June 01, 2020

Confused by announcements of June 1 flights? Here's what really went down

Image from My Boracay Guide
THE CIVIL Aeronautics Board (CAB) on Saturday stopped Philippine carriers from selling tickets for flights, which were supposed to commence on Monday, June 1, as the National Capital Region shifts to general community quarantine (GCQ) status. 

This developed as reports reached the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) about complaints from local government units (LGUs) saying they were not ready for commercial flights. Pioneering flag carrier Philippine Airlines had announced late Friday it would commence domestic and international flights on June 1.

An advisory signed on May 30, 2020 by CAB Executive Director Carmelo L. Arcilla, a copy of which was obtained by BusinessMirror, said, “Please be informed that the IATF has yet to approve the routes for domestic operations in the first week of June 2020. Consequently, airlines are hereby advised to cancel their flights on June 1, 2020 and to stop selling tickets for the said date.” 

The advisory was released at around 7 p.m., and sent to the CEOs and other executives of the Air Carriers Association of the Philippines, Air Juan Aviation Inc., Air Philippines Corp., Airswift Transport Inc., Cebu Pacific, Cebgo, Isla Aviation Inc., PAL, Philippines Air Asia, and SkyJet Airlines. 

Following the CAB advisory, PAL revised its plans, and announced on Saturday evening that its domestic flights would resume on June 8. Aviation sources intimated CAB had actually approved the flights for June 1, but failed to inform the IATF. CAB officials did not respond to text messages from this paper.

Meanwhile, Undersecretary for Tourism Regulation, Coordination, and Resource Generation Arturo P. Boncato Jr. said several provinces in the south requested for a postponement of commercial flights to prepare their airports and resorts for hosting of tourists. Among these are Siargao and Boracay. 

“The provincial government of Surigao del Norte would like to prepare for the reopening of Siargao especially dealing with incoming flights and reopening of resorts, etc. They are working on their protocols,” he said. The province has requested the IATF for a “suspension of regular airport operations up to August 31,” and discourages the entry of tourists, as per the LGU’s Executive Order 20-018 issued on May 30.

Boncato added, “The province of Aklan and LGU of Malay are also doing simulations and dry runs for reopening and have yOn et to announce a reopening date.” Malay hosts Boracay Island, dubbed one of the best beaches in the world. The island is building a Covid-19 laboratory, in anticipation of the tourist influx, said the DOT official. 

Other provinces which have also declined to reopen for tourism were Bohol and Baguio. These provinces have been placed under MECQ and as per IATF regulations, are allowed to resume tourism activities.

On Saturday, the CAB also reminded airlines that they are not allowed to accept passengers going for leisure activities in areas under GCQ.

In an advisory signed on May 29, 2020 by Arcilla, the agency said, “Under the Omnibus Guidelines on Community Quarantine, movement in areas under GCQ for leisure purposes shall not be allowed.”

It also prohibited the travel of “persons below 21 years old,” as well as senior citizens, along with which have “immunodeficiency, comorbidities, or other health risks, and pregnant [women].… For purposes of compliance, airlines shall vet or screen departing passengers to confirm that the travel is for non-leisure purposes.”

The advisory, released Saturday morning, also reminded carriers on health and safety protocols to be followed in airports and onboard their aircraft, to protect crew and passengers from the novel coronavirus.

On Friday, the DOT clarified on Friday that under GCQ, tourism and leisure-related activities were still prohibited. (See, “No hotel operations, leisure travel allowed under GCQ,” in the BusinessMirror, May 30, 2020.) 

*This was my original story submitted to the desk, before it got wrapped with another reporter's copy. 

November 16, 2019

On being Lucio Tan Jr.

BACK in 2008, I had the distinct privilege of interviewing Lucio “Bong” Tan Jr. for a magazine for which I used to work. I must admit, I approached him with some trepidation; after all, his temper on the basketball hard court and on the golf green was almost legendary.

But it was a very subdued and polite Bong who sat down for the interview, surprising me with his amiability. He even displayed the same flashes of wit his father has been known for at certain times and among certain company. He poked fun at himself — jesting that he probably looked like his achi Vivienne, as a makeup artist went on to put some light lipstick on his face for a fashion shoot — and at his powerful taipan of a father (“I don’t wear white socks.”).

Bong was nurtured by his mother Carmen, his amah, and grew up with six sisters – Vivienne, Karlu, Rowena, Sheila and Jesslyn – Bong being the fifth among the siblings. (He was father to Lucio Tan III called Hun-Hun, now 27, and Kyle, 23, his sons with the former Julie Chen, a Taiwanese-American.)

The family home
Bong grew up in the family home along Biak-na-Bato St. in Quezon City. From the outside, the property looks unremarkable except that it occupies an entire block spanning from Maria Clara St. and Dapitan St., in Sta. Mesa Heights, and has a helipad. I joked that we were practically neighbors as I grew up in the same area as well.

But it was a good place in the 1960s and 1970s to bring up one’s children especially if one were just starting a family. This was where many Manila-based Chinese-Filipino families flocked to after the Ruby Tower collapsed in 1968.

Bong said his father “trained” him and his siblings “not to splurge.” He remembered receiving a meager allowance when he went to college at the University of California in Davis, so he had to work two jobs, like his American classmates — as a gym manager and a basketball coach — just so he had enough money to spend for his needs.

Until his move to California, he also led a very “spartan life” from 1984 and 1986, as he studied at the Beijing University in China to deepen his appreciation of the native language and culture. “There was no McDonald’s yet then,” Bong recalls, but he said it was the best time to be in China. “It was actually the last chance to learn the culture before it opened up. I went back, now it’s so different. I’m still lucky that I went also during that time, under the old China, to study history and the language.”

