Trials and tribulations are nothing new to Philippine tourism. But despite political upheavals and natural calamities that have pestered the country since 1986, the industry has always found a way to cope. 2018, it turned out, was no different.
The Department of Tourism (DOT) reported that foreign arrivals hit 7,127,168, up 7.68% from the previous year despite the abrupt closure of Boracay—the Philippines’ third-most visited destination—over environmental concerns. While the arrivals figure falls below the target of 7.4 million, industry analysts say Philippine tourism escaped the closure with just minor bruises.
Boracay reopened in October, and by most indications, Philippine tourism will be just fine. “The challenging act of closing down Boracay has evidently become a blessing in disguise for secondary tourism spots to have a share of the limelight and attention they truly deserve,” said Bernadette Romulo-Puyat, Secretary, DOT.
The “re-greening” of tourist spots that started with Boracay has extended to other destinations like Bohol, Palawan, and Puerto Galera, which government officials have vowed to clean up.
“As far as overall tourism performance is concerned, I would like to think that it has been good considering what we have had to face last year,” said Jose Clemente III, president, Tourism Congress of the Philippines.
Sustainability all part of the “Fun”
The DOT is kicking off 2019 with a revamp of its “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” campaign, calling back ad agency BBDO Guerrero to develop a digital public relations campaign to promote the country as a “premiere sustainable tourist destination.” Another ad agency, DDB Philippines, was tapped to do a study on promoting sustainable tourism in the country.
Puyat said the upcoming campaign is not a rebranding, and would instead focus on promoting the government’s advocacy for sustainable tourism among local communities and stakeholders.
“The concept of fun is now redefined to include the responsibility to take care of our tourist destinations to sustain the ‘more fun’ experience for future generations,” she explained, adding that continuity was important to establish a more permanent destination brand.
Aviation industry reaches new heights
Much of the optimism is also coming from developments in aviation.
For a start, Philippine Airlines (PAL) will introduce services to Phnom Penh (five times weekly) and Hanoi (four times weekly) by April this year as it ramps up international operations.
The airline also expects to open a regular service between Manila and Tel Aviv, Israel by Q1 2019.
But it will be the relaunch of PAL’s four-times weekly nonstop Manila-New Delhi service – suspended in 2013 due to poor market conditions – that could give Philippine tourism a big boost, with new aircraft Airbus A320s expected to make the route more sustainable.
Cebu Pacific (CEB) is also looking to expand its international network this year with the scheduled arrival of five A320neos and the first batch of its order of 32 A321neos.
For its part, AirAsia Philippines said it will open more routes to China and Japan this year. CEO Dexter Comendador said that aside from adding flight frequencies in China and Korea, the airline will open new routes to Japan and China, likely in Osaka or Narita and Chengdu or Chongqing.
Easing of visa requirements
The next step in the growth strategy would be easing the country’s visa requirements. PAL has suggested providing temporary visa-free privileges for visitors from China and India “for three or five months as an experiment, and we can guarantee the volume of tourists from these places would more than double or triple,” according to Ryan Uy, vice president for sales, PAL.
Philippine Travel Agencies Association (PTAA) executive vice president Patty Chiong backed the proposal, citing the example of Thailand which now welcomes six million Chinese tourists a year. It estimates Chinese arrivals could grow between two and five million more if the same were done.
Taiwan has also asked the government to waive the visa for its travellers, citing huge growth in Philippine arrivals after a visa waival for Filipinos kicked in from 2017.
These reforms will be critical in the DOT’s push to meet or surpass its 2019 arrivals target of 8.2 million.
Granted, the DOT’s new “quality-over-quantity” strategy is expected to put pressure on efforts, but if there was a right time, it could well be now.