MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines tourism board is urging people to visit the country, stressing that their visits will have a direct effect on helping to rebuild lives and keep locals in jobs in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.
While the scale of the devastation caused by the worst typhoon ever recorded made front-page news all over the world, the tourist board says media coverage has given the false impression that the entire country is out of bounds.
“Ninety-seven per cent of the country is unaffected,” says Richard de Villa of the department of tourism at the Philippines embassy in London.
An advert emphasising the importance of tourism to the economy and showing photographs of resorts across the country that escaped the impact and are open for business has appeared in various UK travel magazines.
“Tourism accounts for 8% of the GDP and 2.9m jobs, almost 8% of the total employment,” says de Villa.
“If you stop tourism it will have a more negative impact on the local communities because of the role in our overall economy.”
Just days before the typhoon hit, the tourist board launched a UK marketing campaign to coincide with the first direct flights from London to Manila in 15 years. The Philippines Airlines service flies from Heathrow five days a week. The campaign – “It’s more fun in the Philippines” – was aimed at further boosting tourism from the UK, which was already up year on year by 8% between January and June 2013.
“Overall we are looking for a total of five million visitors in 2013, a growth of about 12%,” says de Villa.
Tour operators to the country are reiterating the message that the country is open for business and reassuring clients that the country is not only safe to visit but in desperate need of visitors.
Worldwide Dive and Sail, which operates across the country and sends nearly 50 people a month on scuba diving trips, was quick to reassure clients, via its website and on social media, that the majority of tourist areas are unaffected.
“There are more than 7,000 islands in the Philippines and a lot of them rely on tourism. It’s hard for people to picture the distance between islands and how the damage was concentrated in certain areas,” says marketing manager Susie Erbe. “We have had some concerned calls and some cancellations but not from British clients. The big message from the islands is ‘Please come. We’re open.'”
Immediately after the storm Worldwide Dive and Sail offered one of its yachts as a supply vessel ferrying aid to the island of Malapascua, and Guiuan, east of Tacloban, the first town to take the full force of the typhoon. The company is now operating all trips as normal, and owners Mark Shandur and Frank Van Der Linde, both of whom lived through the 2004 tsunami, in Sri Lanka and Thailand respectively, have pledged to donate 50% of the cost of each booking to the relief effort until the end of January.
Some local companies in the worst affected areas are trying to combine trips with the relief effort. Eddie Agamos Brock, founder of Tao Philippines, an eco-tourism company that runs five-day boat expeditions between El Nido and Coron in the western province of Palawan, says: “Our business is taking people to one of the most remote parts of Palawan and half of our route is in one of the areas most affected. Some of the island communities we work with between Coron and El Nido have been completely wiped out. We cancelled a trip that week and concentrated all our boats on delivering aid.
“But we are still running. Some of the trips have become a part of the aid distribution plan and we just ask everyone to help out. Our customers love it. Because of the type of company we are, everyone who comes on our trip really understands. The communities need to go back to fishing but can’t because all their boats were lost, so we’ve also decided to start a loaning co-operative, where we lend materials to repair boats.
Agamos Brock adds: “We were worried that people wouldn’t come. But there haven’t been that many cancellations – only around five in each trip of 20 to 25 people. Each week we take around 70-80 people.”
But while cancellation levels from existing clients may be low, in part due to the fact that operators are not offering refunds, the country faces an uphill struggle to restore confidence among potential visitors in the near future.
Tim Milner, director of Bamboo Travel, which sends a small number of tourists to the Philippines each year, says: “Of course the news is putting people off. I have had to reassure clients that their hotel is still standing. Interest will be very low in the run up to Christmas, but will slowly increase as we move into the New Year and towards Easter. This will most likely have an impact on tourist numbers for the traditional high season between December and April. However this time next year, barring any further disasters, one would hope bookings will be back to normal.”