An island in the Pacific

Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - May 28, 2017 - 4:00pm

MACTAN, Cebu , Philippines  - There was a time many years ago when the international image of the Philippines was pretty bad… bad enough to discourage tourists from coming. But the tourism industry in Cebu was not about to fold up without a fight.

There was a surge in the growth of resorts in Mactan and the country’s negative image didn’t scare them. They saw something special both in the natural beauty of their island and in their ability to go around the problem caused by the country’s bad image.

So the Cebuanos thought they should differentiate themselves. They started promoting Cebu as “An Island in the Pacific.”

It turned out to be a rather successful campaign. I remember a television reporter interviewing tourists returning to their home country. They were asked if they enjoyed their visit to the Philippines.

All the tourists interviewed exclaimed surprise. But we did not go to the Philippines, they said, we went to Cebu. The reporter had to tell them Cebu is in the Philippines, but they said no, it is an island in the Pacific.

Oh well… turbulent times are back for the country’s tourism industry, but Cebu’s tourism entrepreneurs, specially those from Mactan, are not going to just sulk. It doesn’t matter that a US Embassy advisory mentioned Cebu as one of the places Abu Sayyaf terrorists may go to hunt for hostages among tourists. They are focused on selling Cebu as a tourist haven.

Today, they are somewhat concerned, but still optimistic. The US Embassy advisory didn’t affect them at all. But the martial law declaration has resulted in worrisome cancellations specially among Koreans, their bread and butter. That’s why Cebu City Mayor Tommy Osmena urged the President to consult local officials before expanding martial law to the Visayas. Our embassy in Seoul also has work to do to explain it’s safe to visit. 

Martial law aside, tourist oriented businesses specially in Mactan have been going out of their way to drum up interest among visitors. I know the guys from Plantation Bay, led by long time manager Efren Belarmino, was in Moscow recently trying to interest visitors among the native Moscovites who want to escape Russia’s brutal winters. 

I am told there used to a good number of Russians who come here. But the Russian travel agency catering to them has moved to Hong Kong, presumably for lack of business.

This weekend, the folks at Maribago Bluewater invited a group of Manila-based journalists and bloggers to refresh their memories of the wonders of Cebu. Actually the Bluewater group is one of the pioneers and innovators in Mactan tourism. And they are starting to spread their wings… to Bohol’s Panglao.

Bluewater Maribago Beach Resort in Mactan started modestly in 1989 and has grown through the years. Its founders believe its pioneering investment in Mactan was a catalyst for the current tourism boom in the island.

The tourism boom in Mactan and Cebu couldn’t be sustained without a good airport. They are about to have a truly worthy international airport since the private sector took over management of Mactan Cebu International Airport and are now building a new terminal. 

An upstart construction company, Megawide, and their Indian partners GMR, won the right to run the old Mactan airport terminal and build a new one. 

From the architect’s drawings of the new terminal building, I think it will be an airport every Filipino can be proud of. It enhances the tourism nature of Mactan and Cebu... truly the fiesta islands.

Even before the new terminal is completed a year from now, the Megawide consortium has instituted wonders in managing that old terminal. It is amazing what can be done if a professional airport manager is harnessed.

Simple, but effective things were introduced like improving the flow of passengers inside the terminal. They removed all offices on the ground floor and used the vacated areas to improve the flow of passenger traffic. Check-in counters and even the food and souvenir concessions were improved.

The new airport terminal would have been delivered by now, but they were delayed when DOTC failed to inform the Air Force they had to leave the area intended for the terminal. Then there was also the court case filed by a losing bidder.

Indeed, contrary to the view of some economic managers in the Cabinet, the project is proving that PPP is the faster and more efficient mode of carrying out big infra projects. A Megawide official told an infra conference that the delivery period of the Iloilo airport took nine years and two months, while for the Mactan-Cebu airport, the delivery period is only three and a half years including a one-year delay as a result of a case filed by the losing bidder.

But what I like best about a PPP project is that the private sector proponent will move heaven and earth to make sure he recovers his investment with a respectable profit. So this early, the Megawide people have been organizing and joining tourism promotion missions to Japan, South Korea and China.

They have also managed to convince more than a dozen airlines to mount direct flights to and from Mactan. This is good for our tourism industry because avoiding the chaos at NAIA and getting tourists closer to the beaches is a no-brainer that should have been recognized years ago. 

The Megawide consortium is encouraging group tours and charter flights to Mactan. They want to raise the number of passengers handled by the terminal from six million a year, when they took over, to over 12 million by the time the new terminal comes into operation.

What really amazes me is how Megawide was able to improve service quality by so many notches. Even without the new terminal, Mactan Cebu International Airport was voted the 18th best airport in Asia by the same website that once rated NAIA as the world’s worst. The Guide to Sleeping in Airports ranks airports based on responses from travelers. 

A successful tourism industry in Mactan/Cebu will be a big boost to the region’s economy. The job creating potentials of the tourism industry is very encouraging. This is why many resorts like Maribago Bluewater don’t mind investing in developing the human resources their business will require.

When Maribago Bluewater added a full-service spa in the resort, they decided they will promote the Filipino massage culture of hilot.  Not only did the spa hire actual manghihilots, it also prioritized the hiring of single mothers as therapists to provide more job opportunities for this sector of society.

Their Bluewater Academy, a learning institution now provides high quality technical and skill based education for marginalized youths. Graduates of the Bluewater Academy are now employed within the Bluewater Resorts chain as regular employees.

Maybe when that international tourist magazine named Cebu as the world’s sixth most exciting island, it was thinking of Mactan. But it doesn’t matter. Mactan is in Cebu and what we actually have are two islands in the Pacific that will not be held back by our country’s less than stellar image. 

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco.

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