Wake Up, Philippines!

A doable stimulus plan

Posted in Economy, Global Financial Crisis, Legislation, Tourism by Erineus on March 16, 2009

Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 20:14:00 03/16/2009

A measure that has been passed by Congress and is now awaiting the President’s signature may yet be one of the answers to the current economic crisis and at the same time may provide a long-term solution to the problem of poverty. The measure, the Tourism Act of 2009, creates the Tourism Development Estate Zone Authority and the Tourism Promotion Board.

Alejandra Clemente, president of the Federation of Tourism Industries of the Philippines (FTIP), said the tourism economic zones to be developed by the Authority would create millions of jobs and generate $10 billion in foreign exchange. She said that tourism could be an important engine of socioeconomic and cultural growth and generate investments, earn foreign exchange and create jobs.

Many countries today are visited by millions of tourists every year and earn billions of dollars in foreign exchange. According to the World Tourism Organization, in 2007 the top five most visited countries were France, 81.9 million tourist arrivals, $54.2 billion in tourism receipts; Spain, 59.2 million, $57.8 billion; United States, 56 million, $96.7 billion; China, 54.7 million, $41.9 billion; and Italy, 43.7 million, $42.7 billion.

The Philippines was visited by only 3.4 million tourists in 2007, compared with the 17 million of Malaysia, 14 million of Thailand and 14 million of the small country of Singapore. Clemente said that even Vietnam, which is still recovering from the devastation of a long war, was slowly overtaking the Philippines.

The Philippines could study the experience of Spain which was an underdeveloped country until the 1960s. It developed its tourism industry and is now one of the top five most visited countries and the second biggest earner from tourism in the world. Spain is not resting on its laurels and is continuing to develop business models that are environmentally, socially and culturally sustainable.

What does Spain have or, for that matter, what do Malaysia and Thailand have that the Philippines does not have? The Philippines has many tourist attractions like Boracay, one of the best beaches in the world; Palawan, “the last frontier,” which has exotic wildlife, white sand beaches and natural wonders like an underground river; Bohol, which has the world-famous Chocolate Hills and superb diving spots like Panglao and Balicasag; the Banaue rice terraces, called the Eighth Wonder of the Modern World; and Tubbataha Reefs, an excellent diving spot. The Philippines has a gentle, hospitable people, most of whom speak English. A melting pot of Malay, Chinese, Arabic, Indian, Spanish and American culture, the Philippines is a culturally active nation inhabited by musically and artistically gifted people.

What the Philippines lacks is a comprehensive, systematic tourism plan. A lot of infrastructure has to be constructed to bring many destinations up to world standards. Many hotels still have to be built to accommodate the growing number of tourists. And the government has to improve peace and order conditions; it has to crack down on kidnappers, robbers and con artists.

The development of the tourist industry would have a multiplier effect on the economy. The tourism master plan would create 30 million jobs over a 10-year period and earn about $10 billion in foreign exchange. When the number of tourist arrivals increases, there will be greater demand for food and services. A burgeoning tourist industry would benefit agriculture and the information technology industries. More factories would be needed to manufacture supplies for hotels and resorts.

A growing tourist industry could absorb the tens of thousands of overseas Filipino workers who have lost their jobs and are returning to the country. These workers only need to be retrained so that they can enter the tourism industry. An added advantage is that they would not have to leave the country again, and the social problems created by absentee parents would be partially relieved.

Government officials are pushing stimulus plans to revive an economy that is being affected by the global economic meltdown. The tourism program envisioned under the Tourism Act of 2009 is one concrete, doable stimulus plan. If President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo wants a ready answer to the current economic crisis as well as a long-term plan to solve the problem of poverty, she can find it in the measure that is just waiting for her signature.


The sporting side of Indonesia

Posted in Tourism, Travel by Erineus on March 9, 2009

By Joaquin Henson Updated March 01, 2009 12:00 AM

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Bull-racing is an Indonesian traditional sport and life-sized figures are on exhibit to portray the action.

