February 20, 2012

4M tourists found the PHL ‘fun’ in 2011

(The main gate to Fort Santiago in Intramuros, a popular tourist site in Manila and the seat of government during the Spanish period. National hero Jose Rizal was imprisoned at the fort, which now displays various Rizal memorabilia.)

CLOSE to 4 million tourists apparently found the Philippines “fun” in 2011, with the bulk coming from three major markets—Korea, the United States and Japan.

The Department of Tourism said this surpassed its 3.7-million target for that year, and was higher by 12 percent than the 3.5 million who arrived in 2010.

“When the industry exceeds expectations as it had done last year, we feel very encouraged. And with the overwhelming response to our new brand campaign launched last month, we know that we have broken ground on crowdsourcing. The people’s campaign will help bring more numbers,” said Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez Jr. in a statement.

The DOT launched its “It’s more fun in the Philippines” brand campaign in January, using social networking as its platform. By April this year, it will roll out its actual campaign using traditional media such as television commercials, billboards and posters, targeting major target markets in North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Jimenez expressed confidence that another record-breaking year will be achieved in 2012 once the new brand campaign is fully implemented. “Our marketing resource has grown exponentially because of other people’s contributions in kind. We will continue to build on these positive energies to attract 4.2 million this year.”

As a regional group, East Asia accounted for almost 47 percent or 1.84 million of the visitors in 2011. December proved to be the strongest month for tourists with 394,567 recorded.

The country’s top 10 markets in 2011 were: Korea with 925,204 arrivals representing 23.6 percent of the market share; US at 624,527 (15.9 percent); Japan 375,496 (9.6 percent); China 243,137 (6.2 percent); Taiwan 181,738 (4.6 percent); Australia 170,736 (4.4 percent); Singapore 137,802 (3.5 percent); Canada 117,423 (3 percent); Hong Kong 112,106 (2.9 percent); and the United Kingdom 104,466 (2.7 percent). (See attached Scribd document at the end of story.)

(Aileen Clemente, president of the Philippine Travel Agencies Association)

Meanwhile, a travel executive said it will take more than a slogan to sell the country to tourists, but was hopeful the DOT would hit its arrivals target this year.

“There was a launch of a slogan, but this is not yet the strategy and campaign. No logo guide has yet been released, etc. We are waiting for these for implementation. I believe the tourism arrival targets can be achieved but it takes more than the tagline. This includes policy reforms [visa procurement etc.], infrastructure development, capacity to take tourists, etc. But I believe that if we want to achieve something, we are able to achieve it. So I am very hopeful,” said Aileen Clemente, president of Rajah Travel Corp. in an interview with the BusinessMirror.

Clemente, who is also president of the Philippine Travel Agencies Association, said traditional destinations such as Cebu, Bohol, Palawan, Davao, North Luzon and the Metro areas will still get bulk of the visitors this year. She attributed this to the better infrastructure in these areas.

“But there are other locales that are aggressive in tourism such as Legaspi, Marinduque, Aurora, Camarines Sur,” she noted.

Clemente added that Filipinos will be traveling more this year as low-cost carriers continue to offer affordable fares and new destinations within the country and to nearby regional destinations.

“I predict that Filipinos will increase their travels both within [the country] and outbound. There are more LCCs now which makes it relatively cheaper to travel around and out of the country and into more routes than in previous years,” she said.

The strong peso will also likely be a boon for travelers going abroad, she added.

Clemente disclosed that regional carriers will be slashing their fares by as much as 50 percent to be able to offer more affordable travel packages to visitors of the 19th Travel and Tour Expo from February 17 to 19 at the SMX Convention Center in Pasay City. (UPDATE: Philippine Airlines said it actually slashed its fares by as much as 70 percent.)

In a press briefing, she said: “We have a range of airlines participating in the travel fair from low-cost carriers to major carriers which will be giving the best value for your money.” She said long-haul carriers will be offering discounts from 10 percent to 20 percent.

The three-day event is expected to exceed last year’s more than 60,000 visitors from around the Philippines with over 450 booths featuring some 200 local and international organizations including travel agencies, airline companies, cruise operators, domestic tour operations, government agencies, embassies, national tourism organizations, hotels and resorts, international tour operators, travel shops and more, she said.

The travel fair with its theme “One Stop Shop to the World,” is co-organized with the DOT.

Clemente said the fair is seen generating P330 million in sales revenue, or “at least 10 percent higher” than sales recorded in 2010.