His sense of fashion
At this interview, Bong is just wearing a powder blue shirt jack over dark pants, the kind popularized by a certain, ahem, strongman in the '70s. “I started wearing it 10 years ago, and now a lot of corporates are wearing it.” 

Asked if he liked men’s wear from Prada or Hugo Boss, he says: “Believe it or not, I also go for sales, and sometimes I give it (my shirt) away, when people like it. If it’s Hugo Boss how can you give it away?” he laughs. (Ironically, for the fashion shoot, he is dressed up in a navy blue Hugo Boss suit, which fits him rather well, although he did display some self-consciousness as the photographer flashed away. Bong does wear business suits when the occasion calls for it, but for casual wear, he uses athletic shorts, a T-shirt and sneakers when going to the mall.)

Although not really fond of luxury brands, Bong told me, “I like fresh-looking clothes,” and readily admitted to reading male fashion magazines like GQ.  “I like wearing clothes that nobody has seen yet. But I’m not brand-conscious.”

But yes, Bong says it’s not been easy carrying the name of his  namesake father, who by a recent account in Forbes, is worth $3.3 billion. As the only male in his father’s first family, he had been bruited to be the one to take over from his father, someday. (Just last October 28, he was appointed president of PAL Holdings Inc., the listed firm that owns and operates the flag carrier Philippine Airlines, aside from being vice chair already of the PAL board. He also sat on the board of the LT Group Inc. and held positions in other Tan-owned companies like Asia Brewery Inc., Eton Properties Philippines Inc., Tanduay Distillers Inc.)

“I feel pressured of course, and also it’s challenging. It is a challenge to put in practice all that you learned right?” Bong remarked. He was supposed to work in a bank after graduating in 1991 from UC Davis with a civil engineering degree, “But my Dad told me to come back [to Manila] already.”

A taste of tobacco
His first job at Fortune Tobacco Corp., was as a tobacco leaf inspector, which he described as “hell! It was so hot in the warehouse, I had to inspect all the tobacco deliveries to check if they were the right grades. I had to change my shirts at least four times a day. And that was free ha! I had no salary, parang OJT (on-the-job training).” When the tobacco season was over, he was moved around different divisions to learn up close the operations of the cigarette company.

As a manager, Bong described himself as “approachable, everyone can call me up, text me on my cell, they know I will answer unless I have a game or in a meeting.” (Indeed he was quite accessible even to media. Bong was one of the very few PAL officials who would go on record for interviews, and respond to my text messages.)

He said anyone could go to him if there were problems in the company. “I’m a guy who has to listen to both sides [of an argument]. I will always ask, ‘Okay who’s the other party?’ but I will not tell him that I will call the other side. I will say I will think about it then I call the other side. If I can settle it,  okay, if not, I consult an expert on the issue. If it’s just a small matter, I just tell the one who complained to me, ‘ibigay mo na [let it go]’.”

The succession plan
But Bong stressed even then, the succession issue in the family is not actively talked about, even as some media reports point to him as the heir apparent. Unlike other Chinoy business families, like Henry Sy Sr., John Gokongwei, George Ty, Andrew Gotianun and those of other taipans, his father has not publicly anointed anyone as his successor.

I asked Bong then about his main “rival” as heir-apparent, his half-brother Michael, who is older than him by just three months, and also holds major positions in their father’s businesses. (Few people know that Bong and Mike were actually good friends, despite being pitted against each other since birth. I am told that the Mike  had visited Bong at the ICU, and has been at the latter’s wake every night. “He is deeply affected” by his brother’s passing, said a source.)

But Bong is obviously uncomfortable discussing the issue. He leaned into me as his voice drops a tad lower, as if not wanting to let anybody hear his answers. He knows he can’t evade my questions, yet respectfully answered them without giving too many clues.“We never talk about it,” Bong stressed, adding that no one is really sure who’s going to take over from his father, if and when, the latter retires. Now at 85, Kapitan continues to attend board meetings and manages his businesses through a few trusted lieutenants.

“We have a different plan,” Bong underscored during our chat then. “We have a different system in choosing an heir apparent, whoever is more deserving.” Pressed to explain what that meant, he merely said, “It will be someone whom people will be comfortable with.”

(Our heartfelt condolences to the Tan family, friends of Bong, and his staff.)

*Originally published in the Asian Dragon, edited for brevity, and updated to include current events.

April 06, 2019

Duty Free PHL seeks higher profits by trimming staff

THE DUTY-FREE Philippines Corp. is seeking to streamline its organization in an effort to trim costs, and increase its profits.

This was disclosed by DFPC Chief Operating Officer Vicente Pelagio A. Angala to select media on Thursday, while expounding on the aim of the government corporation to be a leaner organization.

At present, he said, DFPC has some 800 employees, which includes sales staff at its malls, airport kiosks, and branches nationwide. Asked how many employees may be trimmed by the reorganization, Angala declined to say, but added, “let’s put it this way, we can work with half the number,” or about 400 employees.

He intimated that the salaries of the employees impact on the bottomline of the company, and it may be possible for its malls and outlets to operate with just a sales manager or a cashier, but the concessionaires themselves will hire their own sales force and support staff.

He said the reorganization “will be done in phases” so as not to disrupt the operations of the corporation, an attached agency of the Department of Tourism (DOT).

The new Luxe Duty Free outlet of DFPC at the Mall of Asia complex is targetting the mainland Chinese market. (Image courtesy DOT)
For the year ending December 31, 2016, personal services reached some P470.4 million, accounting for 24 percent of total operating expenses that year. No audited financial statements have been made available for the years 2017 and 2018.

