The Philippine Star

The Department of Tourism highlighted a 76.5-percent hike in Chinese tourist arrivals to the Philippines in January this year compared to the same month last year. This was attributed to President Duterte’s “reaching out to China” in previous months.

And yet, this “surge” in Chinese tourist arrivals is lower than the 130.2-percent rise in Chinese tourist arrivals in January 2016 compared to the same month in 2015. So what gives?

The significant increase in tourist arrivals in January 2016 could be attributed to the low base of Chinese tourists that came into the country in the same month of 2015, which was affected by the prolonged tension brought about by the previous administration’s censure of Chinese activity at the disputed Scarborough Shoal.

Still, because of the attraction posed by the booming operations of three big integrated gaming resorts in the country that are just a stone’s throw from the airport, and their highly promoted family vacation themes, the Chinese tourists are liking what they are seeing.

The DOT is very optimistic that the number of Chinese visitor arrivals will improve much better in the coming months as the Philippine and Chinese governments hammer out economic deals worth at least $10 billion.

But more importantly, the bluster of building activity in the country’s integrated gaming and hospitality sector in the past years has given rise to new attractions that have turned out to be hugely appealing to Chinese families that are planning their holiday breaks.

Gaming hub

There are now three integrated resort and casino operations in the Entertainment City in Pasay City, a brainchild of the Philippine Gaming and Amusement Corp. under then Chairman Efraim Genuino about a decade ago.

Solaire and Resort Casino under Enrique Razon, City of Dreams Manila by the SM Group, and Okada Manila by Japan’s Universal Entertainment Corp. are fiercely competing for the Chinese market, one that is globally coveted by countries bankrolling their tourism programs.

A fourth resort-casino project is up and coming, Andrew Tan’s Westside City, and this will make the local gaming landscape even more exciting.

In addition, the local hotel tourism industry is undergoing a revival of sorts after almost half a century when the Philippine hotel industry was “born” under the helm of former First Lady Imelda Marcos in preparation for a Philippine-hosted Miss Universe pageant.

A number of hotels are rising in the Ayala commercial district and Taguig’s Bonifacio Global City that are more suited for travelling businessmen who are on the prowl for business deals that take advantage of the improved investment climate in the country.

And even in adjacent localities of Ayala and BGC like Quezon City and Muntinlupa, new hotels are rising or have just been completed that cater to businessmen.

While traffic in Metro Manila continues to be a major concern by tourists and businessmen, the recent opening of a new elevated road that links all three airports of the country and bypasses the ground level street bustle of Pasay City has been a much-welcome respite for those bound for the Entertainment City.

Chinese power

Sharing the DOT’s optimism on the prospects of a Chinese boom in arrival numbers are a number of external travel experts who predict that the Philippines will indeed achieve its goal of bringing in one million Chinese tourists this year.

Travel experts agree that Chinese tourists “come in large numbers, very quickly,” such as in the case of Thailand when their numbers grew from 800,000 in 2009 to 8 million in 2015, and in Japan when arrivals more than doubled from 2.4 million to 5 million in 2015.

The targeted one million Chinese tourist arrivals is deemed achievable with the recent lifting of a travel ban by the Chinese government of its nationals to the Philippines, and the expected increase of activity by Chinese business for new approved infrastructure projects.

Last year, inbound Chinese were already at over 675,000, surpassing Japanese arrivals (at 535,2380) and closing in on the Americans (at 869,463). Koreans remained the biggest tourist arrivals at 1.4 million.

Challenges ahead

Some 5.9 million foreign tourists visited the Philippines last year, a hundred thousand short of the goal of six million. Still, this was 11.31 percent higher than the arrivals in 2015 of 5.3 million. The goal by this year’s end is 6.5 to 7 million.

While the DOT is banking on the now rosy relationship of the Philippines and China to boost its tourist arrivals, it must heed other warnings that have become imminent in recent months, and which could affect arrivals in the coming months.

Recently, an international media agency had started airing a documentary of President Duterte’s war on drugs, but focusing on what it aired as extra-judicial killings. Similarly, Amnesty International has come up with a strong statement on the drug-related killings over the last seven months.

Pictures and video clips of these deaths do not leave an appealing image in the minds of potential tourists and holidaymakers. While the DOT figures show an increase in the number of arrivals, these trips have been arranged months in advance, and well before the street killings became international sensations.

The news (and images) of a German hostage beheaded by the rogue Abu Sayyaf also reinforces an image of lawlessness in the country. Then there is the upcoming release of the CBS drama series’ episode, “Madam Secretary,” which portrays the fictional character of a Philippine President who can’t keep his hands to himself.

Lastly, there is the rise in crude oil prices, which would eventually translate to higher cost of airfares, as well as other travel expenses. While the economies of some of the world’s developed countries hardest hit by the financial crisis of 2008 are on the path to recovery, the more expensive crude oil may negate any gains.

Tourist arrival numbers to the Philippines are so far behind other countries in the region like Thailand and Indonesia, and we cannot afford to lose any potential tourist for whatever reason.

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