February 20, 2012

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)

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