Wake Up, Philippines!

A celebration of life, love and Nature

Posted in DOT, Tourism, Travel by Erineus on February 27, 2009

The Swiss had no idea what hit them.

When they invited the Philippines to become the featured guest country in the 2009 Muba fair in Basel, the Swiss probably expected a tame exhibit with a few colorful posters, a display of some local products, and a smattering of literature on our 7,100 islands.

What they didn’t expect was a full-on sensory experience that included culinary journeys, fashion shows, cultural presentations, and parades set within a lush tropical oasis.

But then again they probably didn’t account for the Filipinos’ penchant for celebrating life to its fullest.

“[Our tagline for this fair is] ‘Mabuhay!’ which is an all-purpose Filipino expression,” Tourism Secretary Joseph Ace Durano explained to the crowd of Swiss, German, and French dignitaries who attended the opening of the exhibit. “Its root word is ‘buhay,’ meaning life. It expresses the spontaneous hospitality of Filipinos. Mabuhay can also mean live long. And we use that as a way to wish someone well or wish good health.”

Mabuhay is also a call to action, he elaborated, meaning to live life—a disposition typical of Filipinos used to celebrating a thousand fiestas every year and the message, which the Philippines, as this year’s guest country, hoped to impart to Muba visitors.

Important market

Muba is the biggest and most prestigious consumer trade fair in Switzerland. It attracts more than 300,000 visitors across the country, as well as neighboring Germany and France, to the city of Basel, where the fair is held every year. Each year, the fair highlights a guest country, which presents its economy, major exports in products and services, tourism, culture and arts, among others, to visitors.

The Philippines’ participation, a project three years in the making, was a collaboration of government and private sectors, with the Department of Tourism taking the lead.

For the Tourism, the opportunity to present the Philippines to the Swiss was “too hard to resist” because not only does it cement ties between the two countries but it also provides high-profile exposure in an increasingly important market.

According to Tourism statistics, the Swiss market grew by 6 percent last year, making it the fifth largest market from Europe. More than that, Swiss travellers spend an average of $3,500 to $4,000 per person for a seven to 14-day package stay in the Philippines, making it an important emerging market for the country.

Positive growth

The Swiss are very good clients, whether in good times or in bad times, said Durano. In fact, it was the Swiss market that helped shore up tourism arrivals in the Philippines which, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, is one of the remaining destinations achieving positive growth despite the slowdown in major markets.

“Travel is part of the [Swiss] lifestyle. What happens during economic slowdowns is that they’ll be looking for more value, [which is perfect for us since] we’ve never positioned the Philippines as a cheap destination. We’ve always positioned the Philippines as high end. My optimism is not grounded on the natural Filipino optimism. It’s grounded on reality, it’s grounded on performance last year, which all in the industry are saying is better than expected.

“There is a need to fan the flames. This is the only opportunity we saw [to accomplish this]. There is [also] greater value added in our participation because this is more than tourism. There’s trade, there are investments. More importantly, the premium of being here is the fact that we have monopoly,” he said. The event also allows the department to reach out directly to consumers, the next logical step after wooing big travel wholesalers for the past three years.

More than a marriage of convenience

Joel Valdes, chairman of the Philippine Swiss Business Council, the lead organization on the side of the private sector, lauds the participation as the “first public-private initiative,” a perfect marriage of both the government and private entities.

“Muba typically invites a guest country once in a lifetime. They don’t ask the same country twice. But twice, we were invited. The first time, the invitation was addressed to us, the Philippine Swiss Business Council. But we’re private, we didn’t know who in the government to go to. We wanted to present something that would set us apart. If we presented the traditional manufacturing goods, we’d lose out to the Chinese. Our initial scheme failed, so we turned to the Department of Tourism. We figured we’d take care of the trade exhibitors, while DoT gave the added value we needed to make it like a Philippines Inc. In this way, we are not just promoting our products but the Philippines as a country.”

With the help of Fairs and More (an arm of the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines which specializes in fairs and exhibits), the Sosiete Generale de Surveillance Philippines, and other entities (including the Department of Agriculture and the provincial government of Bulacan), the PSBC put together a diverse group of exhibitors that showcased the different facets of Philippine trade.

“Our mandate is to promote trade, investment, and tourism between the two economies. This is a door opener. We intend to pursue similar ventures in the future, like Basel World, the biggest jewelry and watch exhibit in the world, or Art Basel, the biggest art exhibition,” Valdes said.

Beyond tourism

Muba also opens the door to other avenues in promoting the Philippines, said Durano.

“We’ve started the Live Your Dreams campaign as a response to the lack of hotels [in the country], and to go up the value chains in terms of tourism by pushing the number of real estate developments in the country as an investment for second homes,” he explained.

The Live Your Dreams program gives global Filipinos as well as foreigners the opportunity to own condominium units in the Philippines.

“If you have people having second homes in the country, not only is their spending in the country higher than a normal tourist—because a condo by itself is already in the millions—but when you have a second home in the country they would think of visiting every year and they would stay long. So it creates that other dynamic outside of traditional tourism. It pushes the value of tourism in our economy.

“One of our basic strategies was not to put all our eggs in one basket. By broadening our market base, we made sure that the Philippines is resilient. No matter what happens in one market, there are other markets that can fill in. The other one is to really grow the value, the contribution of tourism in the economy. That’s why we’ve launched these higher value programs, like the Live Your Dreams, medical tourism, etc.”

Putting the ‘wow’ in Wow Philippines

As this year’s guest country, the Philippines occupied pride of place, with a 1,700 square meter pavilion covering the whole back end of Hall 1 in the Main Building of the exhibit.

The pavilion is nothing if not impressive.

Adopting the theme, “100% Natural, 100% Philippines, the stand is divided into several areas to accommodate the tourism sector, the trade sector, a turo-turo-style restaurant, a huge stage and eating area and a wellness center.

“For years, we were looking for something like the World Travel Mart in London or the International Tourismus Bourse in Berlin, something of that magnitude and importance, here in Switzerland to promote the Philippines and we found it in Muba,” said Eduardo Jarque, Tourism Undersecretary for Planning and Promotions. “I think it’s the best we’ve done so far. We wanted to showcase the best of what we have, the best of what we do, the best of what we cook in the Philippines. We wanted to highlight the Philippines’ unique culture through our folkloric dances and a sampling of our delectable cuisine.”

Habitués used to the business-like atmosphere of trade fairs were quick to wrap their minds around the stand’s fiesta ambience, barely lingering around ergonomically designed booths like Ikea, and hurrying to the pavilion to catch the hourly performances and fashion shows of the Bayanihan. A lot of them flocked to the restaurant, run by Swissotel but presided over by Filipino chef Marilou Rodriguez Neumann, to taste Pinoy fare like Kare-Kare, Kalderetang Tupa, Kilawin, and Pinakbet. (The restaurant serviced close to 8,000 guests during the fair)

Some took advantage of the hilot services offered at the stand, where therapists accommodated more than 50 customers a day (203 total).

In the tourism area, Swiss-based tour operators (like Flex Travel, TourAsia, and Wettstein), as well as local dive resort operators (like Pinjalo Resort and Club Paradise) handled inquiries about the country, while Basel-based Filipinos checked out the condo units offered by Ayala Land, SM Properties, and Century Properties.

To say that the Philippines made an impact on Muba visitors is an understatement. Suffice it to say that there has never been anything like it before.

“I think we have set the benchmark for other guest countries from now on,” said Durano with a big smile.

By Gianna G. Maniego

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