She noted that there were several new exciting destinations to be showcased at the travel fair, such as Hokkaido, one of those usually overlooked by frequent visitors to Japan. Most travelers to Japan, she said, would go to Osaka, Narita and Nagoya.

“Also, India is a newly launched route for PAL [Philippine Airlines] so we’re trying to intensify the promotion for that,” she added, even as both Indian and Philippine governments were working to ease the visa procedures in both countries.

Clemente also noted new destinations such as Legoland in Malaysia, as well as activities like “river cruising” in Europe and in Asia, as travel possibilities for Filipinos.

The annual Travel Tour Expo of the PTAA was conceptualized in 1994 to showcase the products and services of its members. Since then it has grown to be the ultimate destination for the most affordable travel deals and the prime marketplace for all destinations.

The expo is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on February 17 and 18, and from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on February 19. A minimal entrance fee of P50 is charged regular visitors while senior citizens get a discounted rate of P20.

(My piece was originally published in the BusinessMirror on Feb. 15, 2012. Intramuros photo copyrighted by this blogger. Clemente photo courtesy PTAA.)

Philippines Tourist Arrivals Jan.-Dec. 2011
(Statistics courtesy Department of Tourism)

Infrastructure budget to support tourism

Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez, Jr. shares his agency's development plans for 2012 in his keynote speech during the Philippine Tour Operators Association’s (PHILTOA) 1st General Membership Meeting for 2012 at the Hotel Intercontinental in Makati City on February 8, 2012. The gathering drew various representatives from the tourism sector, as well as key personalities such as Ilocos Norte Rep. Imee Marcos and Travel Time host Susan Calo Medina.

THE P128-billion government infrastructure plan for 2012 includes the construction or renovation of important tourism facilities that will help the country eventually attain its goal of attracting 10 million tourists by 2016.

In his keynote address at the first general membership meeting for 2012 of the Philippine Tour Operators Association at the Hotel InterContinental in Makati City, Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez Jr. said accessibility to major tourist destinations is one of the key focuses of the National Tourism Development Plan. “This will be improved with the frontloading of [expenditures] for transportation and infrastructure projects such as the upgrading of major hubs for both sea and air. For the first time, the bulk for infrastructure [spending] in 2012 will be for tourism.”

Among the major tourism projects are the upgrade of the Puerto Princesa airport to an international airport “which can receive 747s someday,” and in the medium-term, the improvement of airports in Mactan, Cebu; Panglao, Bohol; and Kalibo, Aklan as well. The infrastructure program also includes the implementation of the North Luzon and South Luzon expressway ‘’connector projects,” and the upgrade of sea ports which would encourage major cruise lines to dock in Manila at a time when these companies “are beginning to look at Asia again.”

Jimenez also disclosed ongoing negotiations with Singapore tourism officials to create a “Sunshine Trail” that will bring tourists in Singapore to the various tourist destinations in the Philippines. He said the Changi airport already serves as a major gateway to the Philippines, “all we have to do is pull the value out of the Singapore market and bring it to us.” He said Singapore will be spending for this marketing effort, “atin lang ’yung beach.”

Underscoring that the government is already doing its job by financing tourism infrastructure projects and embarking on a marketing campaign, the DOT chief also urged tour operators to support these efforts by offering “competitive” travel packages to the country.

“We must review our pricing. Our new marketing slogan is based on a simple word, ‘fun.’ But how much fun is our fun? Competitive ba tayo? ‘It’s more fun in the Philippines’ is not just a slogan, it’s a competitive marketing strategy. So we should ensure for example, that a boat ride here costs the same as boat rides in other places,” Jimenez said.

One of the more common complaints even by local tourists is that it is more expensive to travel within the Philippines than to go abroad. Also, foreign travelers have noted that fees in some tourist destinations like environmental fees and user’s taxes seem indiscriminately charged.

In an interview with the BusinessMirror, Philtoa President Cesar Cruz expressed optimism that the 4.2-million tourist arrivals targetted by the DOT this year “is definitetly achievable. As the secretary himself said, whatever happens, it’s still more fun in the Philippines. Just keep the positive attitude on the part of the stakeholders, tour operators, hoteliers and accommodations sector—we keep focused on that [the slogan], and we will not be distracted by these disasters which also happen everywhere.”

“Ultimately, any campaign will only be as good as the product,” he said. “We believe that community-based tourism projects and products, coupled with experiential activities such as eco adventures and cultural thematic tours, will be the way to go if the country wants to meet its projections.”

