THE Department of Tourism sees tourist arrivals in Boracay to remain strong despite the pullout of major carriers from the Caticlan airport.
This developed as Cebu Pacific (CEB), the aviation concern of the Gokongwei-led JG Summit Holdings Inc., has confirmed that it too had withdrawn from its Caticlan route as of Thursday morning.
This is a result of a new order by the recently-formed Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines, implementing a long-ignored rule on “one runway-take off, one runway-landing” procedure in the main runway of said provincial airport, effectively shortening the runway maneuverability of most carriers.
In a press statement released at 1:15 p.m. Thursday, CEB president Lance Gokongwei said: “CAAP has designated Caticlan, for the time being, as a one-way airport for all carriers: takeoff should be towards the sea and landing in the opposite direction. A technical re-definition also in effect shortens the runway, despite its actual length.
“We have therefore decided to divert all Caticlan flights to Kalibo instead and from there bus all our Boracay-bound passengers [to Caticlan] at no extra cost,” he added.
While CEB spokesman RG Orense told this reporter Wednesday night that the carrier’s first two flights on Thursday would land in Caticlan as scheduled, apparently these two were also diverted to Kalibo. “[Both flights] landed in Kalibo. The instructions [to the pilots] were given early [yesterday morning],” Orense said.
The carrier said more than 60,000 booked passengers will be affected by the cancellation of its Caticlan route.
(Cebu Pacific President and CEO Lance Gokongwei)
Caticlan is the gateway to the resort island of Boracay, considered a “bread-and-butter” route in terms of domestic destinations by most major carriers.
Yesterday, Philippine Airlines also pulled its Caticlan flights and transferred them to Kalibo. In the meantime, PAL said it will shoulder the land-transfer expense of passengers who had booked Caticlan flights. But Francisco Yngente, vice president for airport services said the cost of the transfer, however, will already be tucked into the cost of the PAL ticket in future bookings.
Passengers interviewed by this reporter who originally booked their flights to Caticlan and flew Thursday morning said PAL customer service called them Wednesday afternoon, informing them of the switch in the landing destination.
Nikka A. Policarpio, a marketing consultant, who rode PR 037 which left Manila at 6:10 a.m. Thursday, said “our transfer was organized. We were provided a Starex van to ferry us to Caticlan from Kalibo. And the trip was alright, short, about an hour-and-a-half only.”
As a result of the CAAP order, only Southeast Asian Airlines, because of the smaller size of its planes, will be able to fly into Caticlan.
The Caticlan airport’s new runway configuration was announced Wednesday in a meeting between CAAP and the three major carriers – PAL, CEB, and Seair.
Sources said Zest Airways, whose plane overshot the Caticlan runway on June 25 and caused the CAAP to review the airport procedures, did not attend the meeting which adjourned at 4 p.m. Since its June 25 accident, the second since January when its plane undershot the runway, Zest Air already closed its Caticlan route.
Meanwhile, Edwin Trompeta, regional director of the DOT region 6 (Western Visayas) expressed confidence that the pullout of the carriers from Caticlan will not affect tourist arrivals in Boracay. “There is no major impact because the number of flights to Kalibo of these airlines are the same number of flights before the CAAP measures were imposed.”
But he admitted that some passengers may be “inconvenienced” because the land trip from Kalibo to Caticlan take an hour and half, before the 15-minute pump boat ride from the Caticlan jetty port to Boracay. “Plus it could add up to the cost of the airfare and their tour package because of the transfers,” he said.
Trompeta said ultimately, the diversion of the flights to Kalibo by these major carriers, “will be good for our visitors because we’re concerned for their safety. These carriers are now using bigger aircraft and considering the length of the runway and it now being habagat (southwest monsoon) season where winds from the southwest are coming in, we’re a little bit concerned with the safety of the passengers.”
The tourism official intimated that the CAAP measure “could be temporary” until the amihan season (northeast winds) starts in October. The amihan season usually last until May or June, allowing the carriers to use runway 06, which is the approach from the sea. “I think this is a temporary arrangement. But the final decision is with the CAAP.” At present, all carriers have been using runway 24.
Still, he explained that even before the CAAP ruling, “those planes were not filled to capacity [because of the difficulty in the landing and takeoff considering the short runway]. Most of them incurred penalties for not loading their planes.”
According to data from the DOT, tourist arrivals in Boracay in the first half of 2009, grew by 6 percent to 383,313 from the 362,228 registered in the same period in 2008.
Trompeta said the bulk of the tourists continue to be Filipinos, accounting for 71 percent or 271,498 of total arrivals, while foreigners numbered 96,102. Balikbayans or returning Filipinos totaled 16,213.
(The pristine white sands of Boracay make it one of the best beaches in the world according to international travel magazines.)
Of the foreigners, arrivals from Korea were the largest at 34,818 in the six-month period; followed by China at 11,584; Taiwan at 8,074; and Americans at 7,130.
Total tourism receipts for the period reached P7.06 billion.
The DOT official said Boracay tourism arrivals continue to be “strong” despite the global economic crisis and the (A)H1N1 global flu outbreak. Before the H1N1 outbreak, DOT projected tourist arrivals in the island to increase by 10 percent to 697,799 from the 2008 arrivals of 634,363. Last year, the island brought in total tourism receipts amounting to P11.66 billion.
In a press statement, CEB president Gokongwei said: “We continue to work closely with our industry partner, the CAAP, to find a speedy resolution, to these airport issues, to allow Cebu Pacific to re-instate flights to Caticlan.
He added that Boracay continues to be one of the country’s most important tourism destinations. “CEB’s low fare service has been integral to the growth and development of the island’s tourism industry and has increased its accessibility to both local and foreign tourists.”
CEB said it has been operating direct flights to Caticlan since February 29, 2008 and has since carried “over 340,000 passengers.” Its schedule, especially during the peak summer season, reached as high as 15 round-trip flights daily to Caticlan.
(*This was my original piece for BusinessMirror but due to space constraints, was folded in a general story on the issue along with other reporters' stories.)