DOT aims its marketing firepower at a growing, and high-spending, sector
AMID IMPERILED ECONOMIES all over the world, with travel and leisure among the biggest industries to be hit by the downturn, some Philippine tourism experts--practitioners as well as policy hands--are pinning their hopes on a sector that might yet prove to be recession-proof: divers.
“It’s an upscale market, certainly not for the backpacker type,” said Yvette Lee, director for marketing and media affairs of Expedition Fleet, a company that operates a mix of resorts and diving boats aimed mostly at foreign, usually European, divers.
Expedition’s typical “Liveaboard” package of seven nights on a specially outfitted diving boat and three nights on shore in a first-class resort costs around 1900 Euros. A rather steep price, but “it’s a top-tier package that brings you to some of the best diving sites in the Philippines, and even 100 Euros can go a long way here,” explained Lee. “That amount is inclusive of meals and accommodations already, so it’s a pretty good package.”
Proof that the market for diving in Philippine waters remains on the upswing is that, even if the summer season hasn’t started yet, Lee said her company’s trips to the Tubbataha Reef are almost fully booked for the year.
“The Philippines as a diving destination is relatively low-cost, so it will remain attractive,” echoed Tommy Soderstrom, a Swedish national who owns a diving resort, El Galleon, with its own diving school, in Puerto Galera, Mindoro.
Soderstrom, who has lived in the country for 21 years and is married to a Filipina, said the Philippines offers great bang-for-the-buck value for divers--a considerable factor even for high-spending but pragmatic travelers.
“In Puerto Galera alone, there are 25 to 30 diving sites within 15 minutes of each other, so it’s very convenient,” he pointed out.
Lee and Soderstrom were among the Philippine-based tour operators who joined the Department of Tourism’s (DOT) participation in France’s premiere diving exhibit Salon de la Plongée, held a week ago at the Parc des Expositions-Porte de Versailles in Paris.
The other private-sector participants included Abyss Scuba Divers, Atlantis Dive Resorts, Atmosphere Resorts, Marco Vincent Dive Resort, Sea Explorers Philippines, Sampaguita Resort and Cathay Pacific.
They were in Paris with DOT to try to capture a significant chunk of France’s diving market. The French are among the world’s most enthusiastic divers. Around 400,000 are registered practitioners, members of some 2,500 active clubs around the country.
Salon de la Plongée is, in effect, their exhibit--an international fair that brings together French and foreign exhibitors specializing in diving. Last year, it hosted more than 400 exhibitors and around 40,000 general public visitors, majority of whom held Grade 2 (Advanced level) diving skills on the French grading system.
The fair offered not only an array of global diving destinations, but also companies and brands hawking all manner of diving gear and accessories, even lessons in a large indoor pool.
The Philippines was “Destination of the Year” in the 2008 exhibition, a distinction that, with the country’s extensive exposure on the TV show “Koh-lanta” (the French version of “Survivor”), resulted in greater awareness of the Philippines as an alternative leisure destination for the French.
According to DOT records, French tourists accounted for the highest percentage growth (24.4 percent) among European visitors to the Philippines in 2007. From January to October 2008, despite the creeping economic squeeze, French arrivals still managed a respectable 20.94-percent increase. This makes France one of the country’s fastest-growing tourist markets in Europe today.
Not only are the French, and European tourists in general, high spenders, they also stay in the country longer--around 10 days, spending around 100 US dollars a day. It’s not hard to see why, said Mark Sutch, France country manager for Cathay Pacific, which has the biggest share—about 45 percent—of the French tourist market to the Philippines.
“You’ve got a fantastic array of diving sites, the sites are relatively unspoiled, Filipinos are a very welcoming people, and European visitors get a lot of value for their money, with hotel prices, food and drinks very affordable,” he pointed out. Sutch himself dived in Philippine waters during his stint as Cathay’s country manager in Manila a few years ago.
“If the Euro remains strong, the Philippines will remain a very affordable and attractive destination,” said Sutch. “People into diving are very passionate about it; the industry will hold up, I believe.”
“We’ll just have to offer them the right package,” said Venus Tan, Philippine tourism attache for the Western, Central and Eastern European markets.
“Travel is sacred to the Europeans, and with ‘Koh-lanta’ and other French diving operators featuring the Philippines as their main diving destination, we’ve created a buzz as far as this niche product is concerned. It’s one of our strongest suits--we have the highest marine bio-diversity in the world!—and we have to stay in this market and build on it.”
French tourists, said Tan, are a different breed. Generally they want rustic surroundings and greater interaction with local people and culture. “They don’t like staying in concrete structures. They don’t just stay in the resort to dive, they want to immerse themselves in local food, to talk with people. That’s an advantage for us, because we’re very sociable. The impression always is that Filipinos are very friendly and hospitable.”
Tan is looking at another sub-set of the market--airline employees with travel privileges, a big sector in Europe--to buoy the market, through active advertising and editorial presence in consumer magazines, newsletters and other publications.
The sustained PR campaign the last two years has resulted in many French travel firms taking a second look at the Philippines.
About 14 major French diving operators have or are featuring the country in their 2008-2009 campaigns, while Nouvelles Frontieres, one of France’s biggest tour operators, pushed the Philippines as a top destination in its sprawling exhibit booth and dive brochures.
Air France, too, devoted 17 pages of its inflight magazine to Philippine destinations, while the popular French Travel Guide had nine pages of pictures of Bohol, Palawan and other main attractions.
“Our goal is to make the Philippines a destination that can compete with the Caribbean and the Red Sea among French divers,” said Tan. “Divers will travel to dive, and we’re here.”
What about French tourists who aren’t too keen on diving? The country, it seems, has got them covered, too.
In March this year, another international fair called Destinations Nature! will open in the same venue. The focus this time is ecotourism, and its featured destination: The Philippines. Vive le honeymoon.
PLUS: Pictures from an exhibition.