After a challenging year for tourism, the Philippines is hoping that an international marketing campaign, major events and further regional integration as part of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) will provide a boost to momentum in 2015.
Tourism arrivals to the Philippines grew by 3.25% in 2014 to reach 4.83m visitors, according to a Department of Tourism (DOT) report published in February. The number came in lower than the 6m foreign tourists targeted, due in part to the impact of Typhoon Haiyan, also known as Typhoon Yolanda, which devastated the Visayas islands at the end of 2013, and China’s advisory to its citizens not to travel to the Philippines.
Speaking to the media in mid-February, Ramon Jimenez, the secretary of the Department of Tourism, was upbeat about the sector’s prospects, noting that revenues remained on track for the year. “We met a lot of problems in 2014, but we ended the year with growth. That is very modest, but the income we got that year is still on target,” Jimenez told reporters.
Campaigns kick off
The authorities are hoping that campaigns such as the “Visit the Philippines Year” and the onset of the AEC will see growth in visitor numbers return to 2013 levels, when tourist arrivals expanded by 9.5%.
As part of the festivities, the DOT will host 35 events throughout the country this year. Celebrations kicked off with a four-day visit by Pope Francis in late January and will wrap up in November when the country plays host to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) ministerial meetings and leaders’ summit. According to Guiller B. Asido, the assistant COO of the DOT’s Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority, the latter event will be hosted at conference and exhibition venues across the country in order to “demonstrate the existing MICE infrastructure in multiple destinations”.
This comes on the back of an aggressive and highly successful global marketing campaign launched in 2012. The second phase of the campaign, which began in 2014 and is set to underpin the marketing theme for this year, will transition from national to destination-specific marketing, with Boracay, Davoa, Cebu and Manila each receiving their own international television commercial spots.
A series of kidnappings in the archipelago’s south last year, along with other security issues, has prompted some governments in key source markets to issue warnings or outright advisories against travel to the Philippines.
Following a travel warning issued by Beijing on September 12, 2014, Boracay, a popular destination for Chinese visitors, saw monthly arrival numbers fall from 18,479 in August to less than 7000 in September, prompting carriers including Cebu Pacific and AirAsia to either suspend or reduce flights between the two countries. As China accounts for almost a tenth of the Philippines’ tourism intake, a decline in visitor numbers from the country is a cause for concern.
On a regional level, 2015 is seen as an important year for the industry, marking the official formation of the AEC. With rich natural endowments and a well-established hospitality industry, the Philippines boasts many assets that serve as demand drivers, particularly for North-east Asian countries. South Korea, responsible for just under a quarter of foreign arrivals, remained the top source market last year, with visitor traffic supported by a new air service agreement between the two countries.
Freer movement for ASEAN citizens among member countries and open-skies aviation agreements should also help to make it easier and cheaper to travel around the region, supporting growth in the sector over the longer term.
Nevertheless, experts point to issues such as transport infrastructure that need to be addressed if the country is to capitalise on regional integration. This is particularly important for the Philippines: as an archipelago of some 7100 islands, nearly 99% of foreign travellers arrive by air. Insufficient airport capacity is holding the sector back from reaching its full potential, although this is now in the process of being ramped up. Nevertheless, the country still has a long way to go in terms of providing the infrastructure needed to ensure the seamless and efficient movement of visitors into and throughout the country.
To encourage more long-haul visitors to travel to the region and expand the number of countries visited in a single trip, the DOT has lobbied the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to introduce a single visa scheme for ASEAN’s 10 member states that is similar to Europe’s Schengen visa scheme. In the meantime, the country is taking steps to liberalise its own visa regime by allowing more nationalities to receive a visa on arrival.