Wake Up, Philippines!

Dinagyang: A dance offering

Posted in Celebrations, Feast/Solemnities, Tourism by Erineus on February 16, 2009

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Tribo Molave exhibits their heartfelt devotion to Señor Sto. Niño as they perform before a crowd of thousands.

For Ilonggos participating in the annual Dinagyang Festival, it’s not just another day of street dancing. The long-held tradition is an opportunity to show their devotion.

The economic pinch nearly prevented many tribes from taking part in the festivities this year. But they could not just abandon what their fathers and grandfathers had been doing for decades.

This year, Smart Communications Inc. helped three tribes to continue the tradition. The leading wireless services company sponsored the Atub-Atub, Molave, and Pana-ad, the leading groups in last year’s festival.

Smart also sponsored the Kasadyahan Festival and the staging of concerts like the Kapamilya Caravan at the Freedom Grandstand and Rock ‘Til u Drop at the Boardwalk Leisure Area.

“It’s hard to finance a group of street dancers for Dinagyang, especially in these tough times,” says Jaimer Canlas, operation manager of Tribo Molave. 

Finding the time to rehearse alone can be quite challenging, as each member has to eke out a living. Most members are out-of-school youth, tricycle drivers, pier porters, and blue-collar workers.

They persevere, however, because being in the tribe is not only an outlet for creative expression but also an opportunity to spend time in prayer and devotion.

This year, their dance is also a form of thanksgiving, as the province of Iloilo has recovered from the devastation caused by typhoon “Frank” in July last year. The Ilonggos are smiling once again, the streets full of gaiety and hope.

This year’s performances reflect the Filipino’s indomitable spirit, says Joaquin Santiago Jr., operation manager of Tribo Atub-Atub. Their theme is “helping each other after the disaster of the storm.” The idea is to show how Ilonggos move on from kalisod (sadness) to kalipay (happiness).

Tribo Molave worked around the theme of harvest. “After the storm, the land yields the harvest for the people; in our performance’s case, the ati,” Canlas says.

Consistent winners, the three tribes nonetheless remain true to the real meaning of their dance offering.

“This year, we focused on our devotion, not on the competition, so win or lose, we are happy just expressing our gratitude to Señor Sto. Niño,” Santiago says. Tribo Atub-Atub took home a special award, Best in Discipline.

And it’s no competition, really. The tribe members are friends, with the same purpose — to keep their heritage and culture alive. It is this that makes their street dancing truly meaningful.

Updated February 08, 2009 12:00 AM

Last mango in Paris

Posted in Uncategorized by Erineus on February 15, 2009
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Parlez-vous Francais? If the answer is “oui,” then the Philippines wants you: to book travel tours, explore dive sites and spread your euros around the 7,107 islands. Yes, the Department of Tourism is focusing its laser-like efforts on the explorers and nature lovers of France, hoping to get them to discover all of our local coves. Well, maybe not all 7,107; it’s only recently, after all, that France has lifted its travel advisory on two-thirds of the Philippines. Some places (Mindanao, chiefly) are still red zones. France, like a number of European markets, still feels a bit skittish about travel security (more on that later). But the DOT feels sufficiently bon about France as a growing tourism market, so for the second year in a row they brought a contingent of local dive operators to Paris to attend Salon de la Plongée Sous-Marine, France’s biggest dive show, held at Parc Des Expositions in Paris, Porte de Versailles. Media were part of this tour as well, along with a Paris-based PR agency and a number of local touches to make the Philippines booth pop for Parisians.

In front of the 50-square-meter Dive Philippines booth (decked out in palm trees, naturally, and decorated with full-blown photos of dugong and seahorses) stands Carole Pither with a microphone, reading from a sheaf of pages in French. Her Franco-friendly travelogue is meant to lure passersby to the marine wonders of the Philippines, and it seems to be working.

In front, colorful brochures (shot by German media agent David Hettich) are available in the local tongue; and two young French public relations people (Laetitia Delaire and assistant Lucie Lavelle of Interface Tourism) get the message out to the locals: the Philippines is open for business — and pleasure.

Historically, the French market has not been fully onboard for Philippines travel. But the success of French TV’s Koh-Lanta program (a local version of Survivor) set in Coron has sparked greater interest in the destination; a second season also features a Philippine locale. Does this mean the French are ready to come flocking?

“The French are discoverers, they like the exotic,” mentions Venus Q. Tan, the DOT’s Tourism Attaché for Europe, based in Frankfurt. “They like destinations that are not overly developed.” She’s not shy about touting the Philippines as the best dive location in Asia, “If you’re a diver, you know the Philippines has the highest marine biodiversity in the world. Our branding is ‘Dive Philippines xxs to XXL.’ From smallest to largest. Other destinations only have the macros — the sharks, the big turtles. But we also have the smallest creatures and marine life. I think this is the attraction we have to sell,” referring to the Coral Triangle at the heart of which sits central Philippines.