MANILA, Philippines – There’s more to sports in Indonesia than just badminton which has, by the way, delivered six Olympic gold medals for the Southeast Asian country with a seam-busting population of close to 250 million.

I found this out during a recent visit to Jakarta with a side trip to Bali.  My balikbayan sisters from the US, my wife Menchu and I took the PAL non-stop evening flight to Jakarta.  We got in early morning and it was a perfect time to check in at our hotel, the Atlet Century Park, without a minute’s wait.

Although badminton has been Indonesia’s Olympic gold mine since joining the Summer Games in 1952, football is undisputedly the No. 1 sport of the masses.  Indonesians are in love with football as Filipinos are with basketball.

Even as Indonesia was ranked only No. 144 in the latest world football standings, it is bidding to host the World Cup in either 2018 or 2022.  For the record, only two milestones in Indonesian football history stand out from an international viewpoint.  In 1938, Indonesia qualified for the World Cup in France.  And in 1956, Indonesia made it to the final round of the Olympics.

But alas, at the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in 2007, Indonesia didn’t even qualify for the semifinals.

What is evident in Indonesia’s program for elite athletes is its focus.  The Indonesian National Committee or KONI (Komite Olahraga Nasional Indonesia), headed by Agum Gumalat, is not wasting time and energy on sports where the probability of achieving success is low.  The concentration is on specific sports where Indonesia has a competitive advantage.  It’s no wonder Indonesia has collected its 25 Olympic medals from only three sports — badminton, weightlifting, and archery.

“Indonesia does not excel in football internationally but Indonesians love the game,” said a local sports promoter.  “Politicians use football to make themselves known.  The giant cigarette brand Djarum is the biggest sponsor of football.  There are no real Indonesian soccer stars.  But teams pay big money to bring in players from South American and Africa to play as imports.  Football is the most popular sport, followed by badminton and boxing.”

Boxing is another sport where Indonesia has made some global headway.  So far, Indonesia has produced five world boxing champions — Ellyas Pical in 1985, Nico Thomas in 1989, Suwito Lagola in 1995 and Muhammad Rachman and Chris John in 2004.

Luckily, our hotel was in front of the National Sports Stadium so when I found out John was training across the street, I immediately went over to meet the WBA featherweight titlist.  The meeting was arranged by Indonesian sportswriter Martinez dos Santos and boxing promoter Tamuzin Rambing.

“There’s a lot of pressure on me to win,” said the 29-year-old John, a Catholic in a predominantly Muslim society.  “But I’m used to the pressure.  I’m Indonesia’s only world champion today and my countrymen are banking on me to make them proud.  I’m proud, too, to fight for my country.”

Basketball is low on the popularity totem pole but media mogul Erick Thohir has big plans for the sport as the Southeast Asian Basketball Association (SEABA) president.  Thohir, 37, owns Republika, the largest Muslim newspaper in Indonesia, and controls at least two TV networks and a large coal mining company.  His family is reputedly among the top 10 richest in the country with interests in mining, media, real estate, and banking.

In an interview, Thohir mentioned that the Indonesia league currently employs two Filipino coaches, Bong Ramos in Surabaya and Boysie Zamar in Medan.  There are 10 teams in the local league which runs from January to May.  At the end of each year, the league organizes a tournament where rookies and free agents are invited to play on a trial basis before the next season begins.

Thohir said Jakarta will host the FIBA-Asia Champions Cup on May 12-20 and proudly pointed out that Indonesia won the last SEABA Champions Cup, a tournament which allows each team to play two imports.

“The PBA was the model we used in organizing our league,” said Thohir who recently met SBP chairman Manny V. Pangilinan during the PBA game between San Miguel Beer and Talk ‘N’ Text in Singapore.

Learning about sports in Indonesia wouldn’t be complete unless you visit the Museum Olahraga, a three-story building inaugurated in 1989 in the Taman Mini park complex.  The facility stands as a monument to celebrate the history of Indonesian sports and to glorify the country’s athletic heroes.

