run the parties. And people understand that.”

So why is the Ambassador doing this for the Philippines? “As an Englishman, I am very aware of how many Filipinos there are in this country (about 150,000) working as nurses, in the hotel and restaurant business, in many different industries. They are bringing something to my country — their skills, their work ethic — and I value that very highly. The British people are very appreciative of what Filipinos are doing for us, for our society and for our economy. So in a very modest way, I am just trying to give something back to our friends in the Philippines.”

Unlike the British who were just passing through the Philippines in 1762, our present-day British friends might stay just a wee bit longer.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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