(STAR) If there is one person who never tires of talking about just how great the Philippines is he is tourism Secretary Ace Durano. "There is always something new to discover in the country," says Durano. "And that is what makes my work exciting, knowing that we are always moving forward."

It is this passion for the country that has Sec. Durano continuously looking for newer and better ways to get the Philippines back on the world map.

PHILIPPINE STAR: How do the French view the Philippines?

SECRETARY ACE DURANO: The difference is that we are in demand in France now.

How did this happen?

It is interesting to see just how the Philippines has built its presence here over the last three years. It even makes me happier to know that there has been a 29 percent growth for the first three months of this year.

Because of the growth and the renewed interest of France in the Philippines, we have had to get a bigger space here in Top Resa. This is the biggest we have ever invested at Top Resa.

Why? The investment we make always depends on how many private sector partners from the Philippines join. This year, we have the biggest delegation from the private sector here. There are 14 companies with us. That alone tells us how the market is developing.

Have the French tour operators taken notice?

Yes, as a matter of fact, the two biggest tour operators in France are carrying the Philippines for the first time. These are Jetours and Vacances Transat. These operators have never offered the Philippines as a destination in their travel brochures, but now, they are.

What was the big break?

The break for us was Koh Lanta (Survivor) Palawan. This year marks the first time in the show's history that they have shot two consecutive seasons in the same country. Last year Koh Lanta-Palawan was shot. And this year, there is Koh Lanta-Caramoan.

Does Koh Lanta have a big viewership?

Koh Lanta has about 7.5 million viewers who watch the show every week. We are not only talking about France, but also other French-speaking countries in Europe.

Really? All of a sudden we are the ones being courted. What makes our presence here different from last year?

For me it is different being here now. At least four years ago we had negative growth coming from this market, because we were just starting to make a comeback. It was difficult, we were a nobody. And now we are big in France, in just a matter of three years. For me, Koh Lanta was the break for us. The show strengthened and solidified our presence here.

Does France really set travel trends? Yes, France is a trendsetter, and when a country becomes a trend destination for France, the rest of the neighboring countries follow suit.

The fact that we have been able to penetrate this market is opening up other markets for us as well - like Italy and Spain.

What is the most important thing that you discovered after four years?

Now four years later I know that nature will play a major role in how people, especially Europeans will perceive a destination. This will also determine where people will opt to go.

Have you changed your plans?

Four years ago, I was more on let's just build as many hotels as we can. Now, I believe that to ensure the sustainability of the Philippines as a tourist destination and to continue to build our presence globally we have to focus on eco-tourism. This means that we have to preserve and restore the ecological resources of some of our destinations. This should be our priority.

Do you see ecotourism as the way to go?

For me, in the next 20 years, I foresee that our ecotourism destinations will command premium prices. And that is where we should be. With the quality and beauty of our natural endowments, I believe that the Philippines can be a bench mark for ecotourism.

Ecotourism is one product segment where we should give focus and invest on.

What are your plans for the next two years?

One is to grow the ecotourism segment of the Philippines. In order to achieve this, we have to open up more destinations. For some reason there is still no formula where mass tourism can coexist with preserving ecology. In order to sustain the growth momentum in terms of volume we have to spread the footprint around the country. We have to open up more interesting natural attractions.

How do you propose we do this?

In areas where there is an anchor destination, we should develop the corridor. For example in Bohol we should open up the corridor which spans Camiguin, Negros Oriental and Siquijor. In Bicol, we already have Donsol as an anchor, so developing the rest of Sorsogon should follow. Where there is an anchor ecotourism product already, we need to further develop that corridor to spread the tourism activity. In this manner, we allow the benefits of tourism to trickle down to the countryside. We will be busy with this in the next two years.

What is one thing about the Philippines that you discovered this year?

In the places I have been as the Secretary of Tourism and looking at the products we have and the products others have I believe that it is really our natural heritage that is one of our top assets. It is our natural heritage that will play a very important role starting today and for the next 20 years.

Any other? Our natural heritage comes second only to our first asset, which is of course the Filipino. This is one of the reasons that we have a very high percentage of repeat visitors - the warmth and friendliness of our people.

Favorite destination for this year?

Donsol and Bohol. These are the two destinations that should serve as development models to be replicated in other parts of the country.

Why Donsol? Tourism there has developed because of the communities in the area. This is really what ecotourism is about. Part of sustainability is to make sure that the livelihood of the people that live there are tied to tourism. It is tied to preserving the ecology otherwise it can't be sustained. The same goes for Bohol where the communities are very much involved. These are models that should be replicated in other ecotourism sites in the country.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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