The first floor features the Hall of Fame, an exhibit of the 1997 Mount Everest conquest by intrepid Indonesian adventurers, a photo tribute to Indonesian athletes in various sports promoting the values of Olympism, discipline, physical fitness, a sound mind and sound body, and a metal sculpture of three divers in different poses connected by suspension wires at the open center of the circular museum strung up from the upper level to the ground floor.

The second floor features individual exhibits of Indonesian achievements in several sports, a photo history of the National Games, and a display of the traditional equipment in indigenous sports.  On the third floor is a display of life-sized figures depicting action in traditional sports like jumping huge rock formations in the Nias island, Pasola where horseback riders battle it out with lancers in a simulation of actual combat and a race where each entry is a rider holding the reins of two bulls.

In Bali, most tourists indulge in a variety of water sports, primarily surfing.   I found the only squash facility in the Kuta district, the Discovery Kartika Hotel which has two courts.  I played two straight days with a pro Nur Al-Lim.   Our daughter Cristina joined us in Bali with her cousin Rica Nolasco and they actively took part in their favorite sport, shopping.

As for shopping, there are real bargains for sports enthusiasts.  I got two pairs of indoor Indonesian-made playing shoes (Thomkins brand) for about P1,000 each at the Matahari Department Store and a Head microgel 450 squash racket sells about $25 less than amazon.com at Metro Sports in downtown Jakarta.

Sports in Indonesia has also come to light with the ascendancy of US President Barack Obama, a basketball-crazy weekend warrior who lived four years in Jakarta with his American mother Ann Dunham and Indonesian stepfather Lolo Soetoro.  Obama, who speaks fluent Bahasa, was six when he moved to Jakarta with his mother and her second husband.  In 1971, when he was 10, Obama moved to Honolulu to live with his mother’s parents.

In just a few days in Indonesia, I found out how important sports is to a country as a source of national pride, a maker of role models and an inspiration to the youth.

View previous articles from this author.


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

Asia’s top adventure resorts

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

The reason that adventure resorts are so popular is that they appeal to almost everyone. You don’t have to be the adrenaline addict to appreciate the natural beauty surrounding these resorts. The excruciatingly mobile city life just makes you need some peace and quiet that you can only get at really remote places. But, of course, you wouldn’t wanna sacrifice comfort. That’s what these kinds of resorts are there for. Popular online travel company, Agoda, recently named the top adventure resorts in Asia Pacific region. Here are their picks:

1. Taj Safari Resort (Mahua Khoti, India)—Wildlife exploration like nature walks, elephant treks, and tiger-sightings are available daily. The resort has 12 appointed luxury village huts for guests.

2. Aman Resorts (Amankora, Bhutan)—A spiritual pilgrimage deep in the hills and valleys of mythical Bhutan, a series of five lodges that guests can visit as “pit stops” while trekking the secluded Buddhist hideaway.

3. Four Seasons (Golden Triangle, Thailand)—Situated in the Chiang Rai province, this unique tented camp facility—complete with all the luxury the Four Seasons is known for—is accessible only by riverboat. It lies amid a bamboo jungle right at the border of Thailand, Myammar, and Laos (thus called Golden Triangle).

4. Elephant Safari Park Lodge (Bali, Indonesia)—It’s all about elephants at this lodge. Guests are encouraged to take part in caring for the creatures—from interacting with them, feeding them, and even bathing them.

5. Freedom Inn Niseko (Hanazono, Japan)—Majestic views of mountains, streams, and volcanic peaks, winter activities and a refreshing dip at the hot springs to cap it off are what this Japanese retreat offers.

6. El Nido Resorts (Palawan)—A tropical resort surrounded by 45 islands and islets for its guests to hop around, El Nido is a prime destination where nature is the appetizer, main course, and dessert. But, of course, you already knew that!

7. River Kwai Jungle Raft (Kanchanaburi, Thailand)—Not only can guests be one with nature, they are also expected to be one with the locals. The Mon tribes are very accommodating and they will be more than happy to let tourists watch their ritual dances and be involved in other activities.