Earlier, Angala said the DFPC is targetting to hit some $220 million (P11.66 billion) in sales this year,  just 1.4 percent higher than the $217 million (P11.5 billion) generated in 2018. While no figures were available yet for 2018, the corporation netted a profit of P179 million in 2017, up 9 percent from the P164 million earned in 2016.

He is hoping the opening of the new Luxe Duty Free outlet at the Mall of Asia complex, which targets the mainland Chinese tourists in the country, along with new stores in provincial airports such as in Puerto Princesa and Panglao Island, will help boost the sales of the corporation.

Meanwhile, in its thrust to help increase the income of small and medium-sized enterprises as well as local farmers, DFPC recently added homegrown brands to its online shopping web site.

Three months after the online shopping web site was launched, customers can choose from over 150 products, from perfumes and cosmetics, liquor, toys, confectionaries and now export-quality Filipino brands.

“For three decades, Duty Free Philippines has been known to be the haven of luxury and imported goods. That is still true but we want to also emphasize the importance of enabling our local entrepreneur,” said Angala.

Some of the local products available at www.dutyfreephilippines.ph are Just Fruit manufactured in Metro Manila; Kick-start Coffee of Silang, Cavite; Malagos Chocalates of Davao; Risa Chocolates of Las Piñas City; Tanay Hills Coffee of Rizal; and VuQo Premium vodka of Caloocan City.

Angala added that all 54 local brands available at all Duty free stores will be available online before the end of the year.

To shop online, customers need to provide their flight details. Items will be prepared and customers could pick them up at the airport.

Each passenger is allowed to buy up to $1,000 worth of items, 48 hours upon arrival.

At the Luxe outlet, the Filipiniana section currently featuring items from the SM Mall’s Kultura section will be slowly replaced by the premium export-quality consumer products, liquor, and furniture crafted by Filipino artisans.

Overseas Filipino workers and balikbayans (returning Filipinos) can shop up to 15 days from date of arrival. The shopping privilege is further extended to 30 days during the Christmas season (for those arriving from November 15 to January 15 the following year).

Senior citizens and persons with disabilities have an extended privilege of shopping up to 365 days from the date of their arrival in the country.

Under the Tourism Act of 2009, 50 percent of the revenue of DFPC is remitted to the DOT for tourism-development projects

*Originally published in the BusinessMirror, April 4, 2019.

August 18, 2018

Gov't to remove people, not hotels in Boracay (UPDATED)

THE Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) will be adopting a "low-density" plan for Boracay Island, as part of its efforts to rehabilitate the area and reduce the  latter's environment stress.

A high-ranking DENR official said, however, a low-density plan did not mean the number of hotels and resorts would be reduced, even as the agency finalizes the study on the island's carrying capacity.

In an interview with this writer, DENR Undersecretary for Attached Agencies Sherwin S. Rigor said the agency will be releasing the carrying capacity study “within this month, because we are finetuning [it]. We’re including the weight of the facility also, not just of human beings. The first question there was the carrying capacity of people. But we discovered also the degradation of the environmental areas there, including the use of land. So we included that as well.”

The inter-agency Task Force Boracay estimates that the carrying capacity of the island, hailed by travel publications as one of the best islands in the world for its long, powdery, white-sand beach, was breached in 2009, when visitor arrivals then reached some 650,000. Last year, visitor arrivals on the island reached 2 million, more than half of who were foreign tourists. 

(UPDATE Aug. 26: The Task Force already discussed the carrying capacity study commissioned by the DENR, and drawn up by scientists from UP Los Baños in their meeting last August 22, Wednesday. Members of the task force, however, have declined to release said study.)

The Environmental Literacy Council defines "carrying capacity" as an ecosystem's ability to support people and other living things without having any negative effects. "It also includes a limit of resources and pollution levels that can be maintained without experiencing high levels of change. If carrying capacity is exceeded, living organisms must adapt to new levels of consumption or find alternative resources. Carrying capacity can be affected by the size of the human population, consumption of resources, and the level of pollution and environmental degradation that results. Carrying capacity, however, need not be fixed and can be expanded through good management and the development of new resource-saving technologies."

Rigor said the DENR is “moving forward [toward making Boracay a] low density development” because right now, it is now “high density. It’s a matter of [the island’s] land use.” But he clarified that in moving towards a low-density development plan for Boracay, this would not mean a significant reduction of the number of hotels and resorts on the island. “Definitely there is decongestion. So you must decongest what part you want to decongest. Right now, [there are] the hotels, the tourists, the workers coming from the other islands who are not residents of Boracay. So we're willing to make a balance; the workers are the ones who will be transferred, just to make the [island focused] on tourism development.”

Task Force Boracay wants to use the masterplan designed by Architect Jun Palafox, which featureslow-rise accommodations, expansive green spaces, a rail system or environmentally-friendly transport vehicles, among others. But it was not clear if the Task Force would pay for the masterplan or the local government of Malay, which commissioned it.

Rigor also disabused the public’s perception that Boracay Island is overbuilt. “It's not overbuilt. It's overused and overpopulated. We will be making a full plan of it…. At present, we're planning to remove the workers living on Boracay. There are about 20,000-30,000 who occupy forestlands, wetlands, [and] lands owned by the government. So when we transfer them to the mainland, that will substantially decrease the population.” He said the 20,000 workers are in just one shift. In contrast, there were about 18,000 tourists who visited Boracay daily. 

He stressed that the DENR will likely not move to reduce the number of hotels and resorts on the island, “because there is still area you can build upon.” During the last hearing of the Senate Committee on Tourism, Senator Nancy S. Binay pointed out the need to determine the carrying capacity of the island before it is reopened, and found out that hotels and resorts were already selling their rooms in anticipation of said reopening. (See, “To open or not to open Boracay Island, that is the question for Binay,” in the BusinessMirror, July 17, 2018.)

