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MANILA - Is it really “more fun in the Philippines?”
Well, the prestigious Conde Nast Traveller magazine certainly thinks so. In fact, it even proclaims its infatuation for the country, dubbing it its “new flame,” and accords the Philippines a top spot in its list of “hot destinations to watch” in 2013.
The acclaim thrills Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez Jr. no end. He believes the London-based magazine noticed the Philippines because the country has gained the confidence needed in pushing its brand. “We’d like to think it is as a result of what we have painted. We’re no longer insecure in terms of promoting ourselves. For instance, when we entered the World Travel Market in London, we entered in a big way.”
Coinciding with the official visit of President Aquino to the UK last November, posters of the Puerto Princesa Underground River with the tag “The underground. More Fun in the Philippines” were put up along the walls of the London Underground subway network. The ubiquitous London black taxi cabs were also painted with scenes of a sun-kissed white beach with the word “Paradise,” and the promise that it could be reached only two hours from Hong Kong.
The “sunny beaches” theme was carried over at the country’s pavilion at the Travel Market with shots from Boracay and Palawan posted all over. In London where the sun shines only five months in a year, and temperatures drop to an average of 9º C despite the sun, the vacation choice seems quite clear.
The Filipino as a brand
Launched exactly a year ago, the slogan “It’s more fun in the Philippines” capitalized on the Filipinos’ innate ability to make guests feel at home wherever they may be in the country. “The Filipino more than the Philippines has always scored higher than the rest of the world,” Jimenez explains to InterAksyon.com, as he gives a quick assessment of the brand campaign one year later.
“When you say ‘Philippines,’ you probably get a more checkered reaction. But when you say ‘Filipino,’ people have wonderful things to say about him, his brand rating is much, much higher. And now we have a campaign that supports that.”
Created by advertising BBDO Guerrero | Proximity Philippines after a thorough bidding process which drew the big guns in the local advertising world, the “fun” slogan was first launched locally, through social media. It was quickly picked by a public who had probably grown weary of the often-negative portrayal of the Philippines whenever some local political scandal or catastrophe catches the fancy of foreign media.
Notwithstanding the discovery that the slogan was probably copied from an old tourism advertising effort by Switzerland (which BBDO and the DOT deny), the public was fired up by the thousand and one possibilities of creating their own versions of the slogan using their own snapshots of local color.
Immediately after the launch, Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites were buzzing with new memes the public had generated. “Climbing stairs. More fun in the Philippines” showed people walking up the Banaue Rice Terraces. “Commuting. More fun in the Philippines” had a lone kayaker in the middle of the turquoise waters of El Nido, paddling towards massive limestone cliffs. Even the party favorite lechon (roasted pig on a spit) was not spared, and made an appearance in “Planking. More fun in the Philippines.”
As a national brand campaign, it was probably the cheapest ever mounted by any country. As the memes went viral, the awareness factor of the Philippines steadily rose. Comments on the Facebook “fun” posts came from as far as the US and Europe, all expressing excitement on the new slogan.
By May, as the Philippines dressed up for hosting duties for the 45th annual Meeting of the Asian Development Bank, the brand campaign was formally rolled out in an international advertising offensive, starting with 15- and 30-second TV commercials aired on CNN, using the very memes designed by an inspired public (“Staring contests”). The latest TVC (“Sleepless nights”) is now airing over AXN and many target markets currently in the thick of winter are being inundated with more images of sunny beaches and crisp clear water scenes from the Philippines.
Measures of success
The success of the campaign cannot be denied. And the numbers reflect this.
From January to November 2012, total visitor arrivals increased by 8.74 percent to 3.83 million, an all-time-high for the country. Koreans accounted for the largest arrivals at 922,083, or 24 percent of the total. (This statistic has since been surpassed, with the DOT having welcomed the 1 millionth Korean visitor last December 27.)
After Korea, visitors from the United States were in second place at 586,965, representing 15.32 percent of total arrivals; Japan at 375,248 (9.8 percent share); China 233,174 (6.09 percent); Taiwan 203,418 (5.31 percent); Australia 163,270 (4.26 percent); Singapore 134,164 (3.5 percent); Hong Kong 108,115 (2.82 percent); Canada 106,987 (2.79 percent); Malaysia 103,237 (2.69 percent); United Kingdom 99,348 (2.59 percent); and Germany 59,028 (1.54 percent).