Philippine Tour Operators Association president Cesar Cruz expresses optimism for the tourism industry's growth this year during Philtoa 1st General Membership Meeting for 2012 at the Hotel Intercontinental in Makati City held on February 8.

On the issue of offering competitive prices as per the DOT chief’s suggestion, Cruz said: “We will make an extra effort to review our rates and make them more competitive. But at the end of the day, what is reality is the law of supply and demand. We really must come up with the extra capacity to be able to come up with these pro-rated accommodations.”

During an open forum after his speech, Jimenez also revealed more positive developments that would boost tourist arrivals in the country.

He said he was hopeful that the Federal Aviation Authority would soon revert the country to Category 1 safety status, which would in turn, encourage the European Union to lift its ban on Philippine carriers. “We’re currently awaiting the [FAA] audit. That in itself is a good signal because you can’t be scheduled for an audit if you’ve not passed the pre-audit. So we’ll get that audit at the close of the first quarter.” The country is currently under FAA’s Category 2 status, which prevents Philippine carriers from expanding its routes in the US.

He added that a legislative bill is currently being crafted that would eliminate the common carriers tax charged on foreign carriers. The Department of Finance earlier bucked plans to eliminate the CCT as this would result in revenue losses. “We’re finally gaining ground because even the DOF is part of the new attitude that competitive pricing is more fun.”

Moves are also under way, he said, to remove Customs, Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) charges as well. “There will be three workshifts to discourage overtime pay among immigration and customs staff. They will be paid a night differential instead, with the cost to be paid by the government, not the airlines.”

The country will also benefit from the Single Asean Visa that Asean tourism officials are currently working on. “We will make that a reality soon, maybe in the next year and a half. So anyone can walk into a Singaporean or Malaysian embassy anywhere in the world and get an Asean visa. This will enable him to automatically go to the Philippines. This is important for the European, US and Chinese markets,” Jimenez said.

For their part, members of the Philtoa also asked the DOT chief to look into new regulations by the management of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport that prevent travel agency representatives from personally meeting their arriving clients, and disallow transiting tourists from leaving the airport terminals and going on short city tours.

Philtoa has also adopted the “It’s more fun in the Philippines” campaign for the 23rd Philippine Travel Mart, a travel trade show featuring Philippine tourism destinations and hugely discounted tour packages. An annual event of the Philtoa, the PTM will be held from August 10 to 12 at the SMX Convention Center in Pasay City.

Organizers of the PTM project an increase in both the number of participants and visitors this year. Last year’s expo recorded some 77,000 individuals in foot traffic and generating gross sales of some P33 million.

(My piece was originally published in the BusinessMirror on Feb. 9, 2012. Photos courtesy Geiser Maclang PR)

February 09, 2012

More fun in the Philippines? DOT blames abducted tourists for ignoring advisories

THE Department of Tourism on Friday seemingly laid the blame for the kidnapping of two Europeans in Tawi-Tawi squarely on the victims' shoulders.

In a press statement issued late Friday, the DOT stressed that "the issuance of travel advisories is part of the regular functions of embassies in line with ensuring the safety and security of their citizens in a foreign country. For the Philippines, advice against travel to some parts of Mindanao has been constant and common."

The DOT then added: "The Tawi-Tawi incident is considered unfortunate and could have been avoided had the visitors taken necessary precautions many European tourists usually take in heed of these advisories."

Police have identified the kidnap victims as Elwold Horn, 52, of Holland; and Lorenzo Vinciguerra, 47, of Switzerland. They were abducted on Wednesday by unidentified armed elements while riding a boat back to the capital of Bongao, after a bird-watching trip. Their guide, Ivan Sarenas, managed to escape by jumping into the sea.

The DOT expressed confidence that tourists would continue to flock to the country despite a new travel advisory issued by the United Kingdom. (Click InterAksyon for the rest. My piece was published on Feb. 3, 2012.)

Leading with Mt. Apo Challenge, Davao tourism looks to scale new heights in 2012

Rising at 10,000 feet, Mount Apo is considered the highest point in the Philippines. Close to 1,000 mountaineers climbed the still active volcano in 2011 from the Sta. Cruz trail, according to data from the municipality. (Photo courtesy DOT/Rhonson Ng)

THE Department of Tourism is projecting close to 820,000 in tourist arrivals for the Davao region this year, as the area continues to attract the lucrative conventions and exhibitions market, as well as a growing number of eco-adventure travelers.

DOT Region 11 Director Arturo Boncato Jr. made this bold prediction after announcing the region's first major tourism event for the year – the 2nd International Mount Apo Boulder Face Challenge to be held on April 28-29, 2012 – a joint project with the municipality of Sta. Cruz, Davao del Sur.

