The Philippine Department of Tourism Undersecretary for Planning Benito Bengzon, Jr., in an exclusive interview, imparts to Travel Update present and future programs to reach the target 7.5 million at the end of the year.
TUP: First and foremost, how are we doing with flights and airports?
“We are still pushing for greater connectivity into the country. This is of course based on the strategic direction under the National Tourism Development Plan (NTDP) of 2010-2016. The term that we use is not pocket open skies, but the more progressive “civil aviation policy” to make it more precise. In terms of policy direction, we continue to work more on our civil aviation framework. This means is that we will continue to make it easier for both foreign carriers and the local carriers not only into the gateways but even the secondary destinations; so, when you say opening up, this will involve reviewing the revisions under the various air service agreements and MOUs, working more closely with infrastructure agencies to step the upgrading of our airports, and of course, working with DFA for visa facilitation and the Bureau of Immigration through the Department of Justice.
We will continue to increase the capacity of the passenger terminals in Manila airports. There has been news about the interest of the so-called ‘Consortium of Seven’ to develop and upgrade the NAIA. The new passenger terminal in Cebu-Mactan opened last July, and hopefully, will be able to receive 12 million passengers yearly. Panglao is supposed to open in October. According to an upgraded report from CAAP, there are now 20 out of 40 airports that are night-rated and the idea is to night-rate all by 2022. The airports recently night-rated are Tacloban, Roxas, Dumaguete, Caticlan,and Legazpi with Naga and Tuguegarao before the year ends. Daraga in the Bicol region will open in the middle of 2020 while Clark’s new passenger terminal will increase its capacity to 12 million.
We made some headway in facilitating visa upon arrival to Chinese and Indian nationals but we are not getting the quickest access as we expected like cruise passengers but we are moving into that direction. We will continue to prioritize it as we depend mostly on air access.
Next year we will be hosting two important aviation events, Routes Asia in Cebu in March 2019 and we expect 1,200 delegates mostly from the region. The event has attracted a good mix of legacy carriers and LCCs. We already identified the airlines that we want to reach out to and they will be the ones included in the hosted buyer program. These airlines are mostly carriers who have not flown to the Philippines yet or have stopped flying to the country. Cebu, obviously, will be showcased as centerpiece and its satellite destinations. Under hubs and spokes, PAL has 35 destinations from Manila while Cebu has 15 from Cebu. Bacolod will also be visited because of the expected opening of the airport.
The second event is the CAPA Summit in Cebu Radisson. The summit will contribute to raising the profile of the Philippines in the aviation industry.”
TUP: How are we positioned in the MICE market?
“We already created a roadmap on MICE and we already created four working groups and we have had very fruitful meetings on human resource training, policy intervention, infrastructure, marketing and promotions. The most important thing is that this is the first holistic and integrated approach to our MICE sector. Some people have the bias to favor events and activities. If you ask some entities, chances are that you will be given a calendar of events and that’s it, but hardly anyone talks about anything else.
It still is a discussion on which of MICE should be supported. There are out of the box thinkers who preach on “business tourism” and then extract it from MICE; but, I think what is important, collectively, is we want to position the Philippines more strongly in that segment until 2030. We now see tracks that we haven’t seen in previous years. When we talk about the human resource, we talk about the expertise that we need in the short and long term and benchmarking it against the rest of the world. Infrastructure—let’s talk about the verticals without talking about the general infra like airports but the exhibition centers. We talked about this with Atty. Padilla of PICC. What are the options, how will they expand since they still have space for development. Now, that is strategic in approach.
For policy intervention, we have agreed to relevant regulations. We still have a long way to go as we have seen in the case of cruise tourism. It is not oriented towards activities, but strategic. For marketing, we network with government and private sectors and we are the ones who will orchestrate because we see it differently.
Our proposal with MICE, subject to approval by the DOT Secretary, is to make DOT on top, with TPB, PACEOS, COHREP, and other related associations under the umbrella.”
TUP: With sustainable tourism the battlecry for Boracay, where is cruising in the scheme of things?
“ What is being discussed right now is the issue if we will allow or limit the big cruise liners in Boracay, but it will be the Task Force who will decide on the matter. Definitely, the number of cruise ship passengers will be bigger this year as we gain traction in the cruise community. What we need to do is to improve the infra and port facilities.”
TUP: There were talks of new cruise port developments last year, what is the update on this?
“We were actually looking at the area in the back of the Senate partly owned by CCP and DPWH. We have arranged to get a board resolution from CCP to allow TIEZA to do a feasibility study for the construction of a cruise port but Solaire made a proposal to the President before it was done. Solaire says it will be a dedicated cruise port proposal.”
TUP: When a cruise company builds a port in the Philippines, will it mean that only their ships can dock in it?
“In the Philippines, no, as the volume is still small and it will be costly not to have other cruise ships come in. It will always be the bottom line for the cruise companies.”
TUP: We lack tour guides, how are we coping?
“We have to re-evaluate the tourist number against available guides. Right now, it is based on interest and it is not encouraging. The one that we are working on, although it is still at the preliminary stage, is deploying foreign language speaking personnel to bridge the communication gap. We are looking at employing Korean, Chinese, or Japanese speaking personnel. Right now, immigration has a pool of Mandarin-speaking guides but they have a different orientation which is security. Arrival-Departure cards have still to be printed but there will be people lost in translation at Customs. So my idea is that there will be cards or stickers that say, for example, “Hello I am King and I speak Korean” in their own alphabet to welcome all flights especially from Korea. This is one of the projects that I conceptualized that we want to roll out.”
TUP: Are we on track with the huge China market?
“Every agent has a different view. When I was in Cebu, they are well-balanced because of seasonality. We had a 43.8% growth of Chinese tourists even if the Koreans are still number one with 1.6 million arrivals. Here in DOT, despite all the challenges that we have faced in the last eight years, we have not suffered any month-on-month decline, this is remarkable despite the menu of all disasters, natural and man-made that the country has faced.”