Since the recent launch of the country’s new tourism brand campaign “It’s more fun in the Philippines!” there have been positive developments in the local tourism industry, indicating renewed interest in the country as a holiday destination for visitors.
For the first time in Philippine tourism, arrivals of foreigners in January this year exceeded the 400,000 mark for a single month. This represents a 17.5-percent increase from the figure of 349,713 visitors in January 2011. Koreans accounted for almost 25 percent of the total, and this confirms what many people have been noticing lately. Koreans are all over the place—in schools, on golf courses, to include the driving range, and in business establishments throughout the country. Korean vehicles are very much a part of the local automotive industry. Korean brands of electronic equipment make up a huge part of the Philippine market.
Let me mention a brief history of Korean migration through the years. Koreans in the Philippines constitute the largest Korean community in Southeast Asia. They come up to 115,400, up by 151 percent since 2005. They are mostly Christians and the largest concentrations can be found in Metro Manila, Baguio City, and major cities in the Visayas and Mindanao.
Koreans came to the Philippines in several waves. The most significant were the war brides brought home by Filipino soldiers who served with our Battalion Combat Teams on the side of the United Nations during the Korean War. Another group consisted of managers of small- and medium-scale industries that relocated to the Philippines in the 1980s, attracted by lower wages. This was followed by an expansion of Korean businesses, not just manufacturing companies but also restaurants, import-export, and construction enterprises. The last wave was composed of the students who arrived in the last few years because of a more relaxed visa policy for foreign scholars.
Koreans contribute over $1 billion a year in consumer spending. However, they continue to be viewed as a closed society by Filipinos. For one thing, they are known for being pushy and short-tempered. But they are also admired for their industry, their drive and determination in the pursuit of any objective. A good example is their success in the golfing world that has served as an inspiration for many of our own golf professionals.
Unfortunately, some Koreans have been involved in a number of illegal activities. Recently, police arrested eight Koreans and rescued over 300 pit bulls in raids on a dog-fighting arena and dog farms in Calauan and in San Pablo City, Laguna. The Koreans were charged with violation of the Animal Welfare Act and illegal gambling.
Going back to tourist arrivals, the United States ranks second, followed by China, Japan and Taiwan.
While the January figures are heartening, there are negatives that will definitely affect visitor arrivals in the coming months unless quick action is taken by Congress and the administration.
Two weeks ago, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines ended the only direct flight from the Philippines to Europe when it stopped its Manila-Amsterdam non-stop service after more than eight years of operation. Citing the 3-percent common carrier tax, and the 2.5-percent gross billing tax imposed by the government, KLM announced it could no longer justify those additional costs. In 2008, Lufthansa Airlines of Germany cancelled its direct flights from Manila to Frankfurt.
Last week, Qatar Airways discontinued its thrice-a-week Cebu to Doha flights, citing the high cost of operating in the Philippines. It was the last direct flight between Cebu and the Middle East, affecting overseas Filipino workers from the Visayas. As usual, lawmakers and administration officials are scrambling to see what could be done to restore the connections. Certainly, it must have taken some time before the decision to close down was made. Obviously, we were sleeping on the job and failed to closely monitor the developing situations. Now, it will be more difficult to try to get those foreign airlines back to Manila.
Another problem that continues to plague the Philippine aviation industry and also our tourism activities is the country’s standing with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the European Union. In 2007, the FAA after carrying out an international Aviation Safety Assessment on the Philippines, downgraded our rating from Category 1 to Category 2. In simple language, this meant that our aviation safety standards failed to comply with world safety standards as laid down by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The ICAO conducted its own audit in 2009 and found several Significant Safety Concerns (SSC). For more than five years now, we continue to remain on Category 2 status. The latest review of local aviation standards by the FAA was made last January. The FAA found “23 critical elements” that have to be addressed by the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines, if we are to regain Category 1 status.
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Last week, Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez announced that senior citizen benefits, mainly the 20-percent discount on food and medicine, may soon be offered to elderly foreign travelers. Jimenez said that the Department of Finance and the Department of Trade and Industry are now working on the guidelines for such a policy.
Let’s pause for a while, and think about this closely before doing anything.
First, there should be reciprocity between nations. If our elderly can enjoy the same benefits in other countries, there should be no problem extending the senior citizen privileges to the citizens of those countries. In the absence of reciprocity, it would be foolish to extend these benefits to everyone. As it is, we have not been able to fully implement the senior citizens law for our own elderly.
Second, the expanded Senior Citizens Act of 2010 (RA 9994) defines a senior citizen as “any resident citizen of the Philippines, at least 60 years old.” The law does not provide for these benefits to be extended to foreigners. Perhaps, if the principle of reciprocity is raised, then there may be some justification for extending the same to foreign elders.
An example of our failure to fully implement the provisions of the senior citizens law has to do with discountable “essential medical supplies, accessories and equipment.” After several months of inaction, the Department of Health has failed to resolve the issue on lancets and test strips for diabetic patients, titanium knee replacements, and stents for angioplasty operations.
Calling the attention of Health Secretary Enrique Ona to this issue, as well as other related questions on senior citizen benefits that come under DOH jurisdiction.
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