But Rigor stressed that accommodation establishments on Boracay “cannot sell yet their rooms until they are compliant. Without the compliance, we will not open them. But we will open Boracay.”

The DOT has estimated that there are 430 hotels on Boracay, with rooms at some 15,000 as of March 2018. It also said it was targetting only 30 percent of the rooms to be available for tourist bookings by October 26, the announced date or Boracay's reopening. (See, "Only 30% of Boracay hotels seen opening by October 26," in the BusinessMirror, August 13, 2018.)

He expressed confidence that the rehabilitation of the island was still on track to reopen on October 26. “We still have 90 days. We're confident [we will reopen on schedule],” adding that the widening of the main road need not be 100-percent completed. “You just need to start where are the congestion of hotels,” he averred.

President Duterte ordered the closure of Boracay Island, once dubbed the “best beach in the world” by travel magazines, for six months beginning April 26. It was to make way for the government rehabilitation program, which entails the restoration of environmentally-stressed areas, completion of the sewerage system, removal of easement obstructions, widening of the main road, construction of a diversion road, and decongestion of the island of transport vehicles. 

In 2017, the island generated some P56 billion in tourism receipts.

September 15, 2016

Stakeholders to DOT: Let’s keep ‘It’s More Fun…’ tourism slogan

By Ma. Stella F. Arnaldo / Special to the BusinessMirror

THE Department of Tourism’s (DOT) plan to change the Philippines’s tourism brand and campaign slogan was met with a barrage of negative reactions from tourism industry stakeholders, with netizens even giving their own “fun” spins and possible new slogans.

Cesar Cruz, president of the Philippine Tour Operators Association (Philtoa), told the BusinessMirror that the “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” brand and campaign slogan launched in 2012 “should not be changed yet. It has not really reached its maximum potential.”

Being a tourism industry veteran, he said, “I think the country slogan shouldn’t be changed every administration; it takes time for the brand or the campaign slogan to achieve its maximum potential. It’s only now that ‘It’s More Fun in the Philippines’ has gained acceptability here and abroad. Maganda ang dating nya satourists.”

Cruz’s view was echoed by Aileen Clemente, executive vice president of the Tourism Congress of the Philippines, saying, “Large brands in the private sector do not change slogans in short periods of time because, more than an expense, it is an investment. I would rather see that we continue the momentum and enhance what needs to make it better.”

For his part, Arthur M. Lopez, president of the Philippine Hotel Owners Association, also opined that the DOT should keep the “Fun” brand and campaign for the Philippines. “On a commercial point of view, for advertising recall and for continuity, it pays to stay with the current slogan.”

He believes that “it takes time for a new slogan to take effect.”

The “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” marketing campaign was conceived by advertising agency BBDO Guerrero, and launched in January 2012 under then-Tourism  Secretary Ramon R. Jimenez Jr., who is an advertising veteran, as well.

Initial conception for the slogan itself amounted to P5.6 million, but the subsequent media placements and advertising campaign have run into billions of pesos since its launch in 2012. These include advertising placements on buses and taxicabs in London, ad placements in major newspapers in key markets and window ads in New York.

DOT insiders say the agency and its marketing arm, the Tourism Promotions Board, spent approximately $61 million (about P3 billion) spread over four-and-a-half years for developing the campaign and media placements.

Current Tourism Secretary  Wanda Corazon T. Teo announced in Cebu recently that the DOT is now soliciting new proposals from advertising agencies for a new brand and campaign slogan for the country.

She said it was “normal” for every administration to change tourism marketing slogans, and that the new one, to be launched in mid-2017, would reflect the change and reforms being instituted by the Duterte administration.

Taking inspiration from the DOT’s direction, netizens actively took to their keyboards to create memes of possible new slogans for the DOT from "Come to the Philippines and have a killing good time," to reflect the over 2000 extrajudicial killings that have happened since Duterte took office, to “(expletive), ang ganda ng Pilipinas!” to reflect the President's colorful language.

Meanwhile, Philtoa’s Cruz pointed out that even the “Wow! Philippines,” marketing campaign conceived under the administration of former Tourism Secretary Richard  J. Gordon in 2002, “became very effective not even during the time of Gordon, but because we continued the campaign. So the impact of the slogan was sustained when other Cabinet secretaries, like Durano, etc., came in.”

Cruz also stressed that in other countries, they have kept their slogans and country branding for a long time. “For Thailand, for example, they made some tweaks but their slogan continues to be ‘Amazing Thailand.’ For India, it’s still ‘Incredible India’, and so on. If we change our slogan again, how long will it take until it reaches its acceptability?”

Cruz added: “Let’s be honest, it’s only now that the ‘Fun’ campaign is really reaching its potential, and after the country branding, now the campaign has been tweaked to promote the provincial destinations. It takes time to develop, but we have yet to explore [other dimensions] of the campaign.”

Aside from the length of time that a brand attains a certain level of acceptability, Cruz said there are other priorities that have to be attended that could boost visitor arrivals, such as infrastructure, air-traffic congestion, etc. “It’s expensive [to develop and launch a tourism campaign]. With the very limited budget that we have for our investment, we will have to spend so much, which is money we can use for other things that need to be prioritized, like marketing, promotion, infrastructure, etc.”

Clemente, who is also president of Rajah Travel Corp., said, “When you change a slogan, it is effectively changing the branding. The consequences of doing so have a larger impact than one may originally think of. Since branding not only distinguishes us from that of another, it is critical that the adoption of the brand by all stakeholders is considered.”