"The Mt. Apo Boulder Face Challenge is one of the toughest adventure races in the Philippines," he said in a press briefing on Feb. 1 at the R.O.X., Bonifacio High Street. "It is a 24-hour extreme challenge using various disciplines such as mountain biking, trekking, water tubing and road running. The race starts from the Sta. Cruz beach lines and participants will navigate through the town's tough trails and raging rivers, scale the boulder face of Mt. Apo, and culminate in the skyline of the country's highest mountain." This year's grand prize is P150,000.

The event is one of the highlights of the annual Pista sa Kinaiyahan (Feast of the Environment) of the municipality of Sta. Cruz. The Boulder Face Challenge was first held in 2008. The DOT and the Sta. Cruz municipality decided to encourage international teams to participate starting last year. (Click InterAksyon for the rest. My piece was published on Feb. 3, 2012)

Pioneering techpreneur creates 'angel fund'

MYLA VILLANUEVA may not have invented the thinnest computer, the smallest smartphone, or a faster way to transmit data over the Internet, but among her peers she is considered every inch tech royalty.

After having successfully sold the idea of networking computers via an Internet protocol in the late ’80s, a time when most companies still relied on clunky mainframe computers for data storage, she is now on her fifth startup and focused on mass-marketing technology. (She calls herself a “serial entrepreneur.”)

As co-founder and managing director of Novare Technologies, she is developing products, software and architecture for local and foreign mobile operators in the field of “Fixed-Mobile-Internet convergence.”

Basically these are mobile applications and solutions for clients which include Globe Telecom, GSM Association, Meralco, PLDT, Philippine Savings Bank, RCBC, Smart, Standard Chartered Bank, Sun Cellular, and Norway’s Telenor, to name a few. Among Novare’s partners are IBM, Oracle, Research in Motion, Sybase, Tata Consultancy, etc.

She is now setting her sights on expanding Novare’s footprint in Southeast Asia and China.

“Our next goal as a group of companies is to hit China and other southeast Asian countries, which is made possible through partnerships with telcos and Internet companies localized and establishing there.... I feel this is a wave bigger than that of the last two decades of the Internet’s exponential influence and growth.”

Ever on the forefront of tech breakthroughs, Villanueva has launched what could be described as her best innovation to date.

Last January 11, she announced her personal advocacy called “Wireless Wings”, a P111-million angel fund which aims to support deserving information technology ideas from colleges and universities nationwide.

“I am trying to ignite a culture that I think is very ‘thin’ right now. I want to encourage people to innovate. I want them not to be just builders. I want them to build their own companies, craft their own models and be successful.”

Aside from funding ideas, Villanueva says her team will also provide beneficiaries with mentoring sessions from seasoned IT executives, as well as link them up with multinational companies and major players in the IT industry.

This way, “we will be able to expose them to the corporate setting, and to the type of thinking that businessmen have, because it has always been my dream to find emerging innovations that we can send outside the country.”

She adds: “We want them to think forward and realize that their ideas and products could also be used in Asia, in Indonesia and China.”

Villanueva also invites “other companies who have the same advocacy” to contribute to the angel fund to be able to boost the chances of these new techpreneurs in the international market.

It’s easy to understand why she has chosen this particular advocacy, having once grappled with the challenges of breaking into new markets dominated by the big boys of technology.

Flushed with idealism and inspired by the tech boom in Silicon Valley where she had studied and was living (and no less inspired by Apple’s Steve Jobs’s success), Villanueva, then just 21, came home to the Philippines in 1988, set up MDI Group Holdings, and introduced the idea of networking computers via Internet protocol.

Back then, most government agencies and the top Philippine firms shared and stored data using those clunky mainframe computers.

“It is so old tech today, but I cannot understate the challenges that came along, starting a new company to sell this concept, and competing against the IBMs and Digital Equipments of the world, in a male-dominated industry which was then very conservative and comfortable with the status quo,” Villanueva now recalls. But she pressed on, knowing that computer networking would soon be the norm.

Her very first deal was with the Social Security System which saw the value in decentralizing its members’ contributions system. This was soon followed by projects with Meralco, ABS-CBN Corp., PLDT and other private firms.

More pioneering efforts in the local tech sector followed.