Jimenez says he is confident that cumulative tourist arrivals by December 2012 had reached 4.3 million. He admits the numbers could have probably been higher if it were not for the diplomatic row between the Philippines and China, leading to the latter’s unofficial travel ban on group tours to the Philippines. And before the diplomatic spat, there was the still-unresolved matter of families of Hong Kong tourists seeking justice for their deaths in the botched hostage rescue at Luneta Park on August 23, 2010.
Meanwhile, Jimenez has always stressed, that “as long as we cross the 4-million mark, we’re on track to meet the 10-million visitor arrivals target by 2016.”
The DOT chief is even more optimistic that with the return of the group charters from China, 5.3 million tourists will be arriving in the country this year. Since November, AirPhil Express and Zest Airways planes have been chartered from Shanghai and Beijing, bringing enthusiastic Chinese tourists straight to Kalibo to enjoy the sun-drenched pleasures of Boracay. (To be fair, the country never really ran out of Chinese travelers, as individual bookings were still made despite the unofficial travel ban. As Apples Chen, an award-winning Filipina hotelier in China told InterAksyon.com at the height of the political skirmish between both countries last year in the wake of the Panatag Shoal standoff, “Don’t worry about the travel ban. The Chinese will still go there. Gustong-gusto nila ang Pilipinas!”)
“It has been successful as an entire campaign along with the National Tourism Development Plan. One cannot exist without the other,” comments Aileen Clemente, president of Rajah Travel Corp., and incumbent president of the Philippine Travel Agencies Association. In May 2012, the DOT launched the NTDP, a P265-billion national strategy that seeks to address the key challenges in developing the tourism sector, in a bid to increase the sector’s share in the country’s total economic output.
She adds that most travel agencies have already been using the marketing slogan in their materials whenever they promote the country abroad.
The biggest realization from the implementation of the “fun” campaign, says Jimenez, is “they (foreign markets) love us pala. We’re not as bad as we thought. The rude awakening is we’re not as famous as we thought we were. Kala natin we’re famous for being a horrible place to visit. It’s not exactly what came out, we were simply not famous.”
He adds that along with the shift in the mindset of Filipinos, that is, now they are eager promoters of the country; and in a way, even the bureaucratic mindset has turned as well.“The government now believes more in its ability to run tourism not just another activity but as an honest-to-goodness industry. It’s now being taken seriously as an industry. The private sector, as a result of that, is now finally in on it as well.”
Proof of the latter is found in the massive investments pouring into new hotels and resorts in key tourist destinations of Boracay, Palawan, Davao, even Metro Manila, Quezon, and Aurora. “For 2013 alone, we will have 12,500 rooms additionally nationwide. About 6,000 of those rooms will be in Manila already by the end of this year,” Jimenez points out.
But with the rising number of tourists, the old problems that beset the industry have come under renewed microscopic focus. Delays in flights, inadequate airport facilities or infrastructure to key tourist destinations, limited air connections, and poor baggage handling are just some of the complaints that have been raised anew by travelers.
Cebu-based tourism investor Jay Aldeguer is all praises for the “fun” campaign, but raises a valid point.
“I think it is a good campaign. The strategy to go viral was also very strategic and cost-efficient. But just like any campaign, the hard part is to sustain it; not only through advertising and PR (public relations), but making sure the product delivers. This is where we, the stakeholders, and government have to step up urgently. Momentum is on our side, the image of the Philippines abroad has improved tremendously. But if we do not address basic infrastructure problems and we do not fix our attractions and packages, we will not be able to optimize the potential tourism could bring us in the next few years.”
The problem with success is…
Jimenez is unfazed and thinks it’s a good problem to have. “Picking up demand is the easy part of the job. The hard part of course is sustaining and being prepared for the onslaught of tourists. But it’s all good, because nobody builds ahead of the demand. In the real world, you’ve got to see the siksikan first before you build a new airport, build more hotels, [decide that] it’s time to expand the business, etc. The demand must come ahead of the supply because in the real world, too many have lost their shirts having the supply more than the demand especially in markets such as the Philippines.”
He is aware of the lingering problems besetting the industry, much of it dependent on the government’s addressing of key policy issues and implementing reforms that would enable the Philippines, for one, to pass the Federal Aviation Authority’s standards that would help upgrade its flight safety status to Category 1. He stresses that the administration is addressing these issues and those labors will soon bear fruit.
