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Tourism reaches milestone despite ‘tanim bala’ scare

Despite the so-called “tanim bala” scare, or the alleged extortion scheme where bullets were found inside the luggage of passengers at the airport, the Philippine tourism industry reached a milestone this year, as international visitor arrivals topped the 5-million mark for the first time on record.

“The short answer to the question whether it [tanim bala] has affected tourist arrivals is no,” Tourism Undersecretary Benito Bengzon Jr. says in a news briefing in Makati City.

“We are grateful that Philippine tourism, despite all the challenges, is still able to grow at a higher rate than what you see in most Asian countries and the global average,” says Bengzon, who led the welcoming of the 5 millionth international visitor at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport this month.

Tourism Undersecretary Benito Bengzon Jr.

Bengzon, who is in charge of tourism development, says while the full-year official figures remain to be released, the Tourism Department believes that 23-year-old Filipino-American Gabby Grantham became the 5 millionth visitor in the country this year when she arrived at Naia Terminal 2 from New York at 3:48 a.m. on Dec. 21.

Bengzon, a veteran in the Tourism Department, says the tourism industry would likely end the year with 5.2 million to 5.3 million visitor arrivals, up by 8 to 10 percent from 4.83 million arrivals registered in 2013.

Officially, data show that in the first 10 months of 2015, international visitor arrivals increased 11.1 percent year-on-year to 4.396 million, on the back of a 14.9-percent growth in October alone, when the ‘tanim bala’ scare began to hog the headlines.

Earnings from tourism activities also grew 8.2 percent to P186.89 billion in the 10-month period from P172.66 billion recorded a year earlier.  The full-year data are expected to be released in February.

“It is a milestone in many ways when you talk about the key performance indicators such as revenue, visitor arrivals, employment and contribution to GDP [gross domestic product].  This is what you can immediately quantify.  What you cannot quantify is the deeper appreciation and pride among Filipinos,” says Bengzon.

“In simple terms, the 5 million foreign visitors is the result of collaborative and sustained efforts of all players in the tourism industry. We saw a number of activities throughout the year which resulted in the spike in visitor arrivals,” he says.

A number of factors such as the ‘tanim bala’ scare, hostage taking in Mindanao and negative advisories issued by several countries has threatened to derail the Tourism Department’s major campaigns such as ‘More Fun in the Philippines’ and ‘Visit the Philippines 2015’.  Bengzon says despite these issues, arrivals jumped 14.9 percent year-on-year in October, representing one of the fastest growths in Asia.

“Despite incidents such as hostage taking, Balintang Channel [shooting incident], occasional advisories, typhoon Yolanda, you begin to realize that we probably faced more challenges than any other countries did.  When you talk about the [annual] growth rate of 8.5 percent from 2010 to 2014, which is above the curve, compared to global and Asian figures, then you begin to have a deeper appreciation of the strategy that went behind it.  Even if we had a huge drop in Hong Kong arrivals because of the black travel alert, we were able to compensate this with growth coming from new opportunity markets,” says Bengzon.

“When you talk about advisories and domestic issues, when you consider all these challenges, and we are still growing at a faster clip, then we must be doing something right as far as strategy is concerned,” he says.

Bengzon says the numbers speak for themselves.  “If there was an advisory issued in May, or there was ‘tanim bala’ in October, people always asked if it has affected tourism.  You look at the big picture and that provides the answer.  If we are growing at 11.5 percent in the first 10 months despite all these things that are happening, then the strategy must be working,” he says.

He says the industry achieved the milestone on the back of greater air connectivity both to the gateway and secondary airports, expanding capacity of the accommodation sector and upgrading of the quality of services provided by industry frontliners.

“On the demand side, we make sure that we create a stronger awareness of the Philippines as a whole and as a matter of strategy create a greater demand for specific destinations.  The secretary [Ramon Jimenes Jr.] has mentioned that the approach has been very deliberate.  When we rolled out the campaign in 2012, the idea was to create a country branding, a higher level of awareness of the country as a whole and we have achieved that,” he says.

“The campaign ‘More Fun in the Philippines’ has changed the way Filipinos look at the industry and changed the way global travellers look at the Philippines. We have developed a culture of tourism.  I cannot think of anybody who is against tourism,” Bengzon says.

Among the specific destinations supported by the tourism campaign are Manila, Cebu, Bohol, Boracay, Palawan, Davao, Iloilo and Siargao.

“It is a part of the strategy of DoT to present the country as multiple gateways and destinations.  We have that unique advantage over the others because many countries in Southeast Asia at best would only have three or four destinations.  We are able to simultaneously push the eight destinations.  This is why air connectivity is very important.  On the part of private sector, this also provides them with the tools to do their own marketing promotions,” says Bengzon.

Bengzon says air arrivals in the Philippines are now comparable to other Southeast Asian countries.  “The Philippines has the highest percentage of foreign visitors arriving by air. Out of the 4.8 million foreign visitors that we had last year, 99 percent took planes,” he says.

Bengzon says in comparison, Thailand had only 81 percent of visitors arriving by air in 2013 and Vietnam, 79 percent.  “Malaysia had 26 million visitors but if you analyse this, you should look at air arrivals, instead of just border crossing.  If you want to get real tourists, we should count the air passengers. The tendency of those arriving by air is for them to stay longer and spend more. That is why air connectivity is important. We need air connectivity more than any other country in Southeast Asia.  That is why we adopted a more liberalized civil aviation.  We have stepped up our bilateral air negotiations because we need it more than other countries,” says Bengzon.

He says that in terms of air arrivals, the Philippines was just slightly behind other Southeast Asian countries based on 2013 data.  “If you look at air arrivals in absolute figures in 2013, the Philippines had 4.6 million.  Thailand was the leader with 21 million; Vietnam, 5.9 million; Indonesia, 6.4 million; Malaysia, 6.77 million air passengers.  If we can add 2 or 3 million air arrivals, we will be at par with them,” he says.

Bengzon says the DoT, however, is looking at Australia as its model for tourism development. “Down the line, the better way of looking at performance indicators is how they do it in Australia.  Australia is regarded as one of the strongest brands or most popular destinations.  Yet, when you look at the figures, you are talking about no more than 8 million foreign visitors. The focus is not so much on the headcount.  That might be a better model for the Philippines,” he says.

He says despite the scheduled change in administration next year, the tourism industry would likely attract 6 million foreign tourists in 2016. “If we get 5.2 million to 5.3 million visitors [this year], then we are looking anywhere between 15 and 20 percent growth in 2016,” he says.

Employment in the tourism industry is also expected to increase to a range of 6 million to 8 million direct and indirect jobs in 2016 from a range of 5 million to 6 million this year.  The tourism industry’s contribution to GDP is also forecast to improve from the current 8.5 percent to 12.5 percent in the medium term.  “It is heading that way,” he says.

He says the Tourism Department will have a working budget of P3.6 billion to support its goal of attracting 6 million foreign tourists to the Philippines next year.  The Philippines will host major events next year, including the Asean Tourism Forum at Sofitel Hotel and SMX Convention Center on Jan. 18 to 22.

He says the advances in the tourism sector are expected to be sustained towards the next administration as the tourism campaign has reached national awareness.  “I have been asked a number of times on continuity and my answer has been the same.  The transition that you will see in 2016 will be smoother than what we experienced in previous changes in administration,” says Bengzon, a career executive with a 30-year experience in the Tourism Department. Roderick T. dela Cruz

Topics: Department of Tourism , Milestone
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