She added that there needs to be an independent assessment using quantitative and qualitative metrics to show whether a brand or campaign slogan has been effective, which will determine the need to change the brand or slogan, or to keep it.

(This piece was originally published in the BusinessMirror, Sept. 15, 2016.) 

July 28, 2014

Fil-Am visitors lift lean travel season*

      TOURIST NUMBERS have picked up with the arrival of some 300 Filipino-Americans and their mainstream American friends, just as the lean travel season has set in.

The visiting Fil-Ams are in Manila for the 9th Ambassadors, Consuls General and Tourism Directors Tour of the Philippines (ACGTDT) from July 28 to 31, which features an audience with President Aquino, lunch at Heroes’ Hall, and a tour of Malacañang on July 30. Aquino is expected to speak to the participants and boast of his administration’s successes on the economic front and his drive against corruption.

“Through this successful tour program, we are able to entice Filipino-Americans as well as their friends in the US to visit us and to deepen their appreciation of the history, heritage and culture of our country and the natural warmth of our people. Aside from being a safe place to travel, the Philippines is one of the best places for medical and wellness tourism as well as a retirement haven,” said Domingo Ramon Enerio III, chief operating officer of the Tourism Promotions Board (TPB), in a press statement released over the weekend. The TPB is the marketing arm of the Department of Tourism (DOT), one of the lead agencies that implements this tour program.

The lean travel season usually begins in June and lasts until October-November, reflecting the country’s monsoon season which also attracts a number of strong typhoons.

The balikbayans (returning Filipinos) and their American friends will be coming from Washington D.C., where the Philippine Embassy in the US is located, as well as Hagatña, Guam; Chicago; Honolulu; Los Angeles; New York; and San Francisco, which host Philippine consular offices.

The program was launched in 2005 during the term of then Philippine Ambassador to the US (now Foreign Affairs Secretary) Albert del Rosario and implemented in cooperation with the DOT and TPB.

In July 2011,  it was designated as a banner tourism project under the DOT’s Pinoy Homecoming Program. Major sponsors include the Western Union, Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (Tieza), Duty-Free Philippines (DFP), and Philippine Retirement Authority. Tieza and DFP are also attached agencies of the DOT.

In a separate press statement, Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Cuisia, Jr. described the 9th ACGTDT as “a wonderful opportunity for balikbayans and our American friends to experience some of the Philippines’ best tourist destinations.”  He will be leading the delegation from the US.

Enerio said tour participants arrived to a VIP reception with sampaguita leis at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport on Sunday, with the rest arriving today, Monday.

The participants paid for a basic tour package, which cost $530 (excluding airfare) for a four-day/three-night (double occupancy) stay at Dusit Thani Hotel in Makati with daily buffet breakfast, lunches and a welcome dinner with entertainment at the Makati Shangri-la Hotel, and a fellowship night hosted by Western Union. Roundrip international airfare was via Philippine Airlines where applicable.

Enerio added that participants will also join the wreath-laying ceremony at the historic Rizal Monument in Rizal Park (formerly Luneta), and may opt to go on special tours to Corregidor, Intramuros, the Metropolitan Museum at the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, Manila Ocean Park, shopping malls, or have spa treatments.

“To cap this year’s visit, the participants will be brought via guided tours to the luxurious resort of Pico de Loro Cove at Hamilo Coast in Nasugbu, Batangas. They will arrive to a festive welcome of native songs and dances with rondalla music with the ‘Star for All Seasons”, now Provincial Governor, Vilma Santos-Recto, and Nasugbu Mayor Charito Apacible personally joining them throughout their stay at Hamilo Coast,” the TPB chief said.

The participants will feast on a sumptuous Southern Tagalog lunch and be entertained with a cultural show.  They will have a free afternoon where they can enjoy indoor games and outdoor sports, go island-hopping, swimming, snorkelling, or scuba diving. The coastal area of Batangas is located within the Verde Island Passage dubbed by marine biologists as the “center of the center of marine shorefish biodiversity.” More than 65 percent of the world’s marine species, endangered sea creatures, and some 300 coral species can be found in this area.

Meanwhile, Rajah Tour Philippines has arranged optional tours for the participants to other destinations Laoag-Vigan, Cagayan de Oro-Camiguin, golf clubs in Southern Luzon, Davao, Cebu-Bohol, Iloilo-Bacolod, Kalibo-Boracay, Camarines Sur-Albay, and Puerto Princesa-Palawan. These tours are scheduled from July 31 to Aug. 2.

From January to April 2014, visitors from the US (266,972) and Canada (56,571) accounted for 19 percent of the 1.7 million total visitor arrivals for the period.

“We encourage our countrymen here to invite their relatives and friends in the US and Canada to plan and book for these tours, especially for ‘Visit Philippines 2015,’” said Enerio.

The DOT has targetted foreign visitor arrivals to reach 6.8 million for 2014, and 8.2 million for 2015. Foreign visitor arrivals numbered 4.7 million in 2013, falling short of the 5.2-million target for the year.

*Have no idea if my piece was published in the BusinessMirror today as its web site is under construction. So there.


SORRY guys! I've been remiss again in my blogging duties. Too much work! (on Twitter, Facebook, Viber...yeah, yeah.) Will rev this up soon. Like today!

Thanks for checking in.

March 30, 2014

New air pact, stronger DOT marketing to increase Singapore visitors to PHL

SINGAPORE continues to be the top source of tourists for the Philippines in the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), encouraging the Department of Tourism (DOT) to continue its strong marketing push in the city-state.