With her husband Jun, she introduced consumer electronics equipment, gadgets and design software to a mass market via Microwarehouse (1995); created Wolfpac (2000), a mobile applications and content provider which was subsequently sold to Smart Communications; then set up Meridian Telekoms (2003), the first wireless broadband firm in the country (later sold for $50 million to Smart and now rebranded as SmartBro). All these breakthroughs earned her the first Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Award (2003) under Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year program.

At the GSM Association, where she is a member of the executive management committee, Villanueva had pushed for the globalization of Mobile Money Transfers. It now benefits millions of migrant workers, especially Filipinos, who easily send money home to their families just using their cell phones.

Looking back on her very first networking project, and her subsequent achievements, Villanueva says the key to her success is that she has “never been afraid of hiring people who are much better than me.” Also, she is able to spot the major trends in her field because she has a voracious reading appetite and a constant curiosity about everything around her.

When she isn’t thinking up more ways to break ground in yet another tech field or indulge in her advocacies, Villanueva, now 45, loves chilling with her husband and their two kids: Blanca, 17, and Luis, 10. Usually they are out sailing and discovering the Philippines via their catamaran, the TutuTango. “We also love to travel the world anytime we can. I guess we are a family of gypsies.”

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday at the Life section of the BusinessMirror. This piece was published on Jan. 27, 2012. Photo courtesy Myla Villanueva.)

PAL needs more cash for refleeting program

FLAG carrier Philippine Airlines believes 2012 will be crucial and will determine whether it could carry out a strong refleeting program, expand its routes, and return to better fiscal health.

Airline President Jaime Bautista said in an interview with select reporters on Wednesday evening that “from a management point of view, we need higher capital” to pursue a refleeting program and keep the carrier competitive.

But he said he could not determine how much new capital would be needed because this would all depend on whether the planes would be purchased or leased.

“Refleeting is a challenge. Wide-bodied aircraft are needed. You need to pay delivery fees [about 15 percent to 20 percent of plane cost], that’s where the cash is needed,” he said. This is why “management welcomes new investors,” he said.

Businessmen Ramon Ang of San Miguel Corp. and Manuel V. Pangilinan of the First Pacific Group are reportedly both keen on investing in PAL and help it carry out its refleeting and modernization effort. PAL is 94-percent owned by PAL Holdings Inc. which is led by taipan Lucio Tan.

Of the 36 aircraft currently in the PAL fleet, it has five Boeing 747-400s that were purchased during the carrier’s first refleeting program as a privatized company. “These five B747s are aging. By 2015 they have to be replaced as they will be 21 years old already. They’re still good airplanes, but the maintenance costs are higher.”

Bautista said while the carrier could, on its own, push its refleeting program, “our capacity to compete [with other carriers] would be limited.” Delivery of new aircraft takes about two or more years after ordering so PAL’s new refleeting program needs to be finalized in the new fiscal year, which begins on April 2012 and ends in March 2013.

Other than the five B747s, PAL’s fleet also includes two B777-300ER, four Airbus 340-300, eight A330-300, 13 A320-200, and four A320-319.

The carrier is also counting on the US Federal Aviation Authority to upgrade the country’s safety status Category 1 status by November, which will enable it to expand its routes in the United States.

“We will back to Category 1 [status] Timing nalang. Maayos na,” the PAL president said. “Many of the needed reforms have been instituted by relevant government agencies. PAL itself will be undergoing a technical review then a technical audit by the FAA.”

A team from the FAA will be in town next week to assess the safety measures and equipment installed by the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (which replaced the Air Transportation Office). The Aquino administration has predicted an upgrade in the country’s safety status to Category 1 by June.

Bautista said the carrier is considering an expansion in routes to San Diego, California; Seattle, Washington State; and New York, which hopefully can be mounted within the year. He added that once the country is back to Category 1 status, PAL can also resume its services to Europe, using its Boeing 777-300ER. The carrier will be taking delivery of two more Triple 7s and four Airbus A320s are arriving this year.

Following the FAA downgrade in 2008, the European Union had also banned Philippine carriers from flying there.

Bautista predicted a loss in fiscal year 2011 (April 1, 2011-March 31, 2012), a reversal of the $72.5-million profit recorded in FY 2010.

Bautista said the loss was due to the higher fuel costs, the labor strike, and lower passenger revenues from the Japan earthquake and tsunami as well as the floods in Thailand. The carrier reported a loss of $39.4 million from July to September 2011.

He said the carrier’s operations were “back to normal,” after flight disruptions were felt initially after it implemented its much-needed but controversial outsourcing program in October 2011. About 2,400 employees were affected by the outsourcing program.

(My piece was published on Jan. 20, 2012 in the BusinessMirror.)