[PHOTO AT LEFT - Burj Al Arab, modern Dubai’s symbol of wealth and prominence in the Gulf, is the second tallest building in the world used exclusively as a hotel. MANILA, Philippines]

MANILA, JUNE 1, 2009 (STAR) By Tanya T. Lara - If you think that selling Philippine shopping in Dubai — with its own huge, glittering malls and tax-free shopping — is like selling snow to the Eskimos, think again.

At the recent Arabian Travel Mart (ATM), the Middle East and Africa ’s biggest travel fair with 2,100 exhibitors from around the world, this was how the Department of Tourism (DOT) marketed the country.

But like Scheherazade, we must start at the beginning of the thousand and one nights — with the first tale that so enamored the Persian King Shahryar that he let the storyteller live another night…and a thousand more.

The beginning is actually in 2001, the last ATM the Philippines participated in and for the past eight years it has been absent from the Middle East market — until it decided to come back this year.

DOT Director Benito C. Bengzon Jr. was at the ATM in 2008 as an observer and he noted how big the fair had become, how new destinations were being promoted in this oil-rich, almost recession-free city. Dubai’s population is comprised of 80 percent foreigners and 20 percent Emiratis. Our southeast Asian neighbors like Bangkok and Singapore have been greatly benefiting from the influx of the Arab market and we, well, we were missing all the action.

So he made his recommendations to DOT Secretary Ace Durano and at this month’s ATM, Philippine tourism was back in business in the Middle East.

To DOT Undersecretary Edu Jarque, it made a lot of sense to be promoting in the Middle East again. “The great thing about this market is that the airlines are all in place,” Jarque says. “Tourists don’t have to pass through Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur or Singapore before flying to us.”

In many tourism fairs around the world, the biggest question is always accessibility. Individual tourists and operators want to know: how easy it is to get to your country?

Unlike European countries, which have no direct flights to Manila except for the Netherlands (KLM), this is not a problem for the Middle East. There are six airlines flying direct to Manila with a combined capacity of 18,430 seats a week. In the United Arab Emirates, there’s Emirates Airlines flying out of Dubai, and Etihad out of Abu Dhabi; Gulf Air out of Bahrain; Kuwait Airlines out of Kuwait City; Qatar Airlines out of Doha and to both Manila and Cebu; and Saudia out of Riyadh. That’s 51 direct flights a week.

Bengzon made his recommendations and the research began — beginning, of course, with the 40,000 Middle East travelers who came to the country last year.

“The way we do it in the office is that there’s always research before we participate in a show. We don’t act on a whim because it’s money from a small budget that we have to spend wisely,” says Jarque.

What did the DOT find out about the Middle East market? They love the nightlife, they love our shopping malls, they travel with their families and in large groups (about 10 members), they love entertainment (singing and live bands) and — gasp! — they actually love Manila!

This is a huge leap from other markets whose tourists almost always skip Manila and go straight to the beaches, which, to the Middle East market, comes later in their itineraries.

Director Bengzon had to approach this in a totally different way that he approaches promotions in Japan, a market that he handles and knows very well as he was based in our consulate office there for some years. For one, materials featuring bikini-clad holidaymakers were obviously not going to be allowed in the Middle East, except with a few exceptions. In Japan, part of a DOT campaign was targeted to moneyed, independent, single women who traveled alone; in the Middle East, women travelers always did it with their families — and they always shopped.

That’s how they designed the Philippine stand at the Dubai International Convention Center — a mural of a shopping mall (Greenbelt) instead of the usual beach and diving scenes.

“Shopping in the Philippines is a major motivation for them, but that’s not to say that this is the only experience we are promoting,” explains Bengzon. “The malls here are quite impressive, but what differentiates us is that we offer value for money. I was surprised myself that a lot of the tourists we get from the Middle East include in their itineraries trips to SM Mall of Asia, Greenbelt, Glorietta and even Greenhills. It’s not about international designer brands, but about Philippine products as well. We’re not competing with their malls.”

“Our malls are not for shopping alone, it’s a whole experience,” adds Jarque. “That’s why our shopping is a ‘Shopfest.’ Aside from shopping we have entertainment, we have the movies, dining, spas and wellness. There are no other malls like ours. We open till late, up to midnight during a sale weekend. Because we’re just getting back into this market, you have to explain it a bit to the tour operators here.”

Speaking for the private sector, Cesar R. Cruz, president and GM of TRIPS Travel, explains, “For the Shopfest, we’ve divided Metro Manila into four modules — the Bay Area, The Fort, Ortigas, and Makati. Each has its own shopping component, wellness, dining and entertainment. And our Manila packages include trips to Tagaytay and Pagsanjan and other nearby places.”

The timing of the country’s return to the Middle East was just perfect. Emirates, which flies 10 times a week to Manila, for the first time included Philippine destinations in its catalogue “Emirates Holidays” — Manila, Cebu and Palawan.

“Even if the base number of arrivals is low, the growth rate is huge and the potential even bigger,” says Bengzon.

Being away for the past eight years has its disadvantages, of course, but also a slight advantage. To operators in the Gulf, the Philippines is a “new” destination, something to be discovered.

A few days before the start of the Arabian Travel Market, Bengzon flew to Dubai to deliver his presentation to several groups of travel and tour operators. With some groups, he had to start from zero: Explain where in the world the Philippines is. To others, it was a refresher course: What destinations it has, what kind of resorts and cities are great to visit, the culture, the people, and some of the places being actively promoted — Manila, Boracay, Bohol, Palawan, Baguio, Tagaytay and other Unesco Heritage sites.

Jarque says Bengzon had to repeat his presentation 35 times.

“All of a sudden people are again curious about us, what’s new, what’s happening,” says Jarque. He also reveals that the reentry into ATM had “more private sector participants than in any other market that we started to launch. We didn’t get this much participation in our initial year in India and Russia.”

Jarque was in Dubai also to look for a local market representative “It has worked in Russia, France, Hong Kong, and India because a market rep knows the local market and where to start.”

Rajah Tours president Jojo Clemente says, “Filipinos in the Middle East are also a big opportunity for us. They’re white-collar executives, managers, they work in the hospitality industry, in hotels and airlines, and only a small percentage work as domestic helpers. We have to tailor packages for the Filipino balikbayans.”

Shroff International’s father-and-daughter team Arjun and Sheena Shroff also believe in the potential of the market. “In the Arab market majority of travel is family holidays,” says Sheena, the youngest travel executive in the Philippine stand. “But 40 percent of them go to Malaysia, followed by Indonesia because both share and understand the same culture and religious traditions as the Gulf countries. But they’re traveling even in this recession and it’s an opportunity for us.”

Only 23 years old, Sheena started working in her dad’s company when she was 15. As Shroff International product development manager, she says that the way of doing business in the Middle East is very different. “A lot of it depends on personal relationships. If you’re a habibi (friend), they will give you business. It’s so unlike Europe where it’s all about the bottom line; here once you get your relationship started they will maintain the business for a long time.”

For the DOT and the Filipino tour operators at the ATM, meeting new habibis in Dubai may be the start of a beautiful business relationship.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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