Travel incentives

October 24, 2011 at 10:59

This is a re-posted opinion piece.

On the first leg of my return flight from Vienna, the plane to Dubai was packed.

On the final leg, which took off late in the morning, the Manila-bound flight looked less than half full in all classes. No need to pay extra for a good stretch on first or business class on that eight-hour flight; many passengers on coach slept fully stretched out after putting up the armrests on rows and rows of empty adjacent seats.

I know it’s not yet Christmas, but many overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) usually also go home in droves for All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days. Perhaps with Moammar Gadhafi and his goons (the report as I write this is that he’s been killed) still on the loose in Libya, and protests continuing in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, OFWs don’t want to risk losing their jobs by returning to the Philippines in case the Arab Spring engulfs their workplaces. When violence erupts in the Middle East and North Africa, Pinoys don’t flee; they stay put and hold on to their jobs.

But OFWs are not the only ones who fly to Manila. Where are the tourists, the business travelers?

Among the Southeast Asian capitals, Manila is the farthest from Europe. Tourism officials who look like they’re developing yet another new strategy to market the Philippines should think about such practical considerations in the mind of a typical traveler planning an overseas trip.

Many of the attractions offered by the Philippines, let’s admit it, can also be found in several Southeast Asian countries. We can argue over which country has the best beaches or limestone caves (as far as I’m concerned, I still love my own, my native land…), but a European tourist will google Southeast Asian resorts and think all white beaches lined with coconut trees look the same.

A number of our neighbors, such as Thailand and Indonesia (Bali in particular), have the added attraction of their distinctive cultures. Another factor working in their favor is that because of geography, it’s easy to hop from one country to another.

Travel industry players have in fact put together tour packages of several Southeast Asian countries that are located near each other, but excluding the archipelago farthest from the region’s main island grouping: the Philippines.

From hubs in Singapore, Malaysia and Bangkok, tourists can take short flights to Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam and Siem Reap in Cambodia.

We need to provide additional incentives to lure those travelers to also visit the Philippines, which is a flight of about three hours away across a sea that also laps the shores of several other countries in the region.

* * *

First, we have to pitch Philippine attractions effectively and truthfully. All over the globe, countries are seeing the potential of tourism for boosting GDP. There’s fierce competition out there for visitors.

The average traveler knows he can face security risks in most parts of the planet. Bombs continue to go off in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the No. 1 target of terrorists has always been the United States, with Britain possibly coming in second.

What sets one travel destination from another when it comes to security is what each country does to deal with the threat and keep everyone, locals and foreign visitors alike, safe.

New York, Washington and London have suffered grievous terrorist attacks in the past decade. Yet tourists continue to flock to New York’s Times Square – the target of a bomb plot that was foiled several months ago – and to the many attractions in Washington. A massive crowd camped out in London this year for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, packing the subway to move around the city.

In Bangkok, tourist arrivals did not slacken even after bombings in the capital and a shutdown of Suvarnabhumi International Airport at the height of a political protest. Enterprising Thais have even turned the freak flood in Bangkok into a tourist attraction, extending the floating market to other parts of the inundated city.

Over in Manila, the second most appalling aspect of the hostage crisis last year in Rizal Park, after the high death toll, was the near-slapstick performance by responding Manila cops. This was followed by the clear reluctance of President Aquino to impose sanctions on those responsible for the fiasco. Our market for Hong Kong travelers has not yet recovered.

The absence of direct flights from Europe to Manila (the last one, Air France-KLM Royal Dutch, ends its direct service in April 2012) surely affected the Philippine tourism industry, including in Cebu, which used to enjoy such direct services to Europe.

We still sit between much of Southeast Asia and one of the largest markets for travelers, the United States. Several of the passengers on my return flight from Europe were Filipinos holding US passports, possibly on their way to Hawaii.

But in this economic downturn, with Americans marching on Wall Street to protest corporate greed, our tourism industry cannot pin too much hope on visitor arrivals from the United States.

Europeans are no longer finding their way to Asia the long way, by crossing the Atlantic and then the Pacific and then stumbling into a grouping of 7,100 islands. If he were alive today, Spain’s Felipe II, after whom our archipelago was named, would travel first class to Southeast Asia through the other direction, and if enchanted by the charming Thais might never reach Manila.

We have to be able to say, when travelers gush over Bali, or Sipadan resort in Malaysia, or Chiang Mai in Thailand: “You ain’t seen nothing yet; wait till you visit the Philippines!”

By: Ana Marie Pamintuan – Sketches
Source: The Philippine Star, October 21, 2011
To view the original article, click here.

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