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'Flying' tourism to new heights

Inquirer Lifestyle / Lifestyle
By Alex Vergara
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Posted date: November 23, 2008

MANILA, Philippines - If the Philippines has the highest concentration of bird species per square kilometer, the UK probably has the highest concentration of bird watchers per square kilometer.

Joseph Ace Durano, secretary of the Department of Tourism, wasn't exaggerating when he recently addressed a small crowd of British and Filipino bird watchers at the Wetland Centre in London.

He repeated his pitch to a bigger crowd, which included Philippine Ambassador to the Court of St. James Eduardo Espiritu and several prominent British businessmen and diplomats, in a keynote speech over dinner the next day at the London Marriott Hotel.

DOT's latest thrust to promote the Philippines to "birders" is deemed by many in the tourism industry as a timely one. As major economies in the West continue to contract, Durano and his team are looking for new tourism activities, apart from diving, that the DOT can sell to foreigners.

Birdwatch
DOT signs up as Patron of the Waterfowl and Wetland Trust.
(L-R) Tourism Attache Chicoy Enerio,
Wetland Center Director Martin Senior,
DOT Sec. Ace Durano, PTA Sec.Mark Lapid
"If tourism is the country's sunrise industry in the next 20 years, then ecotourism is the industry's sunrise product," he said.

The earlier affair, one of several events related to the country's recent participation at the World Travel Market in London, coincided with the formal signing of DOT's substantial donation to the Wetland Centre, a nonprofit organization tasked primarily to generate interest in birds and their conservation.

The move might raise not a few eyebrows in a country perennially strapped for cash, but Durano insisted that the contribution is money well spent as DOT tries to lure more tourists to visit the Philippines.

"I believe it's worth it considering the returns," he said. "For one, it raises awareness about possibilities of bird watching in the Philippines. We can also have direct access to their members' e-mails, their databank."

Serious bird watchers
After all, no one takes bird watching as seriously as the British do (the United Kingdom is RP's biggest source of tourists from Europe).

Birdwatch
Audience witnessing the program at the
Water Edge's Room of the London Wetland Center
It's in the UK, after all, where bird watching started in the 18th century and eventually became not only a favorite pastime among enthusiasts, but also an art form.

The Wetland Centre alone, a manmade urban haven for wild birds that has been replicated in other parts of Great Britain and Ireland, boasts of 200,000 members. Close to 50,000 Britons are said to be hardcore birders, who have no qualms flying to the ends of the earth just to see and add a rare bird or two to their checklist.

And the Philippines, thanks to its rich yet perpetually threatened biodiversity, is a perfect fit for them. British birders have been coming to the country in trickles for more than three decades now.

In fact, a British ornithologist named Jeffery Whitehead discovered the Philippine eagle in 1896, more than a century before the now endangered specie was declared the country's national bird. This explains the etymology of its scientific name pithecophaga jefferyi.

With DOT's latest promotional thrust, tourism officials hope to draw attention to bird watching in the Philippines and add it to the country's growing list of mainstream draws designed to appeal to long-staying and high-spending Britons.

"The British, like most Europeans, love to travel regularly," said Domingo Ramon Enerio, the country's tourism attache in London. "They're likely to become more selective, but won't forego traveling even in an economic crisis. Bird watching is simply a new product, which reaffirms our country's diverse attractions."

Arrivals from the UK increased by 18.2 percent during the first seven months of 2008 compared to the same period last year, Enerio added. Despite the expected slowdown, DOT hopes to end the year with a record 90,000 British tourists visiting the country.

Apart from WTM, considered by DOT as the biggest travel fair of its kind in Europe, the country has been joining Dive Birmingham for almost a decade now. Unlike WTM, the annual Birmingham show, as its name implies, mainly appeals to divers.

Although diving remains a major draw among Britons, tourism officials feel the need to launch new products if the country is to sustain, even surpass, previous visitor arrivals. Bird watching could very well be the next big thing.

13 sites
"Of the 600 species of birds found in the Philippines, 200 are endemic to the country," Durano said. "Together with the private sector and members of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, we have initially identified 13 bird-watching sites in the country."

These 13 sites, which include a number of towns in Pangasinan, Bataan, Pampanga, Cavite, Cebu, Palawan and Davao, home to the iconic Philippine eagle, are chronicled in a recently released book titled "Birdwatching in the Philippines."

"They're not the only sites we have, but they're so far the most accessible," said veteran tour operator and neophyte birder Cesar Cruz, GM of T.R.I.P.S. Travel Inc. "We'll be introducing more sights with the release of a second volume sometime next year."

Cruz, also the president of the Philippine Tour Operators Association, belongs to a consortium of tour operators, which includes Annset Holidays, Rajah Tours and Southeast Travels, specializing in bird-watching packages.

"We developed the packages fairly recently," said Cruz. "Each package is built around a specific bird or birds found in a particular area. It also includes some R&R like shopping and wellness for those who want to make the most out of their trip."

For the longest time, British birders have relied mostly on their Filipino counterparts to help them get to their desired birding site.

One of their chief sources of information is Briton Tim Fisher, who came to the country some 30 years ago in search of birds. He decided to stay here for good.

"I'm sure any intrepid birder can find his way around the Philippines," said Cruz. "What they usually miss out on, which we can provide, are knowledge and access to the country's other attractions that would complete any holiday."

For his part, Enerio has been working on intensifying awareness among Londoners of DOT's newest campaign literally on the ground.

He recently had 25 double-decker buses plying such popular London streets as Oxford Circus, Hyde Park Corner, Knightsbridge and High Street Kensington with identical billboards promoting bird watching in the Philippines. To get its message across, each billboard features an imposing image of the Philippine eagle.

"Although we have hundreds of birds to choose from, we picked the Philippine eagle because no creature can quite match its power to draw attention," said Enerio. "At the same time, we've also been placing ads in national newspapers and doing e-mail campaigns. We'll be sending an initial batch of British tour operators on a trip to the country early next year."

He also appealed to the private sector as well as local governments in the 13 sites to respond by developing infrastructures such as roads, parking spaces and visitors' centers to entice more people, including, of course, Filipinos, to go bird watching.

Despite the world's bleak economic landscape, Durano is quite optimistic that the country's efforts to promote bird watching among foreigners will, in keeping with the product's nature, soon take wing.

"These are not just hopes," he said. "After all, we have something unique to offer them. I'm pretty sure this (thrust) will fly and bring Philippine tourism to new heights."