More islands to discover
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - April 15, 2019 - 12:00am

As far as Department of Tourism (DOT) Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat is aware of, our archipelago has grown. That is, in terms of the number of islands that was counted as within our Philippine territory. According to the DOT Secretary, the Philippines now has 7,641 islands.

What we are aware of and traditionally know about is that the Philippines has 7,107 islands.

This number of islands in the Philippines was, in fact, immortalized by the famous quip from former Binibining Pilipinas and Miss Universe runner-up Charlene Gonzales. Asked this bit of trivia about our country by Bob Parker during the Miss Universe contest held in Manila, she retorted: “During high tide or low tide?”

Perhaps, the growing archipelago of the Philippines was the result of several laws that President Rodrigo Duterte have signed since he took over in June 2016.

Only last April 5, President Duterte signed Republic Act (RA) No. 11259 that divided the western Luzon tourist haven Palawan into three distinct and independent provinces. Under the new law, the province is now divided into Palawan del Norte, Palawan Oriental and Palawan del Sur, which shall be the mother province. Each province will have its own legislative districts representatives to be elected in May 2022.

Last Feb. 1 this year, President Duterte signed a law that split Southern Leyte into two legislative districts. This was under RA No. 11198 reapportioning Southern Leyte into two legislative districts.

Both laws would mean additional expenses for taxpayers to support these new congressional districts.

Facetiously, of course, the DOT Secretary’s latest number of Philippine islands has nothing to do with these additional congressional districts created so far.

But presumably, Sec. Romulo-Puyat’s number include our country’s islands, islets, reefs, atolls, shoals and rocks at the West Philippine Sea where we have our conflicting territorial maritime claims with Beijing in South China Sea.

Incidentally, there is renewed tension between Manila and Beijing following the increased presence of Chinese fishing boats, Coast Guard vessels and maritime militia ships that have “swarmed” around the disputed overlapping maritime areas, including those in our own Pag-asa Island. It is the largest of nine Philippine-controlled islets called as the Kalayaan islands Group nearest to Palawan.

Speaking for the Philippine government, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo last week declared it would consider the Chinese presence near these islands occupied by Filipinos as an assault on Philippine sovereignty. Saying the Chinese vessels have “no business being there,” Panelo was specifically alluding to their reported presence off Kota Island and Panatag Shoal in Zambales last March 28.

No less than President Duterte himself publicly called out China to “lay off” Pag-asa Island because he has soldiers there. The Chief Executive warned he will order Filipino soldiers stationed there to prepare for a “suicide mission” to defend the island.

In fairness though to our DOT Secretary, she was not talking about the West Philippine Sea controversy nor trudging into delicate matters that are not within or under her Department’s jurisdiction. She was discussing, of course, with us about DOT’s promoting the “More Fun in the Philippines” in the global market for travel and tour destination.

We talked about it during our Kapihan sa Manila Bay breakfast news forum last week with Romulo-Puyat who was joined in the panel by DOT Undersecretary Benito Bengzon Jr. and assistant secretaries Roberto Alabado III and Maria Rica Bueno. We featured the DOT program especially during these vacation months when international guests and visitors come in droves from all over the world.

Our perky DOT Secretary was obviously happy to announce during our Kapihan sa Manila Bay that foreign tourist arrivals in the Philippines for the first two months this year have, in fact, increased more than expected. She cited a total of 1,490,255 tourists who visited the Philippines from January to February as compared to the 1,406,337 tourists of the same period last year. This represents an increase of 5.6 percent.

Based on the DOT’s monitoring, Korea remains to be the biggest source of tourists coming to the country with 180,890 arrivals. It rose by 15.54 percent from the 156,555 arrivals in the same period last year. This was followed by China, with a total of 174,175 arrivals, or up 19.68 percent from 145,536 arrivals last year. Other top source markets were United States, with 94,634; Japan with 64,365; and Taiwan with 30,648.

She was more elated to see the numbers already exceeding the 89 million mark for domestic tourists target of DOT for 2022 has already reached 97 million as of 2017.

Under the National Tourism Development Plan (NTDP), the Philippines is targeting to hit 8.2 million foreign arrivals this year, a 15 percent rise from the 7.1 million foreign arrivals in 2018. While the tourism numbers look good, they are still a far cry from our neighbor countries like Thailand that enjoy two-digit growth figures on tourist arrivals.

The DOT chief attributed the growing number of tourists to the improving access and air connectivity in the country with the opening one after the other of more improved international gateways such as the Mactan Cebu International Airport and the New Bohol Panglao International Airport in November last year.

Romulo-Puyat recalled that Cebu’s recent hosting of the Routes Asia Conference was one way of improving air connectivity in the country to enable the airlines to provide direct flights to all of these other airports here to and fro other countries.

“After all, we have 7,641 islands. It’s no longer, 7,107,” the DOT Secretary chirped.

She was quoting the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (NAMRIA) that “discovered new islands” in the Philippines.

“There are so many islands that people can go to,” she pointed out.

Thus, it will be “More Fun in the Philippines” in discovering more islands to go to.

DEPARTMENT OF TOURISM PHILIPPINE ISLANDS
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