To put it in perspective, France is third among European markets for the DOT. England and Germany still lead with arrivals, though Germany has dipped lately. This makes France’s 19,273 arrivals in 2007 (and its 18,531 from Jan. to Oct. 2008) a strong up-and-coming third in the tourism game. The figures don’t lie: France experienced 20.94 percent growth in visitors to the Philippines.

Not even worldwide economic jitters are deterring these well-off divers from booking travel, at least so far, according to Tan. “Actually, for Europe, the euro is still strong, so people will still travel. Travel is sacred to Europeans; they will travel.”

French Leave

When you think of French divers, the name “Jacques Cousteau” immediately comes to mind. Today’s French diving population is similarly well-educated, well-informed and passionate about the environment. They’re well-paid, too, spending between 1,200 and 2,500 euros for their average 10-day stay in the Philippines. No wonder the DOT wants more of them.

But the French are also wary when it comes to security issues; an unfortunate kidnapping incident in 2000 (in which three French journalists were snatched by Abu Sayyaf in Jolo) seems to have left a deep impression here. Unlike other European countries, France kept its “red” advisory up over most of the Philippines — until this year.

Now it’s got a green “go” signal, and most tour operators and resorts operators selling the Philippines at Salon de la Plongée are eager to clear up any lingering “misperceptions” about travel safety.

Yvette Lee, director of marketing and media affairs for Manila-based Expedition Fleet, has a story about how quickly perceptions can change:

“A few months ago, we had a dive master coming in from England, he told his mom he was going to work on a liveaboard in Sulu as a dive instructor. The mom said, ‘Oh, my God, the Muslims, they’re going to cut your head off!’ Blah, blah, blah. As soon as he arrived in Manila, he called his mom and said, ‘Don’t worry, there’s a McDonald’s here, there’s a KFC, there’s a Marks & Spenser.’ ‘Oh, there’s a Marks & Spenser? Oh, you’ll be all right. Don’t forget to write.’”

Lee says it’s essential to attend such dive fairs, to change this image and give the Philippines a positive presence in Europe. “This (fair) is an example of the best way to counter that. It’s really important to have a country stand here. Malaysia, Thailand have country stands. And they do well.”

Luigi Petrosillo, managing director of Sampaguita Resort based in Cebu, also attended the fair: “I don’t see why Philippine security should be regarded any differently from security in other countries. I know places in Italy I would not recommend people to travel…”

He adds: “Tourism is an industry where every person can be an actor. When you see public officials on TV, shaking hands, that might not have an impact on you. But what I tell someone here, it changes their view of the Philippines. What they tell someone else, it can have an effect on tourism and arrivals. It’s a person-to-person business.”

But how to communicate this message to the French? For one thing, France is one place where the Philippines’ English-speaking advantage cuts little ice; the French want French-speaking tour guides. Unlike the more-entrenched German dive segment, the French need a little bit more seduction: language is part of this. “A big thing is the language problem,” comments Lee. “A lot of Germans speak English so it’s easier for them to adapt.” Laetitia Delaire of Interface PR agency agrees this is key: “It’s very important, especially with large groups, for local operators to hire French-speaking guides.”

As for now, the Philippines booth features, along with the colorful Bayanihan troupe of musical performers, a coterie of French-speaking mediators; the six-meter-wide digital screen flashes images of Philippine diving attractions overlaid with French phrases. But it’s back on the islands where more French voices must be heard.


By day two of the four-day fair (Saturday), French dive enthusiasts are flocking around the Philippines booth. Clearly a mix of leisure travelers (those seeking resort holidays at a cheap price) and hard-core divers looking for the new and exotique, the visitors to the booth ask the 12 tour operators here about the best places to dive. The Interface people field initial queries, then steer the curious to specific operators. I approach one French guy who is playing with his daughter while his wife asks about some destination. “Vous-êtes un visiteur des Philippines?” I ask. “Absolutement!” responds the guy, and his absolute enthusiasm in answering makes me like the French even more. Unless, of course, I didn’t ask him if he’s visited the Philippines… maybe my French sounded to him like “Are you Filipino?” and his reply was actually “Absolutely not!” But I trust my high school French enough to motion to a map, to find out where he’s visited, or might plan to visit: he points to Dumaguete, and I nod and smile like I’ve cracked the Enigma code. Clearly, some French people are traveling to the Philippines, and might even visit again. This is good.

