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Ecotourism boosts economy

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Interest in ecotourism has been on the rise, as tourists from around the world began to appreciate the beauty of nature, which abounds in tropical archipelagos such as the Philippines.

International visitor arrivals to the Philippines rose 1.5 percent year-on-year to a record 3.14 million in 2008 despite the global economic downturn, thanks to the rising interest for ecotourism among Europeans who are drawn to the country's natural wonders.

The Tourism Department said new tourist products in the market such as diving and bird watching provide impetus to stimulate awareness of the country's tourist potentials and bring in high-value visitors, with greater propensity to stay longer and spend more.

The department has been promoting the Philippines as a diving mecca and bird watching paradise in Europe.

Despite the decline in arrivals from traditional markets (Korea, US, and Japan), international visitor arrivals to the Philippines managed to grow 1.5 percent to a new record of 3.14 million in 2008 from 3.09 million in 2007. "The last four years has been the Renaissance period of Philippines tourism," said Durano. "But the best has yet to come for Philippines tourism."

The decline in arrivals from the country's three main markets of the United States (negative 0.4 percent), Korea (negative 4.9 percent) and Japan (negative 7.4 percent) were offset by remarkable increases in arrivals from the European markets.

In particular, arrivals from Russia posted a growth of 34 percent; France, 19 percent; United Kingdom, 10 percent; Finland, 19 percent; Norway, 16 percent; and Sweden, 6 percent.

Recently, the Philippines was featured as the Destination of Honor at the Paris Dive Show, signifying the French market's renewed interest in the country.

Tourism Secretary Ace Durano also hopes that bird watching will sustain the dramatic growth in European spending in the country. The department is trying to lure European travellers who are willing to spend up to $15,000 just to watch local birds and hear them chirp.

For promoting new tourism products with focus on the environment, Durano was chosen this year as one of the five recipients of The Outstanding Young Men award.

Durano was particularly cited for formulating well-focused campaigns and launching ecological tourism programs that market the natural endowments of Philippine travel sites.

"Under his leadership, tourism in the Philippines is now rated as the best improved and performing in Asia," according to the organizer, the Junior Chamber International, Inc. or Jaycees.

Eduardo Jarque, Jr., undersecretary for Tourism Planning and Promotions, said Durano was responsible for a number of new initiatives that reinvigorated growth in arrivals from foreign markets and pioneered growth in new markets, increased tourist spending as well as generated interest in tourism investments and business opportunities.

"He encouraged creativity among his market teams, which has led them to prioritize markets with the greatest potential if sending visitors to the Philippines," Jarque said.

More than enjoying destinations, the Tourism Department called on foreign and local tourists to help protect the five world heritage sites in the Philippines, accredited by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The Philippines has the most number of world heritage sites, among Southeast Asian countries.

These sites include the Baroque Churches of the Philippines, the Rice Terraces of Cordillera, the Historic City of Vigan, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, and the Tubbataha Reef Marine Park.

"These are sources of our livelihood as much as they are wellsprings of our national pride. We also owe their preservation not only to our fellow Filipinos but to the world and our future generation," Durano said.

Durano said schools, local government units and families need to teach children in taking concrete steps to promote and give value to the country's heritage sites, as well as to other tourism attractions.

In November last year, the Tourism Department and the United Nations' World Tourism Organization drafted the Cebu Resolution to ensure sustainability in tourism, which was passed at the Sixth International Tourism Forum for Parliamentarians and Local Authorities.

Among the main objectives of the Resolution is the strengthening of the implementation of the Davos Declaration to respond to the global challenges of climate change and an emphasis on the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism.

"Sustainable development is also very important if we want to create a lasting positive change. We are set to focus on particular issues such as climate change and poverty alleviation. Tourism should directly respond to these primary concerns," said Rolando Cañizal, director for Tourism Development Planning.

Cañizal said this is possible through the strengthening of community-based tourism initiatives, such as the Grassroots Entrepreneurship in Ecotourism program, or GREET. "We believe this had a pivotal role in transforming lives for the better, and a better world for all."

He also added that the DOT is exploring possibilities and linking partnerships with organizations committed to help promote community products, one of which is the pro-community trade and tourism program with the International Trade Center. These projects are seen to benefit marginalized communities in various regions in the county.

By raising awareness on ecotourism, the Tourism Department hopes that the Renaissance period for tourism which began four years ago will continue to benefit more Filipinos.