8. Bamurru Plains Hotel (Kakadu, Australia)—A three-hour drive from Darwin, this resort somewhere in the Australian savannah has nine safari-tented suites. Quite troubling, but making perfect sense, is the fact that there are no phones, televisions, and other typical hotel “distractions.” But it’s still all “wild bush luxury.”

9. Laos Spirit (Luang Prabang, Laos)—French Colonial architecture features prominently in this resort. The eco-friendly establishment provides rustic luxury to the pristine backdrop of mountains and seemingly endless trekking/hiking possibilities.

10. Hin Tok River Camp @ Hell Fire Pass (Kanchanaburi, Thailand)—With 20 luxurious tent setups along the Kwai River, this accommodation is just a 3-kilometer walk away from the Hell Fire Pass Memorial. Activity-packed packages—including trips to historic landmarks—are available.

Queries? Visit Agoda on the Web at http://www.agoda.com or call their Manila office at 814-9565.

By Ed Biado

Tagaytay’s next big thing

Posted in Modern Living, Tourism by Erineus on February 21, 2009

MANILA, Philippines – Robinsons Land, one of the country’s premier property developers, recently opened the Promenade of Summit Ridge Hotel Complex in Tagaytay City.

The promenade is part of the 2.17-hectare property, which will include a hotel and a recreation center. Its major component, the full-service and fully amenitized nine-story hotel, will be completed and expected to open by middle of 2009.

“With the success of the Promenade, we just couldn’t be more excited once our hotel opens,” says Dollie Bufu, Summit Ridge Group property manager.

The Summit Ridge Promenade is an open-air lifestyle and commercial center featuring prominent retailers and food players. Offering dining, pampering and shopping, this newest one-stop haven in Tagaytay promises a whole new experience.

“The coming together of local and national tenants here made our center more dynamic and exciting because it offers a perfect mix of our favorite retail and food, and of course, introduces what Tagaytay has to offer — fresh air and lush scenery,” adds Bufu.

Anchor stores Robinsons Supermarket and Handyman Do-it Best are already open, offering great finds and value, so are the Sun Shop, HBC and Zen Zest kiosks.

Casual dining restaurant Shakey’s is always filled with customers enjoying all-time favorite pizzas, chicken and mojos.

The Cravings Group will be opening two outlets here, C2 Classic Cuisine and Cravings Cafe. C2 Classic Cuisine is known for redefining traditional dishes while Cravings offers coffee blends, pastries, cakes, and restaurant fare.

Local pasalubong store Amira’s Buco Tart Haus is a must-visit, offering tarts in pineapple, mango, ube, coffee, blueberry and peach flavors.

Sanctuario, one of Tagaytay’s famous dining destinations, also finds a home in this promenade. For coffee, head to Starbucks, fast becoming a favorite hangout of local residents and motorists along the busy Aguinaldo Highway.

Kids and adults can enjoy endless fun and games at the Fun Time Amusement Center located on the second level. For beauty, pampering and health treatments, go to Godiva Skin Station and Tapawan Dental Clinic.

Watch out for the opening of Giligan’s, Bacolod Chicken Inasal, Rey’s Kitchen, Sizzling Pepper Steak, Galileo Enoteco, Razon’s, BPI, Robinsons Savings Bank, and Atin Ito.

Updated February 21, 2009 12:00 AM

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Honesty Café: Only in Batanes

Posted in Cafe, DOT, Tourism by Erineus on February 16, 2009

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More than a cup of honesty: Honesty Café in Ivana, Batanes is a little store that provides refreshments to townfolk and travelers in the area. Anybody who enters the café can get food and drinks and drop whatever payment they feel like in a basket.

