BRITISH arrivals to the Philippines rose 13% last year to 63,000 – cause for celebration in the tourism industry perhaps, but not if you compare these figures to neighbouring Southeast Asian destinations.
Thailand received more than 500,000 UK arrivals and Singapore 450,000 visitors in the same period.
But with great beaches, interesting culture and welcoming locals, the Philippines has plenty to pull in the tourists. So why do so few visit?
It’s mainly about geography. The Philippines is nearer to South China than to classic Southeast Asian destinations.
Access is one of the biggest hurdles – there are currently no direct flights from the UK. Visitors must connect with KLM via Amsterdam or Qatar Airways, Etihad or Emirates via their hubs in the Middle East. And with strong regional competition for tourists, there’s work to do.
Philippines’ tourism attaché to the UK Domingo Ramon Enerio said: We really need to raise people’s awareness, but it’s difficult to compete against destinations with big marketing budgets.”
But these obstacles haven’t prevented a handful of discerning UK operators from brochuring the islands.
“The scenery is stunning,” said Audley Travel Southeast Asia programme manager Natalie Lewis. “The rice terraces in Banaue, the chocolate hills of Bohol, idyllic beaches on every island – there’s plenty to see. The varied culture, a mix of Spanish, Asian and American, is unusual for Southeast Asia and the people are very welcoming.”
Lewis also rates the shopping in Manila and on the island of Cebu. Audley Travel is expanding its Philippines product to include the undiscovered island of Palawan and more of the cultural treasures and wildlife of Bohol in its 2006/07 brochure.
“Recently we’ve had a lot more interest in Boracay. It has one of the world’s top 10 beaches,” said Jetlife AsiaWorld reservations manager Heather Woodham. “The Philippines is going to be a bit like Vietnam – a slow burner.”
With clients looking for the next new frontier, now’s a perfect time for a little self-promotion. “If there’s any message we’d like to share, it’s that we’re interested in developing long-term business relationships with operators who want to feature the Philippines,” said Enerio. “We are here to do business and we’re here for the long haul.”
Recent joint campaigns include part-funding trade press advertising, sponsoring advertisements on London taxi cabs and helping with the cost of brochure pages.
“Once we have joint programmes with operators organised we’ll meet with their retail agencies and educate them through fam trips to show what we have to offer,” said Enerio.
“Our budget has more than doubled. More importantly, we have more control and more flexibility to work with partnership deals on a local level.”
Operators welcome this new approach. “The Philippines has always been under-represented,” said Silverbird managing director Jerry Quinn.
Somak is considering adding the country next year. “If we feature it, we want to do it properly and offer a range of itineraries,” said Somak head of product Rob Haynes.
“In the past there were concerns about infrastructure, safety and the quality of hotels. These issues probably no longer exist, but the perception remains. The Philippines Department of Tourism is doing a good job of promoting the country with limited funds.”
And while there may not be direct flights, stopping over is the perfect opportunity to twin-centre the Philippines. Cathay Pacific already does this via Hong Kong. Clients can enjoy the buzz of one of Asia’s most dynamic cities and then take a short flight down to the Philippines for some of the best beaches in the world.
Similar twin-centre breaks are feasible via Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
Palawan, the latest Filipino island to open up to tourism feels like Thailand 20 years ago. You have to grit your teeth while driving on the roads, but those who are brave enough will meet tribes who rarely see Westerners, and will be able to wander along virtually deserted beaches.
For now, the very fact so few people visit the Philippines is really its biggest attraction. The rest of Southeast Asia is increasingly overrun with Lonely Planet-wielding students and package tourists, but here you can soak up the sights and scenery uninterrupted.
“There’s no danger of a busload of tourists arriving just as you reach the rice terraces at Banaue,” says Enerio. “In the Philippines you don’t compete with other tourists. We’d rather have fewer visitors and provide quality experiences.”
Silverbird offers two nights’ accommodation at the five-star Dusit Nikko Hotel, Manila, three nights on a Discovery Cruise around Palawan and four nights relaxing at the four-star Club Paradise from £1,460 per person, including flights, transfers and some meals in September.
Audley Travel offers a 10-day Explore Palawan package from £1,650 per person, including five nights’ bed and breakfast at the three-star Dos Palmas in Puerto Princesa, and three nights’ full-board at the four-star El Nido Lagen and flights departing in September.
Jetlife AsiaWorld offers five nights’ room-only accommodation at the four-star Fridays Beach Resort on Boracay from £788 per person including flights and transfers in September. A four-night Spectacular Banaue extension starts at £299 per person.