Country Report: Philippines

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The Philippines plans to capitalise on the emerging cruise market to attract more ships to call at its ports and entice Filipinos to go on cruises, the Department of Tourism’s assistant secretary Benito C Bengzon Jr revealed in an exclusive interview with Asean Cruising.
“The first objective is to increase the calls of the ships in the region, be they regional ships or stops on round-the-world itineraries,’’ he said. “We need to get more of them, not only into Manila but into other destinations.’’
Bengzon who is in charge of market development admitted that in order to get more cruise ships to visit the country, the government needs to invest in the development of suitable ports.
“What we have seen over the past five years is a shift towards the island destinations like Boracay, Palawan and Puerto Princesa and some of the destinations that not many people have heard of, like the  One Hundred Islands chain.
“We need to increase the frequency of these port visits and to do that we need to make sure that the required level of port infrastructure is there and also to create a higher level of awareness, on the country as a whole but also for specific destinations.’’
He said that the main reason why the Philippines has not been able to  capitalise on the growing cruise industry is the lack of infrastructure at both the central and local government level.
“In terms of port infrastructure, we won’t be able to offer something like Hong Kong’a Ocean Terminal or the new Kai Tak Cruise Terminal, or Singapore’s cruise terminals in the near future, so what we need to do is to make sure that the minimum requirements set by the cruise lines are addressed by the government.
“For the island and resort destinations we will have to plan for  cruise ships so that the overall feeling of the destination is maintained.
“There are some island destinations in the east of the Philippines that are more suited to 300-400 cruise passengers, so they would not be suitable for the mega ships like Quantum of the Seas.’’
Cruise passenger arrivals in the Philippines soared by a significant 48 per cent to 20,000 in 2013 compared to 2011 while the number of cruise lines also saw a sharp increase during the same period to 16 ships – up from 10 in 2011.
Last year 18 cruise ships with 20,000 passengers visited the Philippines.
As Tourism Secretary Ramon R. Jimenez said at the Philippine Cruise Industry Workshop in July last year: “Preparation is absolutely necessary. (We) have to formulate a national cruise development plans that will chart the Philippines’ role in the cruising business in Southeast Asia.’’
The Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya who was also at the workshop, added: ”It is the job of the DOTC, the maritime agencies to ensure that there is sufficient transportation infrastructure and efficient processes to support this growing industry.
“Interface with DOT has already started particularly in developing the country’s major ports of entry. We are one with the DOT and other government and private sectors in attaining a common goal: to enhance cruise experience e and for our tourists to enjoy what the country has to offer.’’
Both Carnival and Royal Carribean International which together account for 80 per cent of the global cruise business, see great prospects for the Philippines becoming a major cruise hub once ports are improved and proper tourism products are developed.
The Philippines is a melting pot of 90 million people and one of the most heavily populated countries in Southeast Asia. It is made up of 7107 islands which borders the South China Sea to the west, the Philippine Sea in the east and the Celebes Sea in the south.
The five main cruise ports include Manila, Cebu, Puerto Princesa, Catician and Subic.
Aside from the increasing number of vessels calling on the Philippines, there is also an increase in demand for non-traditional destinations such as Kalanggaman Island in Polompon, Leyte; Hundred Islands in Alaminos, Pangasinan; Sta. Ana in Cagayan; and Coron Island in Northern Palawan.
Over the past few years, cruising in the Philippines has been slow to catch on but regular visits by ships based on the region has helped to increase awareness among visiting passengers from abroad but also among potential Filipinos themselves.
Star Cruises weekly calls to Palawan has sparked greater interest in the cruise industry. Costa Cruises also visit regularly through the country. But it is the smaller destinations that are ripe for expedition cruises as they offer remote attractions, unique cultural experiences and access to pristine environments that will encourage more of the smaller lines to expand their itineraries there, according to Bengzon.
“We have had several calls by expeditionary cruise companies more suited to these hard to reach and less known destinations. We have a lot of interest from expeditionary cruise companies and several, including Silverseas, Ponant and Seabourn, already visit the Philippines. For us it’s about coming up with the optimum mix, so you have the large ships visiting ports like Manila which would be able to accommodate thousands of travellers, and the smaller boutique ships that create itineraries better suited to that cruising style,” said Bengzon.
Manila, the capital of the Philippines, is also the most densely populated. Most international ships dock at Pier 15 at the South Harbour. This is regarded as the cleanest and most orderly of all the ports in the country and the terminal is a short walk from the heart of Old Manila where Rizal Park and Intramuros are.
The Philippines was chosen as Asia Pacific’s “Destination of the Year” for 2014 during the 25th annual Travel Trade Gazette Travel Awards held in Bangkok in October last year.
Palawan was picked as the world’s top island destination while Boracay ranked 12th in a poll taken by Conde Nast Traveler which targets the high-end tourist market. Even Lonely Planet’s places to go list for 2015 ranks the Philippines in eighth position.
Yet judging by tourist arrivals, the Philippines falls way behind Thailand (the top travel destination with 26.5 million arrivals in 2013), Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and even Vietnam which attracted 7.5 million tourists in 2013 almost double that of the Philippines. The government is targeting 10 million tourists by 2016.
One of the main reasons why the Philippines lag behind neighbouring countries is the lack of direct air flights to Europe and many parts of the world. Rival Southeast Asian nations have direct and frequent international connections and often, tourists who want to visit several countries in the region, tend to pick those near to each other.
By the time they have been to Bali to Borobudur, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur to Penang, Bangkok to Chiang Mai, they would have exhausted their energy and annual leave. Tourists who country-hop from Thailand, Cambodia to Vietnam would more likely pick Myanmar as their fourth country rather than to take a three-to-four-hour flight to the Philippines.
Another hurdle is the lack of good land transportation. A traveler visiting Palawan would have to fly to Manila, get on a bus and then a boat ride, with long waits in-between, before reaching the island.
But the natural beauty of the country’s many pristine and less discovered islands will attract more of the smaller cruise lines and specialist expedition ships to consider expanding their adventure cruises to the Philippines.