International movement of tourists across countries slowed in the second half of 2008, as the global financial markets deteriorated, according to the World Tourism Organization, an agency under the United Nations.

"Tourism demand slowed significantly through the year under the influence of an extremely volatile world economy (financial crisis, commodity and oil price rises, sharp exchange rate fluctuations), undermining both consumer and business confidence and resulting in the current global economic recession," the World Tourism Organization said.

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In 2008, international tourist arrivals grew by only 2 percent to 924 million, mainly because of the 5 percent growth in the first half. "The second half of the year showed an abrupt shift in trend with international tourist arrivals flat or showing negative growth in each of the last six months of 2008. Overall, the 5 percent growth between January and June gave way to a 1 percent decline in the second half of the year," the organization said.

For 2009, the UN agency forecasts that international tourism would stagnate or even decline by 2 percent. "But, there is still a high degree of uncertainty and much will depend on the evolving economic conditions. If the economy starts to show signs of an earlier recovery, international tourism might grow slightly in 2009 but, if the economy deteriorates further, then the current forecast might be revised downwards," it says.

In the Philippines, signs point to a slower growth in tourism. Occupancy rate at 79 Metro Manila hotels monitored by the Tourism Department fell to 71.07 percent in the January-November period in 2008 from 73.50 percent a year ago. At the same time, the overall average length of stay of hotel guests in Metro Manila became shorter to about 2.44 nights in 2008 from 2.45 nights in 2007.

Jose Clemente, a former president of the association, and head of Rajah Tours Philippines Inc., and former president of the Philippine Travel Agencies Association, claimed that some hotels and resorts in the country have started dropping their rates by 20 to 30 percent to entice guests.

Paz Alberto, the new president of the Philippine Travel Agencies Association and president of Ark Travel Express Inc., also noted that hotels in other Asian countries have reduced their rates and offered attractive packages to stay competitive. Tourism Secretary Ace Durano also appeals to hotels, resorts, spas, tour operators, and transportation stakeholders to create more options and flexible packages, as he admits that the growth in international visitor arrivals is foreseen to be tempered this year.

"We are confident we can hurdle the expected slow down in foreign arrivals especially if the whole nation contributes through domestic tourism. We can all enjoy our holiday while helping out our economy," Durano said.

In terms of employment, Durano said new jobs abound in the local tourism sector. "Unlike some countries where there are no new hiring in tourism, our tourism industry is hiring," he said. "For this year, our conservative estimate is that there will be at least 3,000 new hires, not to mention the fact that airlines continue to expand."

Some 2,000 rooms are expected to add to the list of the existing 34,000 hotel and resort rooms in the country this year. Based on the number of new hotels opening, a room creates one direct employment. The 2,000 rooms, therefore, will translate to 2,000 direct employment, and another 1,000 will be created by the expansion of existing hotels and resorts in Bohol and Boracay and the expansion of airlines. "We will see more hiring in tourism in the country than overseas," Durano said..

As of 2007, direct employment in tourism was estimated at 3.25 million, representing 9.7 percent of total employment, according to Durano.

Apart from direct jobs being created, entrepreneurial jobs and opportunities also abound in tour guiding, tour packaging, events organizing, and souvenir product manufacturing and trading, Durano said.

He said the country’s target is to keep international visitor arrivals at a level of 3 million to 4 million in 2009 and 2010. "As long as we sustain the level of tourism traffic, and there is no reversal, we will be okay," he said.

To ensure these targets are met, the Tourism Department has partnered with airlines and hotels to cut by half the cost of tour packages aimed at the US and Japanese markets, in what was described as a stimulus plan to insulate the tourism industry from the impact of the global financial meltdown.

"We are introducing stimulus packages for the US and Japan , which are depressed markets," said Durano. Airlines and hotels, which partnered with the department, would offer discounts to the target markets.

The World Tourism Organization said the present economic downturn is the first time of a global nature, affecting both emerging and mature tourist destinations, and its impact is probable to last longer. “But, history shows that the return of economic growth will also lead to the recovery of tourism. And the sector can, and should, play a key role in any global response plan,” it said.

“In these times of such significant uncertainty and volatility, both public and private tourism stakeholders have a responsibility to continue and even reinforce the efforts towards a more sustainable tourism development,” said Taleb Rifai, deputy secretary general of the organization.

Durano, for his part, said tourism will be one of the strongest propellers of the economy for the years ahead. “Together with the government, we seek to intensify the impact of this industry on the economy, particularly by encouraging investments and creating opportunities,” he said.