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The Philippine tourism industry is bracing itself for an imminent travel ban by the Chinese government, as tensions over the disputed Scarborough Shoal continues to heighten.
This developed as Cebu Pacific said it had to suspend its twice-weekly charter service between Shanghai and Clark, "effective May 12" after a charter company in China cancelled its bookings.
By late afternoon Thursday, the Department of Tourism confirmed that some hotels have already reported booking cancellations from China.
Latest data from the DOT showed in the first quarter of 2012, Chinese tourists jumped by 77.53 percent to 96,455 from 54,332 in the same period last year. China is the Philippines' fourth largest market for tourists, accounting for 8.4 percent of market share from January to March 2012.
Citing Chinese media, a Reuters report today said Chinese travel agencies were suspending trips to the Philippines over safety concerns for its citizens.
Sources said, however, hoteliers and other tourism-related companies were already quietly discussing, as early as Wednesday, rumors that the Chinese government would actually impose a more pemanent travel ban to the Philippines.
An InterAksyon.com source intimated that he learned from a colleague in the hotel industry that the latter's "sales director who is currently in Beijing was told by contacts among the tour and travel agencies there, that the Chinese government was about to announce a travel ban." This reporter was asked not to print the name of the hotel, as the source was not authorized to speak on the matter.
Asked to comment on the issue, DOT Undersecretary Tourism Regulation, Coordination and Resource Generation Ma. Victoria Jasmin, said "as of this moment, we have not received any word of an official travel ban from the Chinese government."
For her part, Philippines Tourism Attaché Jazmin Esguerra in Beijing said: "We heard [about the purported travel ban] too, and we're still looking into the matter."
But she said Chinese tourists bound for the Philippines "still left yesterday."
Jasmin, however, acknowledged that "some cancellations" have already been reported by some hotels. She added that while the impact from those cancellations is "immediate," she believes these are "temporary".
A multi-country protest action against China is being planned for May 11 by Philippine political and civil society groups. Because of this, the Chinese Embassy in Manila has asked its citizens to stay home on that day.
Meanwhile, Candice Iyog, spokesperson of Cebu Pacific, said its charter company in China "just informed us about cancelling the charter, but did not give us a reason."
The twice-weekly service, between Shanghai and Clark, commenced in December 2011, and "was supposed to run for nine months," or until September 2012.
The airline flew a 156-seat Airbus 319 for the charter service and was "averaging 90 percent," of the seat capacity. The service has been suspended as of May 12, Iyog said.
A Reuters story on May 10, citing Chinese media said travel companies like Ctrip.com and Beijing International Travel Service "have halted all tours to the Philippines and say they will not accept bookings until the [political] situation improves."
Of the hotels contacted by InterAksyon.com, only Shangri-La Boracay Resort & Spa confirmed to have received cancellations from prospective guests in mainland China.
"Yes we have [received cancellations]," said Patti Javier, the hotel's Director of Communications, in a text message, but she declined to say how many cancelled and when their scheduled arrivals were.
Some hotels in Manila contacted by this reporter had yet to report cancellations, though one hotelier said, "it may be still too early. Maybe in two to three days, we will get a clearer picture."
Of the cancellations from China, DOT’s Jasmin stressed: "We have to overcome this obstacle for, after all, China is an important market for us. The Philippine strategy will be to focus on individual travelers from China and the other key markets. China is only 1 of 10 key markets. We simply have to double our efforts to reach our targets."
The DOT is targeting 10 million foreign tourist arrivals by 2016.
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