I went to Batanes for the first time after getting an invitation from a friend who was going there with her son. I decided that it was a good opportunity for me to go, and take my son along. Whatever I had heard previously about Batanes did not do justice to its beauty, as well as the goodness of its people, which I experienced during my trip. People there are content and do not live their lives preoccupied with thoughts of natural calamities — the events that, sadly, make Batanes familiar to us. Their homes are made of limestone which is naturally porous and resistant to earthquakes and typhoons. More importantly, every house is an architectural sight that makes one feel how much love and patience was put into the construction. I was amazed to hear about the community’s housing cooperatives. The neighbors help one another build homes for their families.

Batanes may be isolated, but it is no doubt a successful community where interdependence is the norm. The pervading culture dictates that it is a privilege to help and be helped, and almost an insult to receive payment.

While biking in one town called Ivana on the main island of Batan, I got fascinated with a relatively popular yet inconspicuous fixture — The Honesty Café. This little store was started by Aling Elena, a retired teacher who decided to provide refreshments to townfolk and travelers in the area. Anybody who enters the cafe can get food and drinks and drop whatever payment they feel like in a basket. While the items are tagged, the store is not manned. Some people drop their payment, others don’t. But it’s all okay with Aling Elena; her ultimate profit is the chance to awaken her customers’ consciousness to honesty and responsibility and to teach them to live these lessons in the other areas of their lives.

Together with her husband Jose, she toils the fields and takes pride in being a farmer. In her daily labor of love she prays, “God, please help me with my crops so I may share them with others.” As Elena and Jose talk about their 50th wedding anniversary on Valentine’s Day next year, it’s as though their celebration is already happening, every day. Their life together reinforces simple values: what you plant, you eat; what you sow, you reap; everything is abundant; everybody sees beauty.

I was overwhelmed by the simple and profound lessons of life that are the day-today experiences of the people of Batanes. Life is about thanksgiving, with Sundays being strictly for church service. To many of them, sharing their lives with one another and sincerely helping is the only way to prosper.

As I looked out at the fields, beaches and mountains of Batanes, talked to Aling Elena, Mang Jose and their community, I became more convinced that in simplicity lies majesty. Nature, when respected and nurtured, can provide us with everything that we need to live abundantly.

This is my experience of Batanes and its people. Life that is lived fully will lead us to knowing who we are and becoming what we are made to be. Giving starts with one person. It starts with one home. One woman prepares food with love. One man takes pride in his labor. One traveler pays the right amount. One child learns to share. A neighbor gives unconditional assistance. Everybody does the same. And we get blessed with a community called Batan in an island simply known as Batanes.

View previous articles from this author.

By Rose Anne Belmonte
Updated January 25, 2009 12:00 AM

14 things you must do in Macau

Posted in Tourism by Erineus on February 15, 2009
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Made for Kodak moments: Steps lead up to the ruins of St. Paul, the façade of a church that was the first home of the Jesuits in China.

There is a common misconception that Macau is little more than a gambler’s paradise. But the former Portuguese colony, which Portugal handed back to China in 1999, is working hard to rectify that. The Macau Government Tourism Office would prefer we not even use the term “gambling.” They favor the more neutral euphemism “gaming.”

Since gaming in Macau has become controversial of late (the International Herald Tribune reported that Chinese government officials were gaming away the state’s money in Macau’s casinos — er, gaming centers), the tiny Chinese Special Administrative Region is more eager than ever to move away from its “Asian Vegas” image and recast itself as a city of culture rich in World Heritage Sites.

Though Macau never lacks for tourists — 30.2 million a year at last count, with 90 percent coming from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan — they’ve set their sights on more diverse markets. Basically, today’s Macau can be anything you want it to be, from a MICE destination to a family-fun park to a gastronomic getaway.

As Macau celebrates the 10th anniversary of its handover this year, there’s no better time to go. The hotels are mind-blowing; the food choices, dizzying; and the things to see, do and shop for, ever-expanding.

