Visa-free travel eyed for Chinese tourists

Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - October 7, 2016 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - In yet another move to repair strained relations with Beijing, President Duterte is ready to offer visa-free travel to Chinese tourists when he embarks on a three-day state visit to China on Oct. 18-21.

The President disclosed to The STAR that he will visit Brunei Darussalam on Oct. 16-18, then Tokyo and Moscow, Russia later this year.

Former president Fidel Ramos is included in the official delegation to China. Duterte earlier designated Ramos as special envoy to help rekindle bilateral relations between the two countries in the aftermath of The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in favor of the Philippines’ claims over its exclusive economic zone in South China Sea.

The Philippine leader has repeatedly declared he will not go beyond the arbitral court’s ruling in his discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping when they hold bilateral talks in Beijing.

Visa-free privileges are currently given by the Philippine government to travelers from about 50 countries that include member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as well as island states across the globe.

A visa waiver entitles visitors to come to the Philippines and stay from 14 days to a maximum of 150 days. Such a visa waiver, however, must be on a reciprocal basis. This would necessitate Beijing to extend the same visa-free privilege to Filipino travelers to China.

According to data from the website of China National Tourism

Administration, the Philippines ranked 11th in top source travel markets of China, with more than a million arrivals, up 3.7 percent from 2014. The top three destinations of Chinese tourists are Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan.

Last year, Chinese arrivals in the Philippines reached 490,841, or 24.28 percent higher than the 394,951 recorded arrivals in 2014. They occupied fourth spot with 9.16 percent share of the market.

From January to July this year, there were 422,801 accumulated arrivals from China, good for third spot with 11.95 percent of the market share.

The grant of visa waiver, the President pointed out, would enable the Philippines to capture a huge chunk of Chinese tourists going abroad driven by the vigorous growth of China’s economy.

However, Duterte acknowledged concerns over possible adverse impact on the country’s security, especially with the number of Chinese drug lords arrested here and other China-based criminals who may take advantage of such visa-free privilege.

This, he said, was why he confronted Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua about this concern. “I asked the ambassador himself, ‘Are you trying to destabilize my country with these drugs?’ He assured me they in China too have serious problems with drugs and are doing the same campaign to stamp them out,” the President said.

“China offered to help and build the (drug) rehab,” he added.

The President’s concerns were apparently officially relayed to Beijing, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang addressing the issue in a press briefing in China last Sept. 29.

“We stand ready to have anti-drug cooperation with the Philippines and formulate a common action plan for it,” Geng said.

“The Chinese government is resolute in cracking down on drug crimes. With clearly defined policies and notable achievements, China is a staunch force in the international endeavor against drug crimes.”

The President explained this was why he cannot intercede in the cases of convicted Filipinos facing the death penalty in China for drug offenses.

“It’s the same thing in the case of (Mary Jane) Veloso when I told Indonesian President Widodo I would not interfere in your country’s laws,” Duterte said.

The possible grant of visa-free privilege to China is being eyed after the President was informed about the problem of an estimated 300,000 Filipinos working illegally in China.

As this developed, President Duterte welcomed the acceptance of veteran journalist and China expert Santiago “Chito” Sta. Romana, former CNN bureau chief in Beijing, to become the new Philippine ambassador to China. Sta. Romana previously worked as Beijing bureau chief of ABC News.

The President also signed the re-appointment papers of Carlos Chan as Philippine special envoy to China. This will be the third term for Chan, chairman emeritus of the Oishi Group of Companies that has several manufacturing factories all over China. The President’s state visit to China comes after his visit to Vietnam last Sept. 28. His first trip abroad as head of state was to Laos on Sept. 5 when he formally accepted the ASEAN chairmanship for the next leaders’ summit to be hosted by Manila next year.

From Laos, he proceeded to Indonesia for a state visit on Sept. 8.

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