“It’s just that philosophically, we wouldn’t have these kinds of frustrations if we didn’t have the kind of momentum we have,” the DOT chief argues. Coupled with that is that today, the country has benefited from its pocket open-skies policy implemented last year---a policy credited with raising international air traffic to and from the Philippines.
“Now the only question to ask is, ‘have certain decisions been made that will eventually correct [these problems],’ meaning ‘are we headed for an upgrade?’ ‘Are we headed towards international-class airports outside of Manila?’ ‘Are local airlines up to scratch and holding their own against [foreign carriers]?” ‘Is there renewed interest from European and Western carriers in the Philippines?’ The answers to all these things is ‘yes’… now to varying degrees of satisfaction, but ‘yes’. And ‘yes,’ much bigger than you would have said two years ago,” Jimenez stresses.
He says he will also try to persuade hotel industry players to drop their rates, especially during the off-peak season. “We are seen as a very high-end option. Mahal nga ang Pilipinas e! We’re actually more expensive than Thailand. For some reason, the local operators believe that the quality of the services is such that they can get away with a premium, and so far so good. During the peak season, it’s not a problem. We have tourists coming out of our ears, sa totoo lang. But I have to convince them during the off-season ‘magbaba naman kayo ng presyo.’”
But Aldeguer, an hotelier himself, says the DOT won’t be able to dictate the lowering of hotel rates. “I think competition will address that more effectively. Especially now that customers and travelers are more value-driven. This is what happened to the airline sector and that is what is beginning to happen in the hotel industry. We are seeing a lot of rate ‘corrections’ in the recent year or so.”
Creating new markets
In the meantime, in key markets all over the world, advertisements on the “fun” activities in the Philippines continue to be rolled out. Armed with a larger promotions budget that he still refuses to disclose, Jimenez is certain that the numbers are on track, and President Aquino will leave office in 2016 with the tourism industry a vital engine of growth for the country.
Coupled with the international advertising effort, DOT’s tourism attaches are now working on developing new market niches aside from the traditional ones that are being tapped.
With Dentsu Philippines, a global media placement agency, pushing the advertising and promotions effort, he says “we have freed up a lot of our foreign offices in 18 locations around the world to do actual market development work, to look for new sources of tourism not just in geographical terms but in demographic terms. For example, who are the older people who would prefer to retire here? Where are the retirement markets? Where are the adventure markets? Is there a market for those who travel for music and entertainment? Not just diving. Or if it is diving, where are the real divers in Japan?”
Jimenez says that in Korea and Japan, “they will now have stronger emphasis on English as a second language. It will be a major vein of opportunity for us. We allowed that thing to develop accidentally not deliberately. Now we will focus on it. That’s aside from the usual shopping, travel, adventure market.”
He adds that in the US, “we’re looking at some exposure in mainstream America, in places like Tennessee, Oklahoma, etc….” as well as Canada. “And then there are the growth markets of Southeast Asia – Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, even Laos, where the next Asean Tourism Forum will be held.”
Aside from the ATF in Laos on Jan. 17-24, the DOT, along with the private sector, will be busy promoting the country in the first half of the year at the Guangzhou International Travel Fair in February, the annual ITB in Berlin in March, The Marine Diving Fair in Tokyo in April, the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai in May, and the Korean Travel Fair in June.
For this year’s World Travel Market in London, “our pavilion will be twice the size of what we had last year, and we’ll bring Bohol and Cebu. We’ve convinced the local governments to put up their own booths. Hindi lang ‘yung puro Philippines. That will be our new approach,” the DOT head underscores.
Locally, he admits that the slogan and campaign may have to be freshened up a bit, though he hesitates to disclose how the redesign will be carried out. “But suffice it so say, there will be a stronger focus locally now on specific local governments, specific provinces, specific tactical work of focus on the nightlife in Manila…stuff like that. Because the domestic market has got to be better informed. This time it’s not just the excitement of exploring, there is now a stronger demand for more information. And so you’re gonna see more communication to that effect, domestically.”
But internationally, the campaign has yet to be worn out. “Abroad, we're still rolling it out. And it’s still hitting it very hard. Can you imagine the impact of all our “Commuting. More fun in the Philippines” showing the beaches and it’s winter there. It’s already running in some markets. It shows people parking in boats in a sunlit beach. Alam mo pag winter sa Norway, malakas ang tama. We’re getting good at this,” Jimenez enthuses.
And so the “fun” continues.