[PHOTO AT LEFT - Russian radio: Infectious island music is purveyed by the Patiqueros at the Philippine Department of Tourism’s stand at Moscow’s Gostiny Dvor.]

MANILA, MARCH 17, 2009 (STAR) RTMAGEDDON By Igan D'bayan -  It surely feels like fiesta time in Dostoevsky’s country.

The other exhibitors have Spider-Man with scuba gear, monolithic tanks you can actually dive into, statues of cows and comic figures with aqualungs, girls in skimpy and flimsy purple-and-gold getups, and assorted gimmicks that are either stationary or walk on high heels and ask visitors to dive into the brochures in their booths. So, what does the Philippine Department of Tourism (DOT) have at Gostiny Dvor in this year’s Moscow International Diving Festival or the 2009 Golden Dolphin? Well, we got the beat.

Wafting from the speakers of the impressively designed DOT booth is music conjured up by a DJ and three percussionists — music so infectious the Golden Dolphin delegates want to dive into it and lose themselves in the rippling, resonating riffs. The island beats from the congas and cowbells courtesy of a Bacolod-based band called the Patiqueros make the Muscovites and other Russians flock to the stand and — as Madonna preached in the ’80s — get into the groove. (Try to imagine Hotdog’s Manila sound rehashed with timbales and swathes of electronica and you get an idea of the music at the booth.) For those who come from long frozen walks in Red Square or the Kremlin to get to the Golden Dolphin venue, it always feels like fiesta time in our country’s stand, which is maintained by DOT reps as well as resort and diving expedition operators who are cordial at all times. Consider it a taste of island life in Tolstoy’s sub-zero turf. The sun is always shining, the musicians are tirelessly jamming, and our underwater world is forever inviting.

Yes, we not only have the beat, we also have the best in terms of diving spots and hospitable hosts.

“We are getting the world aware that the Philippines is the best destination for diving,” says DOT Undersecretary Cynthia Carrion. The department regularly joins diving expositions not only in Russia but also in England, Spain and Germany to spread the word about our country’s impressive marine biodiversity.

When a diver sees what our oceans have to offer, he or she gets amazed. Imagine seeing everything from whale sharks to pygmy seahorses. Like seeing something straight from Cousteau’s Odyssey. Carrion admits that she’s not impressed with the dive spots in other countries. She explains, “In Thailand, you have to drive for several hours just to get to a good one. But in our country, you have the good dive spots right next to the beaches. What more could you ask for?”

The Philippines is Russia’s official country-partner in this year’s Golden Dolphin, the largest specialized selling exhibition in Eastern Europe related to “diving, spear-fishing, trophy fishing and aquatic recreation.” (Concurrent to this is the Golden Dolphin Photo & Film Festival, where photographers and cinematographers showcase their awe-inspiring underwater oeuvres.) More and more Russians are getting interested in water recreation in whatever form it may be. Today there are 300,000 certified divers all over the former Soviet Union, and 200,000 of them reside in Russia. The Golden Dolphin is where Russians and other nationalities congregate to learn more about the underwater world, look for good diving equipment and services, and most importantly decide for themselves where exactly in the world do they want to go for diving expeditions.

It’s the first time in Golden Dolphin history that a country-partner has been chosen. This only shows the significant attention paid by Russians to the Philippines as a major dive destination.

“You could almost feel that the Philippines is the main thrust of the whole festival,” enthuses Edward Grigoriev, DOT market representative of Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). In Russia, the DOT starts the year with the Golden Dolphin in February and ends with the Leisure travel fair in September to entice Russians and their almighty rubles with what the Philippines has to offer — on the ground and under the sea.

“Russians tourists spend around 14 to 16 days in the country” and have a reputation for being big spenders, informs Grigoriev. “Last year we managed visitor arrivals by Russians to a growth rate of 30 percent, one of the highest posted among European countries. This is largely through the efforts of Secretary Joseph ‘Ace’ Durano and the DOT headquarters in Manila.”

Prime Tours’ Rudy Abenoja says that some resorts even have started employing Russian-speaking staff members, which is a welcome development. He adds that Secretary Durano, during his visit to Moscow last year, identified Russia as one of the countries with great potential for growth.

Abenoja explains: “Our Russian clients tell us how much they enjoyed their stay. They rave about Boracay, Coron and El Nido. They have good memories of Bahura in Dumagueta as well as Puerto Galera. As for food, they give a special mention to Dampa at Macapagal Avenue, which is frequented by Russians. Together with the DOT and our various partners, we are trying our very best to put the Philippines’ 7,107 islands in the Russian dive map.”

Grigoriev admits that although it will be a challenge to maintain a steady growth rate this year because of the global recession, he is still optimistic that it can be achieved by the continuance of the DOT’s marketing efforts in the region. Besides, the Philippines has the most beautiful dive spots on the planet.

He explains, “You have one of the world’s best in terms of biodiversity. You display sincere hospitability to Russian (and other foreign) divers. You have well-equipped dive centers and experienced dive instructors. Those three elements make for a very tasty dive dish.”

Grigoriev — who counts El Nido in Palawan and Pescador Islands near Badian as his favorite dive destinations — adds that ours is a country with which Russians fall in love at “the first site.”

Underwater photographer Alexey Stoyda would agree. A couple of years ago in Bohol, Stoyda took an unforgettable shot of a bottom of a boat silhouetted against the sun. Imagine how he waited for that precise moment when shadow and light became one. That particularly poetic and enigmatic photo bagged for him the major prize at the Golden Dolphin Photo & Film Festival.

“Alexey is the best diving ambassador the Philippines can ever hope to have,” says fellow underwater photographer Yvette Lee, who is also director for marketing & media affairs of Expedition Fleet Liveaboards. “A lot of the photos at the Golden Dolphin exhibit are taken in the Philippines, which proves how popular our country is with underwater photographers in Russia. Alexey, by the way, is launching a new Russian underwater photography website, and the first three monthly prizes are stays in Philippine resorts.”

For the duration of the DOT’s stint at the Golden Dolphin, Undersecretary Carrion would be interview by Russian journalists, meet with executives such as Andrey Zverev about an exciting project in Caramoan Peninsula in Camarines Sur, talk about the Philippines with a slew of visitors to the DOT booth, yet still manage to groove to the music of the Patiqueros every now and then. She says that despite the challenges facing the DOT with regard to dive destinations (ecological concerns, non-cooperative and often corrupt local government officials), there are silver linings everywhere as far as the diving horizon is concerned.

She shares, “Caramoan will be the next Boracay — even better. It will be like the Maldives, because it is a peninsula with several islands. I’ve been there and it is really gorgeous.” Once an airport is built to make the peninsula more accessible, expect more tourists to flock to Caramoan with its white-sand islets, limestone caves, dolphins, bats that come out at dusk, birds of all plumage, and of course beautiful dive spots from one islet to another.

We should all wax optimistic. Lee concludes, “A European couple told me the first time they visited the Philippines was out of curiosity, and the second time they went was because of the hospitality of the people. And, yes, they are planning another trip.”

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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