In 2013 there were 175,304 visitors from Singapore, up 18.09 percent from the arrivals in 2012. For the first month of 2014, the Singaporean market contributed 13,399 visitors to the Philippines, an increase of 10.46 percent from the January 2013 level.

There is optimism at the DOT that those numbers for Singapore would rise significantly over the next few months, with increased flights between the city-state and the Philippines, and a more strategic marketing initiative by government tourism bodies.

In an interview, Tourism Spokesman and Assistant Secretary for Market Development Benito Bengzon Jr. said one of the aims of the recently concluded air talks between the Philippines and Singapore was to grant additional traffic rights to the designated carriers of both countries. “The increase in frequencies and the opening of new routes would provide more opportunities to increase two-way traffic between the Philippines and Singapore,” Bengzon told the BusinessMirror.

He added that the agreement “also paves the way for promoting both countries, particularly to long-haul markets.” The designated Philippine carriers that would benefit from the new air pact are Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific and Tiger Airways Philippines.

The Philippines and Singapore finalized a new air-service agreement in February, increasing the number of seats from Manila to Singapore to 17,600 per week, from 13,800 for each country.

Also, the new memorandum of understanding between both countries expands their fifth-freedom traffic rights, allowing Singapore carriers to pick up passengers from the Philippines, and bring them directly to China, on top of Osaka and Seoul. Philippine carriers, on the other hand, are now allowed to pick up passengers from Singapore to India, on top of Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.

As such, the DOT will now “step up our market-development efforts in Singapore, targeting young couples, divers and expats,” Bengzon said.

For his part, Tourism Promotions Board (TPB) Chief Operating Officer Domingo Ramon Enerio III said: “Singaporeans look for eco adventure and nature tour options because they’re surrounded by urban infrastructure with limited opportunities for outdoor activities. They look for the relaxing space to escape from their fast-paced work style.” The Philippines, he pointed out, offers Singaporeans that kind of escape from their urban jungle.

He added that “they’re our No. 1 market from Asean and have potential to grow even more.” TPB is an attached agency of the DOT tasked with marketing the Philippines to local and foreign tourists.

Meanwhile, in the first month of 2014, total visitors to the Philippines rose 5.8 percent to 461,383.

South Korea again emerged as the top market for the Philippines, with 118,308 visitors, accounting for 25.64 percent of the total. However, South Korean visitors dropped by 12.36 percent from 134,994 in January 2013.

In the second spot was the United States at 71,042, which accounted for 15.4 percent of market share; followed by China at 49,538 (10.74-percent market share); Japan at 35,160 (7.62 percent); Australia at 20,747 (4.5 percent); Canada at 16,413 (3.56 percent); Singapore at 13,399 (2.9 percent); Taiwan at 12,448 (2.7 percent); Hong Kong at 11,587 (2.51 percent); the United Kingdom at 11,098 (2.41 percent); Malaysia at 8,697 (1.88 percent); and Germany at 7,616 (1.65 percent).

Diplomatic issues aside, the mainland China market grew substantially by 98.53 percent from the January 2013 level of 24,952, as well as the Hong Kong market, which rose by 39.43 percent from 8,310. The Taiwanese market, however, slipped by 23.02 percent from 16,170 in January 2013.

(This piece was published in the BusinessMirror on March 27, 2014.)

March 29, 2014

Travel Bites: The 'Galapagos of Asia'

THE first time I heard about Sibuyan Island was from my father. During World War II, as the Japanese military forces spread to the Visayan region, my father’s family left home in Capiz and took refuge on the island, in the province of Romblon.

If you look at the map, it’s easy to see why. Sibuyan’s relative isolation it is one of the three major islands that make up Romblon—made it an ideal sanctuary from the vagaries of war. And while there has been intermittent commercial air service between Manila and Tablas (the larger of the province’s islands), travel to Sibuyan has mainly been via ferry or pumpboat.

On the upside, the island’s relative seclusion has kept its environment pristine. It’s been dubbed as the “Galapagos of Asia” because of its rich biodiversity, with over 50 tree species found unique only to Sibuyan, as well as a number of endangered mammals and birds that are endemic to the island. According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) web site, “the forest density in Sibuyan is 1,551 trees per hectare, making it the densest forest ever recorded in the Philippines.”

Mount Guiting-Guiting is a favorite of mountain climbers. It's name is taken from the vernacular describing its jagged edges, or "guiting-guiting". (Photo from http://www.wowromblon.com/)
Many of these flora and fauna can be found deep in the forests of Sibuyan and are now endangered because of previous DENR policies that allowed the cutting of trees as well as commercial mining operations. Despite the fervent opposition of the local government, the Catholic Church, and Sibuyan residents to mining, the island was not included in President Aquino’s Executive Order on mining, which listed 78 protected zones (only Romblon island was categorized a “no-go” zone).

Every December, the main municipality of San Fernando celebrates the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception (December 8) through the Pag-alad Festival, with costume and float parades, and street dancing. It’s best to visit Sibuyan during the dry months, although sea transports still operate during the monsoon season. Just be prepared for a rough and tumble ride.

After setting down your bags in your local inn or resort, you can hire a tricycle or Jeepney to take you around the island. Here are a few spots of interest:

Mount Guiting-Guiting is a favorite of mountaineers because of the tremendous challenges in climbing it. It is a series of jagged peaks—hence, the name guiting-guiting in the vernacular—so expect terrain pitches up to angles of 90 degrees. It was declared a national park in 1996; but the unfettered encroachment of upland settlers who live off the mountain has resulted in some areas of balding due to slash-and-burn farming. Still, it makes for a great hike in the lower regions of the mountain. Those who intend to climb to the summit need to secure a permit and a local guide at the DENR Substation in Barangay  Tampayan, in the town of Magdiwang. (For inquiries, contact: Hurley Salig, provincial environment officer of Odiongan, Romblon at (042)567-5030; or  0917-8831125).