As she’s done for over a decade, DOT Tourism Attaché Venus Tan stakes out each Europe market, learning their likes and dislikes, wooing them if necessary. “What Venus is doing, sending the French media and travel operators to see for themselves, this is the best way” to bring in more arrivals, says Yvette Lee. Tan lobbied to get the Philippines listed in France’s Nouvelles Frontieres quarterly magazine. (See sidebar.) She seems an inexhaustible font of new ways to go after tourists. “One avenue I’m looking at now is utilizing the privileges of people working in the airline industry. These are people — thousands across Europe — who travel a lot, they get an industry discount, they only pay 25 percent, they often travel with their families. So we’re targeting them… We’re doing this in cooperation with ground handlers, not working through the airlines. It’s geared towards publications that airline employees read, regular newsletters and magazines, other consumer magazines.” After all, a market is a market.

Tan calls such side efforts “creative marketing to offset the downturn of the worldwide economic slump.” But so far, Europeans have not shelved their travel plans.

“My business associates were all so afraid of losing bookings, but funny thing is, I look at my bookings for Tubbataha, we’re almost fully booked already (for 2009)!” laughs Lee. “I said ‘I don’t understand, we’re supposed to have a recession,’ and someone said ‘Well, Yvette, that’s because you’re not selling the $699 Cayman Island special.’ The market we’re catering to is kind of the high-end, and they’re a little more recession-proof.”

According to Tommy Soderstrom, managing partner of El Galleon Dive Resort (with offices in Puerto Galera, Cebu and Boracay), “the Philippines might not come out too bad, actually, because you find it’s fairly inexpensive. Of course, it’s expensive to fly from Europe, but if they’re flying to Micronesia where everything is much more expensive, they probably would prefer to go to the Philippines where their money will last longer.”

Soderstrom — who, like many of the tour operators here will move on to Dusseldorf the following week for the larger Boot Messe Show — has seen some positive growth over last year’s French dive show. “Before we had absolutely zero arrivals from France. If you had none, and you get five, it’s good. That’s (five) people who will go home and talk about the Philippines. That starts the ball rolling.”

Rae Collins, dive center manager of Atmosphere Resorts based in Negros Oriental, also sees potential: “Europe is really the market that has to open up to the Philippines.” The British owners of Atmosphere wanted a Philippines profile for their resort, says Collins, because they know its waters and biodiversity are recognized around the world — an increasingly big selling point. “The owners traveled to Philippines a number of times, and when they decided to open their own resort, they didn’t think of going anywhere else but the Philippines,” she says.

The bottom line is, most of these operators (also including reps from Marco Vincent Dive Resort, Sea Explorers Philippines, Abyss Scuba Divers and Atlantis Dive Resorts) are returning for their second Paris show this year. And they wouldn’t make the long haul if there weren’t a chance of enticing the French to visit the Philippines.

But, other than Lee, you notice there’s a distinct lack of Filipinos representing the dive sector here. Why? “Maybe they get intimidated,” speculates Tan. “To me, the confidence is not quite there. But they have a very good product. Maybe the language barrier…” she ventures, adding that first timers at the fair don’t even have to pay a fee, “just to give them the incentive to put their feet in the water.”

Back home, Tan and Lee praise Philippine Commission on Sports Scuba Diving Executive Director Cynthia Carrion. “She’s spearheading efforts now to standardize diving rates, because each dive operator has different daily rates,” says Lee. “It’s difficult, so one of my assignments is to sound out what local operators here are charging.”

Since diving will hopefully remain a valuable pearl for Philippine tourism for years to come, Carrion’s efforts to promote sustainable scuba diving and snorkeling in the Philippines mesh well with the eco-friendly climate now so in vogue.

Diving, Tan emphasizes, is “a huge market, and to me, it’s not saturated. It’s a market where we can push it still. We have not gone to the brink where we’re overflowing. It’s not a problem. Our problem is general leisure. But I hope it remains a problem, because it’s a good problem!

“We’re fighting with capacity,” Tan continues. “Capacity being blocked off by Asian tourists who stay only the weekend. So if Europeans want to book a week, they can’t stay that long because your weekend rooms are full. We don’t have the capacity to accommodate that.”

Capacity is a push-and-pull equation that tour operators, hotel owners and businesses will have to resolve back home, on Philippine shores. Here, Tan and the sellers of local tourism do their best to lure new bodies to those shores. “Diving is a billion-dollar industry,” concludes Tan. “A diver will travel to go to the best dive sites. It’s a very lucrative niche.”

Looking around us, where Parisians are booking tickets to paradise, you can see what she means.

View previous articles of this column.

By Scott R. Garceau

Updated January 25, 2009 12:00 AM

Kultura: Filipino

Posted in Culture, DOT, Tourism by Erineus on February 11, 2009

Unveiling a new perspective on our lineage

John Nikolai Almelor

To capture the divergent layers of culture of the Philippines’ 7,107 islands, one needs to look at different avenues of history, art, music, dance, and even food if someone is to take a step towards understanding it.

The heart-stopping Sayaw sa Bangko dance.

However, anyone can capture the essence of the Philippines’ cultural distinctiveness through Kultura Filipino, a program launched by the Department of Tourism (DoT).

