HE Philippines put on a dazzling show this winter as host of the 25th Asean Tourism Forum. Some 2,000 government officials, delegates, media and travel professionals converged on the lovely city of Davao on the island of Mindanao.
The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) – Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Brunei plus the three partners of China, Japan and Korea -- exchanged ideas, reviewed industry developments, formulated specific recommendations and cooperated to package the region as a single tourist destination.
Despite a State Dept. advisory, and fortified with a tetanus shot from my doctor, I found Mindanao to be safe and healthy. Security was enhanced with police and troops inspecting vehicles, manning metal detectors and canine sniffers at hotels, operating checkpoints on highways, and patrolling city streets in extra numbers.
Greeting guests on opening
Oscar Palabyab, Philippine undersecretary of tourism services, who said he was in the forefront of the government battle against the Moros rebels in the southern part of the island, assured us that current peace negotiations have brought the 30-year-old conflict to an end.
"Mindanao," he said, "used to be a violent land. In the south it was a battlefield for Muslims. There were bombings, kidnappings, and war. When you see violence, conflict, death, you know the value of peace. Today Mindanao is a great tourist destination."
Among their considerations, Asean delegates agreed that visa requirements should be eliminated and borderless trade encouraged. "We are making every effort to move forward to live visa free," said Philippine tourism secretary Joseph "Ace" Durano.
Waterfront Insular Hotel
Starting May 1, Vietnam will exempt Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Finnish citizens from requiring visas for visits of less than 15 days. Pham Huu Minh, of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, has set a goal of becoming "a developed tourism country in the region…with unique tourism products with Vietnamese cultural identities" within four years.
"Vietnamese food is delicious and will not make you fat. Vietnam is the safest place in the world." Reasons enough to visit.
Laos topped one million in tourist arrivals last year for the first time, 70 percent from the Asia/Pacific region including Thailand and Japan, and 30 percent from the long-haul market consisting of Germany, France, United Kingdom, U.S. and Canada.
Socsargen tribal dancers
Saly Phimphinith, acting director general of tourism marketing of the Lao National Tourism Administration, confirmed that the tourism sector, which has expanded rapidly over 15 years, "has become an important national revenue earner that is generating an increasing amount of foreign exchange for the country."
Sheikh Jamaluddin Sheikh Mohamed, CEO of Brunei Tourism, presented his country, located on the northwestern tip of Borneo, as a new destination. Only 25 percent of the land is developed, which leaves plenty of pristine jungle to discover. "We take tourists where no tourists have gone before – to see how our tribes live."
Miss Universe 1973
Margie Moran-Floirendo, executive
vice chair of
Mindanao Commission on Women,
with Philippine tourism
undersecretary Oscar Palabyab
One hurdle Brunei has to overcome, the Sheikh said, is the misconception that the kingdom is part of the Middle East. "Yes, we are a gas and oil producing country…but we have a golf resort designed by Jack Nicklaus, almost everybody speaks English, and we are looking at sports tourism closely." The prize money at Brunei Golf Open last August was $300,000. The sum will be $500,000 this year. Pack your clubs!
Indonesia suffered a marked decrease of visitors following three bombings in Bali over three years. Occupancy plummeted from 90 percent to its current 35 percent. "But Bali is a small part of us," said Tatang Rukhiyat of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. "We still have many more destinations to attract tourists."
Pham Huu Minh of Vietnam
After manufacturing, tourism is a primary source of revenue for Malaysia, according to Datuk Dr. Victor Wee, secretary general of the Ministry of Tourism. "Currently we are promoting a home stay program. You live in the country and experience counry life. It’s popular with students."
Malaysia, with its superior health facilities, has become a second home for baby boomers from Japan and China. "We are overexposed to the Asian market," Wee said. "We need to embark on a strategic change and target Europe and America."
Wee foresees 20.1 million visitors flocking to Malaysia next year bringing in $12.8 billion.
Sheikh Jamaluddin Mohamed
Although 65 percent of Malaysia is Muslim, it is a safe destination. "We don’t have terrorist activities," Wee affirmed. "I’m a Buddhist. Others are Christians and Hindus. We are a very multicultural society."
Thailand this year marks the 60th anniversary of King Norodom Sihamoni, the longest reigning monarch in the world, climaxing in June with a celebration with heads of state from all over the world.
Tourism director Eumporn Jiragalwisul acceded that tsunami and bird flu affected tourism to Thailand, but the numbers have slowly increased. Tourism to Phuket last year dropped by 60 percent over 2004," he said. "That area has been renovated and is nearly 100 percent back to normal."
Jeepney is the country’s indigenous
The sex industry that draws tourists to the region came in for scathing review. "We discussed it," said Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan of Singapore. "We agree it’s abhorrent. We will prosecute when it happens."
Durano said the sexploitation of women and children was damaging the tourism industry and ought to be stopped.
Greeters at SM Mall
Philippine tourism expectations are to attract five million visitors by 2010. However, "we need only three million a year to fill our room capacity and be successful," Durano said.
Durano saw little hope in attracting greater numbers from the United States (aside from Filipino Americans). "We cannot be competitive," he said. "It’s closer for you to go to Miami and the Bahamas than to the Philippines." Instead he will focus on expanding his primary markets of China, Japan and Korea to encompass Russia and India. "Our casinos will attract them."
Tim Boxer with Mati tribe dancers Zyra and
Edralyn, 17-year-old college students
I toured Mindanao, only one of 1,107 islands that make up the Philippines, and I found that this exotic land offers cultural and heritage attractions that you will never see in Florida or the Bahamas. Not only was my journey safe, but utterly exciting and enjoyable. I’d go back in a jiffy to ride in a jeepney.