Swim with the fish and shrimps in the Cantingas River, declared as the “cleanest inland body of water in the Philippines,” and the second-cleanest river in the world. The river has carved its own path amid a lush, fertile valley, which visitors can view in its entirety by climbing a viewing platform, or taking a zip-line ride hosted by the Cantingas River Resort in San Fernando. Thrillseekers can also jump off specific ledges and dive into the cool waters of the river. (Contact: Aniceto Aganan, 0906-1617708).

Firefly watching at the Magdiwang River (Photo from www.romblon.com)
Take a cruise at dusk along the Magdiwang River to watch fireflies! These winged beetles try to attract their mates or prey with their luminous bellies and are seen usually flitting about mangrove trees making the latter look like lit-up Christmas trees! After the one-hour cruise, you can have dinner at the river’s Floating Restaurant. There is also a fish sanctuary nearby which can be visited earlier, if you’re into snorkeling. (Contact: Teroy Rivero at 0919-802907).

Frolic in the cool waters of several waterfalls on the island. Busay Falls and Dagubdub Falls are in San Fernando, while Lambingan Falls is in Magdiwang. Be warned, however, that there is some amount of rock climbing and trekking involved so wear comfortable hiking shoes and bring a change of clothes. Aside from the rocks where these waterfalls flow over and around, there are a myriad of local flora that might be easily missed. On closer inspection, for instance, the carnivorous pitcher plants abound in Dagubdub Falls. Because of its height, Busay Falls is the most picturesque of the three. (Tricycles can take you to the various waterfalls but at some point, you have to hike the rest of the way.)

One shouldn’t miss the Cresta de Gallo Island, a relatively uninhabited islet 45 minutes away by outrigger pumpboat from Barangay Azagra in San Fernando. Although there are no resorts and other tourist facilities on the islet, it is getting popular because of its powdery white-sand beach, and an incredible swimming/snorkeling experience in its clear turquoise waters. Aside from multicolored fish, there are reported sightings of stingrays, turtles, even dolphins! A family that takes care of the islet is a useful source of information and can be approached to catch fresh fish for meals. An overnight stay is recommended just to max out your visit, but you have to bring all your camping essentials, as well as food and water.

An old 17th-centrury chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary of Candeleria can also be found in Azagra. Its stone façade and exteriors have been preserved but its interiors are modern. You can also visit Lamao Lake, a 7-hectare natural lake in the barangay and walk to its hills where a solar-powered lighthouse looks out to the sea. Wait for the sun to set and be amazed.

Needless to say, fresh seafood abound on Sibuyan Island so you can have a veritable array of choices from among the small carinderias, local resort restaurants and in the stalls in the public market. Due to the rising number of tourists on the island, a few restaurants serving pizzas and pastas have also cropped up in San Fernando.  Popular local delicacies include kinilaw, dried fish like the bulad, as well as spicy ginamos, the local version of the bagoong.

Where to stay
If you want to wake up amid lush surroundings with a view of the mighty Mount Guiting-Guiting, you may want to check out Sanctuary Garden Resort (http://sanctuarygardenresort.com/index.html) in Barangay Tampayan, Magdiwang. The accommodations are patterned after native huts and built of wood materials, with air-conditioned rooms for couples and groups. It offers local guided tours, free maps to nearby points of interest, as well as transportation for rent to go around the island (bikes, motorbikes, Jeepneys).

For clean and safe budget accommodations, go to Seabreeze Inn in San Fernando. The place is fairly well known among the locals so any tricycle can take you there. Its bamboo huts have verandas, which face the sea.

Getting there
Travelers with a reasonable amount of an adventurous streak will probably forget the slight amount of pain in getting to Sibuyan Island as soon as they sink into the breathtaking scenery.

From Manila, take a flight to Roxas City via PAL Express or Cebu Pacific, and then go to Culasi Port for a four- to six-hour pumpboat ride to Sibuyan Island.

You can also travel by sea from the Batangas Port to Sibuyan via Romblon. Shipping lines that travel to Romblon and Sibuyan Island are Montenegro Ferry (T# 043-723-6980/723-8294); Super Shuttle Ferry; Romblon Shipping Lines Inc.; Rapal Inter-island Shipping  (T# 872-5725); and the CSGA Ferry Corp.  (Check the Philippine Ports Authority Batangas Office for accurate departure schedules.)

For more on Sibuyan tourism, check out the Sibuyan Island Sentinels League for the Environment Inc. (http://www.sibuyan.com/tourism.html), which runs independent tours around the island.

(This piece was originally published in the BusinessMirror, June 24, 2013.)

Travel Bites: The Queen of the North

NAMED after Queen Isabela II of Spain, the province of Isabela is known as the largest corn producer in the country. Most of the corn is harvested and sold to feed millers who, in turn, sell the feeds to poultry and livestock growers. Isabela is also a major rice-production area, and known as the Rice Granary of the North.

Aside from being known for its agricultural commodities, Isabela is also trying to style itself as a tourism destination, recently highlighting a scarecrow festival called “Bambanti,” in gratitude of good harvests; and  promoting its historic churches, beaches, and extreme adventure activities.
Isabela is also home to the delicious Pancit Cabagan, made of miki, with hardboiled quail eggs, mixed vegetables, and topped with lechon carajay (Lechon kawali) and sliced red onions providing the crunch and spice. One taste and you will wonder where it’s been all your life.

