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A closed book

KUALA LUMPUR – Our tourism people are focused on marketing fun in the Philippines, but much more effort is needed if we want to catch up with our Southeast Asian neighbors.

Official figures for international visitors indicate that in Europe, a huge market for the Asian tourism industry, we are not on the radar screens of many regular travelers.

Consider Huib Gorter, for example, who has been visiting Asia for the past 30 years. He has been to China and Hong Kong, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam, but never to the Philippines.

Gorter, 62, is the Dutch regional vice president for Europe and the UK of Malaysian Airlines (MAS). The company’s British sales manager for the southern region of the UK, Anton Grossmann, has also never visited the Philippines.

MAS has regular flights to our country, but so far Gorter has no plans of visiting in the near future.

I asked why, and he said that apart from his own possible shortsightedness, it was a combination of perception, weak Philippine tourism marketing presence in Europe, and now the end of direct flights.

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“The Philippines is a closed book for me,” Gorter told me in London. “Very rarely do you read something about the great spots in your country or compelling reasons to visit. Unfortunately it is the lesser features that prevail in the press: congestion, poverty, street violence and lack of direct connectivity.”

Last month in New Zealand, regular Kiwi travelers who have visited Asian countries but not the Philippines told me the same thing.

I told Gorter what I also told the Kiwis: our country has a lot to offer visitors, there have been many improvements in Metro Manila, and they must discover for themselves that it truly is more fun in the Philippines.

Except for the lack of direct flights, congestion, street crime and poverty are also problems in other Southeast Asian countries. Upon my arrival in this Malaysian capital for a digital conference Wednesday night, for example, I got stuck in horrid traffic a few blocks from my hotel, the Shangri-La. The limo driver who picked me up at the airport took a short cut through a Chinese neighborhood and was pulled over for a routine check by cops on patrol. The driver explained to me that stealing cars for sale outside the country had become a problem in Kuala Lumpur and there were many police checkpoints.

But even if we have common problems, our tourism people have their work cut out for them, especially because the Philippines lies outside the main Southeast Asian island grouping.

If a European family, for example, has two to three weeks of holiday time to spend and decides to go to Southeast Asia, the tendency is to pick a country with direct flights to Europe as the first stop, and then visit nearby countries. Those two to three weeks will then be eaten up by Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia (hubs offering those direct flights), with possible side trips to Vietnam, Siem Reap in Cambodia and Bali in Indonesia.

MAS figures show that for European travelers overall, Thailand remains the top holiday destination in our region. The French prefer Vietnam, the Brits Malaysia, the Germans Bali. For the Dutch it’s Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, and for Turkey it’s Malaysia and Thailand.

Grossmann told me MAS has partnered with our Department of Tourism (DOT) to promote dive sites in the Philippines, to drum up the airline’s passenger traffic to the country.

But we can’t expect the partly state-owned flag carrier of Malaysia to do the promotion for our country. The DOT will have to strengthen its partnership with our two flag carriers, Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific.

“Invariably, the national carrier adds value and builds up interest in the local market,” Gorter said. “That’s very much a strategic thing.”

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For the longest time, PAL was hobbled by labor problems. Both PAL and Cebu Pacific have also been affected by the aviation safety downgrade of the Philippines by the International Civil Aviation Organization. The Category 2 status prompted the European Union to ban Philippine carriers and limited the airlines’ direct flights to the United States.

The last of the European carriers flying to the Philippines, Royal Dutch KLM, ended its direct flights to Manila this year because of the common carrier’s tax and the government’s requirement that airlines shoulder the overtime pay of our airport Customs and immigration personnel.

Some people may sniff that the EU, with its debt crisis, is not the best place to lure travelers these days. MAS is unfazed. Last July it launched its daily flights to London on the Airbus 380 double-deck super jumbo jet. Last Saturday, it launched a second daily A380 flight to the UK capital, this one taking off from Kuala Lumpur in the morning. The airline has four A380s; next year two more will be added, with one daily flight going to Paris.

MAS executives admit that many airlines are currently undergoing difficulties and competition keeps getting tougher. There were a lot of empty seats on my flights to and from London on the A380.

Still, Gorter expects 2013 to be “a very good year” for the airline. Maybe it’s age, he said; he’s seen the airline industry hit by many other crises in the past, from terrorism to SARS.

“We seem to rebound in our industry very quickly,” he said. “People want to travel. People want to experience things. It’s become a global village.”

Grossmann said the average British traveler goes on holiday two to three times a year. With the Eurozone crisis, some are picking destinations closer to home such as the Caribbean.

The tough times should drive airlines to offer even better services, Gorter said. MAS is helped along by the fact that Malaysia has probably the largest tourism marketing funding in all of Southeast Asia.

“You’ve got to cut through the clutter of destination choices,” Gorter said. “You’ve got to understand destination competition.”

He estimates that a good tourism marketing campaign must be sustained for at least three years. “You must say, ‘I’ve got to do this,’ and then you have to put your money where your mouth is.”

“Otherwise you’ll fail. You’re going to fail miserably,” he said. “You’ve got to put the fangs in there.”

Those are fangs our players in the travel industry need to grow. It’s a tough market out there. Raising travelers’ awareness of the Philippines is the first order of business.


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