The French can’t seem to get enough of the Philippines these days.
Fresh from being featured in two seasons of “Koh Lanta,” the French version of “Survivor,” the country recently clinched another honor: the coveted “Ecotourism Destination of the Year” title in the 2009 edition of Nature, one of France’s biggest travel fairs.
A jubilant Joseph Ace Durano, secretary of the Philippine Department of Tourism, broke the good news at the recently concluded Top Resa travel fair in Paris.
Colleagues from DOT and the Philippine Tourism Authority as well as representatives from the government and private sectors, which included some of the country’s biggest tour oper ators and resort establishments, joined him in the four-day fair.
The country’s participation culminated in a cocktail party hosted by DOT for France’s top travel executives. Dubbed as “Mabuhay Night,” the affair was hosted by Frenchman and “Koh Lanta” star Denis Brogniart and featured the Bayanihan Dancers, May Bayot and Acoustic Jive, champion bartender Ryan Burgos and “Koh Lanta” finalists.
Unlike Top Resa, which marked its 30th year, Nature appeals more to direct consumers as opposed to industry movers. The Philippines has been joining Top Resa for the past three years, and will debut next year in Nature. As the sole featured destination, all eyes will likely be on the Philippines.
“An adventure travel fair like Nature mirrors the French people’s preference for ecotourism,” said Durano. “It combines nature-based travel with a bit of physical activity and cultural immersion.”
Durano attributed this latest development to a number of factors, foremost of which is the country’s selection as site of “Koh Lanta” for two years in a row. After shooting in El Nido, Palawan, in 2006, the show’s producers were back in late 2007, this time in Caramoan, Camarines Sur, with a new batch of competitors.
“This is unprecedented in ‘Koh Lanta’s’ history,” he said. “Since it debuted a few years ago, the show is watched by almost 8 million people every week.”
Images of the Philippines are likely to linger in French living rooms a year or two from now, as Durano finalizes details with producers of the French version of “Great Amazon.” The show, which reportedly has a bigger following than “Koh Lanta,” also wants to shoot an entire season in the Philippines.
“Based on exit surveys we did, foreign tourists spent close to $4.8 billion in the Philippines last year,” said Durano. “This figure doesn’t include plane fares and hotel accommodations, which they usually buy in their respective countries, and other miscellaneous expenses.”
After exceeding last year’s target of three million tourists by close to 100,000, the country, despite dire global developments, seems poised to meet its current target of 3.5 million tourists by the end of 2008.
Faced with a financial meltdown, the US market has begun to slow down. The same condition applies to Japan and other key European markets, except France and Russia.
“While global tourism continues to contract, the French market, as far as we’re concerned, grew by 29 percent in the first seven months of the year,” he said.
French arrivals to the country was in the red as recently as three years ago, making such a feat all the more impressive, Durano added.
Only the Russian market, which posted a 34-percent growth rate within the same period, did better. Both groups are known to visit a particular country for an average of two weeks.
“Europeans spend more as a whole because they stay longer,” said Durano. “Although the average amount they spend is lower than short-staying tourists, they end up spending more during their two- to three-week stay.”
But unlike Russians, who love to stay in big hotels that promote luxury travel, the French prefer small and quaint resorts where service is more personalized.
This explains why big players, with the exception of Sofitel Philippine Plaza, from such mature destinations as Manila, Cebu and Boracay were absent in Top Resa. In their place were relatively remote properties from Palawan, Camarines Sur and Bohol.
“We’re very careful not to position the Philippines in France as a place known primarily for big-city hotels,” said Durano. “The French have always been trend-setters when it comes to food, clothes and, as we found out, also travel.”
With a relatively minuscule promotions budget compared to that of Thailand, Malaysia and India, DOT has learned to become more selective and creative in its marketing thrust.
In lieu of major ad placements in CNN and BBC, for instance, Durano and his team led by Undersecretary Edu Jarque, Assistant Secretary Theresa Martinez and Team Europe head Verna Buensuceso have chosen smaller but more focused marketing venues to get the country’s message across.
DOT has tapped Frenchman Blaise Borezes, PR manager for the Asian market of Interface, a leading PR and advocacy firm in France, to promote the country as a tourism destination.
It was through Interface’s efforts that the country gained the attention of people behind “Koh Lanta.” The company is also responsible for identifying and inviting French travel journalists to go to the Philippines on familiarization tours.
After years of being relegated to the fringes through expensive tailor-made tour packages drawn up by a handful of French experts on Asia and such activities as diving and trekking, the Philippines is now slowly inching its way into the mainstream.
For one, said Borezes, a growing number of tour operators in France now include the Philippines in their window displays. They likewise offer the potential French traveler a choice between costly tailor-made tours and more readily available and affordable group-tour packages to the country.
The country’s 83-sq m booth this year, although similar in look with previous efforts, was much bigger to accommodate all participants than when DOT first joined Top Resa. It only goes to show, said Borezes, that the country is serious in its efforts to promote tourism and has now joined the ranks of major players.
“Interest in the Philippines is bound to intensify after Jet Tour and Bacamces Tramsat, two of France’s best tour operators, recently launched the Philippines as one of its major destinations,” he said.
The French, he added, are always on the lookout for newer, more exciting destinations in Asia. Those who first stumbled on the Philippines were pleasantly surprised to find out the country, apart from its postcard-pretty beaches, has an interesting Latin heritage that’s totally unique in Asia.
“The French are always looking for culture in a country,” he said. “They love visiting old churches and going to markets to experience how life is in a particular place. If you travel so far, you need to find something different yet familiar. You don’t travel for 15 hours just to see a nice beach.”
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 05:48:00 10/05/2008