Isabela has a number of historic churches—(top, left) is the Parish Church of Saint Matthias in Tumauini, with its belfry designed like a white wedding cake; and (top, right) is the San Pablo Church in San Pablo, said to be the oldest in the province. (Bottom, right) is teacher Jocelyn Taron, owner of the famous Josie Panciteria, which makes the best Pancit Cabagan in the province. She also sells pure cacao balls for chocolate drinks and dessert. (Photos are blogger's own/Created by Picstitch)

One of the most popular tourist destinations in the province is the Saint Matthias Parish Church in the town of Tumauini, built in 1783. Made of red brick, its façade features headless statues of saints. To its right, its bell tower stands out like a white four-layered wedding cake, with piped red frosting. The church was closed when I visited it with friends last week but it was a truly impressive structure with its red bricks used as ornamental decoration, not just to build the structure itself.

Another church not to be missed is the San Pablo Church in the town of San Pablo. Work appears to be ongoing to restore the church, which was originally made of adobe and soft stone. Built in 1624, it is said to be the oldest in Isabela, and its belfry reputed to be the tallest in the entire Cagayan Valley.

For more history, take a trip to Palanan where Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo surrendered to the American forces in March 1901, thus ending the Philippine Revolution. On the supposed site where the first Philippines President was captured now stands the Aguinaldo Shrine.

Palanan also has a number of white-sand beaches with crystal-clear waters (Culasi Beach, Kanaipang Beach and Dicotcotan Beach), as well as waterfalls ideal for swimming and picnics (Dicarangayan Falls, Diminalno Falls, Disadsad Falls and Sisangkilan Falls). There are no hotels and resorts here, so most visitors stay at the homes of hospitable residents.

While not as massive as the Hoover Dam in Colorado, Magat Dam (Barangay Aguinaldo, Ramon town) still makes one impressive sight. At the time of its construction in the 1980s, it was the largest in Asia. A tourism resort complex has since been built, allowing visitors have a picnic, and even take a boat ride in the reservoir lake with waters supplied by the Magat River, a tributary of the mighty Cagayan River. Magat Dam supplies both hydroelectric power to the province and helps irrigate its farms.

What was once used mainly by illegal loggers to ferry their illicitly cut timber, the Abuan River is now being promoted as the country’s next whitewater rafting destination. Now the bugadores (timber haulers) have been trained as boatmen, skillfully navigating the river’s rapids. There’s also a calmer portion in the river where visitors can kayak. The main tour of Abuan River includes a trek to the three-tier Sulimanan Falls, as well as some rappelling. (Call Luis Caraan at 0927-6556-845 or e-mail him at lcaraan@wwf.org.ph for inquiries, or Anton Carag Jr. of Adventures and Expeditions Philippines Inc. at 0917-5327480/E-mail  anton@whitewater.ph for tours.)

How about visiting some farms in Cauayan City? Visitors can pick fruits at the Cortez Fruit Farm and pay for these before leaving, or admire the flowers and other ornamentals at the Dacuycuy Farms. After, drop by the Mushroom Center at Barangay Tagaran and pick up some fresh oyster mushrooms, pickles, burger patties and other mushroom-based products. (To arrange the farm visits, call the Department of Tourism in Tuguegarao City, Cagayan at 078-844-1621 or e-mail cvtourism2@gmail.com.)

For a different kind of dining experience, drop by Josie  Panciteria (13 National Highway, Purok 7, Anao, Cabagan, near the Milagros Hospital.  0919-2509140) for her Pancit Cabagan made more savory because the broth she uses is made from boiling pork bones all day. A teacher, Josie Taron also makes pure dark chocolate balls from the cacao seeds she purchases from her students; the balls can be mixed in hot water to make a chocolate drink, or eaten as is, like dessert. So every purchase of these chocolate balls also helps Cabagan students stay in school.

Where to stay
Truth to tell, there are very limited choices for accommodations in Isabela, offering only basic facilities and amenities, with inns mostly run by families. Among those recommended by the DOT are: Amity Inn (National Highway, Cauayan/ 078-652-2010); Grand Cauayan Hotel (Don Ancilliary Street, Cauayan 078-635-2023; Queen Jennifer Hotel & Restaurant (National Highway, San Fermin, Cauayan/078-652-0066 or 0077); Hotel Romans Ville (Rizal Street, Centro, Ilagan/078-624-2029); Marjs Hotel (Gangan Avenue, San Vicente, Ilagan/ 078-622-3599); and San Antonio Hotel (12 Burgos Stree., Ilagan/078-624-2170).

You may want to drive the four hours to Tuguegarao City instead if you plan to stay only overnight. Stay at the new Villa Victoria Hotel (11-a Highway Pengue-Ruyu Tuguegarao/078-844- 0436) with its clean and tastefully-designed rooms. Love its crispy fried chicken.

Getting there
Cebu Pacific flies to Cauayan, Isabela every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Cyclone Airways flies from Cauayan City to Palanan every Tuesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

By land, you can take the bus to Isabela via Victory Liner, GV Florida (T# 352-5393), and Baliwag Transit (T# 912-3343/912-3361).

You can also drive to Isabela via the North Luzon Expressway passing through San Fernando, Pampanga, going to Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija, via the Pan-Philippine Highway. Staying on the same highway, you will pass Bayombong, Nueva Vizcaya, then reach Santiago City, Isabela.  Cauayan, where the provincial airport is located, is about 20 kilometers away. From Cauayan to Ilagan, the provincial capital, is about 25 km. The trip from Manila is about six to eight hours, depending on your speed. (For more on Isabela tourism and tour packages, click www.dotregion2.com.ph/d2/)

(This piece was originally published in the BusinessMirror, June 17, 2013. All rights reserved for these photos.)