Kultura Filipino showcases performances that depict the life and ways of the Filipino through various exhibitions around Manila’s historical town of Intramuros.

One of its highlights includes several shows by Filipino artists, recognized here and abroad that will be shown every Tuesday and Thursday at Barbara’s Restaurant. The restaurant also served as the venue for its launching last January 27.

“One of the main staples in a tourist’s itinerary is cultural performance, and having one main venue to showcase our diverse artistic traditions to local and international audience helps to solidify our cultural identity,” said Tourism Secretary Ace Durano.

Barbara’s was once again illuminated as performances from various musical acts graced the stage of the famed restaurant.

Timeless tunes from yesteryear filled Barbara’s as bossa nova singer Sitti serenaded guests with her unique renditions of songs from the country’s great composers. The Mandaluyong Children’s Choir proved why they bagged top honors in the 2004 World Choir Olympics with an amazing performance. A dance medley from the Bayanihan Dance troupe demonstrating different folk and ethnic dances created the atmosphere of a party which would have been common a few hundred years ago.

Durano also added that Kultura Filipino should establish Manila, a city entrenched in history and culture, as a major destination in terms of cultural awareness as the project aims to be one of the highlights of their city tour packages. Interested groups are also urged to participate in the said campaign.

Kultura Filipino is planning to expand their repertoire to more than just music and dance. Other fields such as sculpture, painting, photography, printmaking, and cinema are being considered for inclusion in future campaigns, as are other traditional activities such as theater plays and poetry readings.

Mounting these exhibitions in Intramuros is considered an added incentive as the town within its walls couples history with an old world charm, thus creating another perspective as it provides for a unique cultural presentation.

Director Elizabeth F. Nelle of the DoT Office of Product Research and Development said, “With the country’s different regions tapped to participate in Kultura Filipino, the audience can expect a colorful presentation from a whole spectrum of different traditions and performing arts.”

For the month of March, the different dance groups slated to perform at Barbara’s include the Bayanihan Dance Company, Ramon Obusan Folkloric Group Halili Cruz Dance Company, Lahing Bulakenyo, and Sining Kumintang Batangas. The Philippine National University-Kislap Sining, Technological University of the Philippines-Kalinangan Dance Troupe, Sinukuan Performing Arts, and the Centro Escolar University Dance Troupe are also set to perform.

Cebu to cater more chartered flights from Russia, says DOT

Posted in DOT, Tourism by Erineus on February 3, 2009

Cebu City – As proof that Cebu continues to be among the top travel destinations in Asia, the province is expected to welcome six chartered flights from Russia until March this year, a Department of Tourism (DoT) official said.

In Cebu, tourists and guests could choose in an
array of activities or simply loll under the sun.
(Photo of Pandanon Island courtesy of Island Banca

Tourism Undersecretary for Planning and Promotions Eduardo Jarque Jr. said Cebu expects approximately six chartered flights from Russia before March at an interview where he also announced the arrival of the second batch of Russian tourists en route to Cebu.

Composed mainly of families, 290 Russians in the second batch were coming to visit Cebu’s world renowned beaches and historical hotspots.

“They are here to enjoy the tropical weather of the Philippines because in Russia, it is the peak of the winter season. Cebu, being a beach destination, is the right place for them to relax,” Jarque said.

These Russian visitors are the second batch to visit Cebu. Last December, a group of 141 Russians also came to Cebu via a chartered flight from Vladivostock, Russia, and stayed in the Philippines until January 9, Jarque added.

Apart from Cebu, other tour destinations include Manila (for dining and shopping); Boracay (for its beaches); and Palawan (for adventure and eco-tourism).

“They are specifically amazed with our malls here because it’s a one-stop destination already,” he noted.

Jarque said DoT officials welcomed the first batch of chartered flights from Russia at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport where the foreign guests were provided with tour kits and brochures already translated to Russian.

He said hotel players have even employed Russian staff to cater specifically to this travel market.

The Philippines, being the closest tropical destination to the eastern part of Russia, is expecting a surge of arrivals from this area, given that the distance is only a five-hour flight.

The Russian market has been constantly eyed by the DoT as an emerging travel market for the Philippines. Russians are considered to be among the top high-spending visitors.

“More than average, Russians spend US$ 150 to US$ 225 per day,” Jarque said, adding that while Russians are “budget-conscious” when it comes to preferring cheaper travel packages, they are known to splurge on hotel accommodations, food, and other expenses.

He said that while the international travel market, especially for long-haul destinations, is expected to slow down this year, chartered flights, like those from Russia are a welcome development for the Philippine tourism industry.

“As long as we have interesting airfares plus a combination of value for money, then it will still be an interesting year for the tourism industry here,” Jarque concluded.

Author: Malou M. Mozo