1. Stay at a Las Vegas-style hotel. No one can blame you if you feel like you’ve landed in an episode of CSI, smack in the middle of the Vegas Strip. In an area the size of Makati CBD, there’s the Wynn, the Sands, the Venetian. We stayed at the MGM Grand Macau, which bears the modest title of “world-class luxury resort” but is actually an escapist fantasy created by Pansy Ho, daughter of famed taipan Stanley, and Las Vegas’s MGM Mirage. Situated on the waterfront in the Nam Van entertainment district, the hotel houses a skylit Portuguese plaza and two lobbies: one for regular visitors with original Dale Chihuly artworks; the other a Moorish-influenced VIP lobby with exclusive elevators leading to the oh-so-decadent Grand Suites. Each of the rooms has panoramic ocean or city views, wireless Internet access, 42” plasma TVs, and modern tubs enclosed in glass. Tip: Stay on weekdays because rates for all Macau hotels invariably go up during the weekends.

2. Eat at world-class gourmet restaurants. Discover Macanese food at the colonial Military Club or Michelin-starred Cantonese fare at MGM’s Imperial Court. But true foodies in the know head to Restaurante Fernando and O’Manel. Fernando, on Coloane Island, serves home-style Portuguese cooking in a rustic barnyard setting. Don’t miss specialties like the oven-roasted suckling pig with very tasty Macau fried rice, or the truly superior charcoal-grilled codfish soaked in olive oil and browned garlic. Fernando takes no reservations or credit cards, so bring cash and make sure to put your name on the list as soon as you arrive.

O’Manel, on the other hand, is on Taipa Island and a bit harder to find. Owner Manel Pena writes the day’s specials on a blackboard in the cozy dining area and serves customers himself; his wife does the cooking. Her Portuguese fare — all recipes originate from her and her mother — is unpretentious, reasonably priced and uniformly delicious. The grilled or boiled bacalhau is flaky, with just the right amount of saltiness. Also try the pata negra, clams with lemon sauce and excellent Portuguese chorizo, which is a very different flavor experience from its Spanish cousin. Manel, who likes dishing out personal insights along with the food, also has a carefully handpicked wine list. Best bang for the buck in Macau, according to gourmands who’ve eaten there.

3. Stroll in Senado Square. All roads lead to Senado Square, Macau’s main hub of European quaintness. Trade your stilettos for flats as you traverse the wave-patterned, stone mosaic pathways. Though the streets are now lined with rather generic boutiques, the Portuguese buildings are charming and you can light a candle at St. Dominic’s Church, a well-preserved example of 17th-century baroque architecture.

4. Shop at The Venetian and The Four Seasons. What you can’t find shopping at Senado Square you will find in the arcades of these two hotels on the Cotai Strip — the Venetian notable for its size and selection (330 shops, from Duty Free Americas to Zara); the Four Seasons for its luxury brands (from Yves Saint Laurent to Viktor & Rolf). Even better, the two hotels are connected. Those who prefer a department-store setting should check out New Yaohan, with its reasonably priced goods and spree-inducing grocery on the top floor.

5. Loiter in the lobby of the Grand Lisboa. Stanley Ho is a fascinating icon both in and out of Macau. Get a sense of the man behind the myth in his hotel, the Grand Lisboa, the lotus-shaped landmark that dominates the Macau skyline. In the lobby you’ll find esoteric pieces from his collection like ivory tusks and jade boulders carved into miniature tableaux, humongous gemstones, and other curiosities. We guarantee you’ll seek out what other marvels are on offer. If you can’t stay in the roulette-inspired rooms outfitted in red and black, you can eat at The 8, a Cantonese restaurant of such fabulous design the food seems almost secondary. We hear it’s good, though, with over 50 kinds of dim sum for lunch.

6. Take a picture at the ruins of St. Paul. Before the Grand Lisboa came along Macau’s landmark was St. Paul’s, the first home of the Jesuits in China. Destroyed by a fire in 1835, no one knows why the church was never rebuilt. On the façade, however, you’ll find the history of Christianity in Asia writ in symbols like Japanese chrysanthemums and passages from the Bible in Chinese.

7. Indulge in the Six Senses Spa at the MGM Grand Hotel. There are spas and then there’s the Six Senses Spa, which we had no time to try but looked heavenly nonetheless, with its Experience Showers, Floatation Pool (which has enough salt content to mimic the Dead Sea) and Snow Room (Snow actually falls here. You can pack a good snowball or just cool off after a sauna or steam). Their 80-minute Sensory Journey looks tempting.

8. Don’t miss the many entertainments at The Venetian. Foremost of these is Cirque du Soleil’s Zaia — there’s not a bad seat in the house as this aerial ballet takes place above the audience’s heads. Another attraction is the gondola rides: For about P600 you are rowed through the romantic indoor Grand Canal, with your gondolier serenading you in Italian. If you can’t get to Venice, this is the next best thing. The Venetian is also a fount of free entertainment. Shows are held daily, four times a day, in St. Mark’s Square, featuring many of our Pinoy theater talents in lavishly costumed song-and-dance numbers.

9. Taste the best egg tarts at Lord Stow’s on Coloane. Lord Stow’s originated from a humble outpost on Coloane Island, which is closer to the airport than to downtown Macau. Don’t be fooled by the imitators: in these superior Portuguese egg tarts, the custard is airy and not too sweet, encased in an ultra-flaky crust. Locals also recommend Pasteleria Ko Kei, which is located more centrally, but Lord Stow’s can deliver its treats in boxes of eight or 12 directly to the airport, all the better for you to take home.

10. Take home Macau’s most affordable pasalubong: snacks. Macau’s best souvenirs are edible. Aside from egg tarts, this Cantonese-dominated region also specializes in almond cookies, peanut candies and cured pork products. You can find the best of these down the street from St. Paul, on Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro, also known as San Ma Lo. Various “snack streets” also radiate from Taipa Village — score some pork chop buns, egg rolls and roasted meat slices along with a dose of history.

11. Get your vertiginous thrills at Macau Tower. Not just an observation point, Macau Tower is Extreme Thrills Central. You can attempt the world’s highest bungee jump (at 233 meters), or, even more novel, try “skywalking.” For MOP$388 (around P2,400), you can sit or stroll along the tower’s transparent outer rim tethered to nothing but a harness. The less adventurous souls among us can witness the freefalling bodies — drink in trembling hand — from the safety of the revolving restaurant.

12. Savor the old architecture. Those charmed by the Old World elegance of Senado Square should also visit Lou Kau Mansion, a World Heritage Site located in Macau’s historic center, and the island of Taipa. Along the waterfront, shaded by banyan trees, a row of green and white houses seems frozen in time. In the early 20th century Macanese families and local administrators made their homes here. Once they fell into vacancy and disrepair, Macau’s government bought and restored them, filling their insides with museums about the period. The location is so evocative it’s now a favorite set for filmmakers.

13. Do the amusement park or have a drink at Macau Fisherman’s Wharf. Macau’s version of Sentosa, Fisherman’s Wharf is an integrated development built around three themes: food, fun, and shopping. “Fun” includes an amusement park with replicas of the Roman Colosseum, Aladdin’s Fort and a multi-cratered volcano that kids will enjoy. Adults can have their fun, meanwhile, at the various gaming, dining and shopping facilities.

14. Party like a rock star at the MGM. As I mentioned above, there’s a whole other side to Macau hotels — a secret side privy only to celebrities and the super-rich. MGM’S dedicated VIP elevator took us to the grandest of the Grand Suites, which was replete with the usual luxurious and elegant appointments, of course. But our eyes popped at the master bathroom, an open-plan affair with oversized tub and the piece de resistance, an “experience” shower with alcove benches that can accommodate up to 10 people. With that kind of rock-star decadence, trashing the furniture is sure to become an afterthought. (We overheard that Gael Garcia Bernal has already indulged.)

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For more information, contact the Macau Government Tourism Office, Suite 11-D, Valero Tower, 122 Valero St., Salcedo Village, Makati City, at 812-2595 and 813-0947, e-mail mgtophil@info.com.ph or visit www.macautourism.gov.mo

View previous articles of this column.

By Therese Jamora-Garceau

Updated February 08, 2009 12:00 AM

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