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GONE TO THE BIRDS

Manila Bulletin
Travel supplement

GONE TO THE BIRDS
Tourism soars as the DOT promotes birdwatching in the Philippines
Text by Alex Icasiano III

At the precise moment when one rests on a plane seat and realizes that the World Travel Market in London is 14 hours away, one immediately gains a propensity, much like those who are at the final moments of their life, to recall what the previous hours have been like. In particular, naturally, if the past hours had involved the anxious wait for a last-minute United Kingdom visa, running a span of road in excess of two blocks to reclaim an illegally parked vehicle, and a strange, if not entirely uninformed, tale of Nostradamus and Barack Obama told by the very same man who had towed the vehicle you sought ot regain possession of. With many a sigh and a signing of immigration cards, I looked forward to the considerable flight time; confident that, upon crossing the dateline and arriving in London, I will have traveled back in time to the day before and recovered 8 of the lost hours of my life.

Group photo during the book launching at Grosvenor Square's Marriot Hotel in London
Group photo during the book launching
at Grosvenor Square's Marriot Hotel in London

Market Marketing

London, even at this time of the year, is a city that is especially alive with the human spirit despite the frigid weather and the cold stone of its ancient buildings. With a teeming and vibrant population, it might appear unsurprising then for the department of Tourism to focus part of its efforts in promoting the Philippines as a destination and participating in the World Travel Market. Indeed, residents of the UK have what seems to be a constant predilection for traveling and, seeing as how they tend to gravitate towards more temperate climates, with Asian countries and their respective beaches and tropical resorts being at the forefront of the destination lists, there is no better time to direct their attention towards the Philippines.

The World Travel market, which is held on an annual basis in the London Docklands’ massive convention center, ExCel, appears very much like the flea markets you might see in the city; or, perhaps more accurately, like the bazaars that seem to manifest around each corner as the last season of the year approaches. Whereas in a bazaar you might have any manner of produce, meats, rugs, and hawkers, a Travel Market will have cities, beaches, ruins, and travel agents. The similarities of both these places of commerce, however lies in the innumerable people who come to buy, sell, trade, and tell stories of the countries they represent. The Philippines, of course, has no lack of stories to tell.

“Tourism is the sunrise industry of the country in the next 20 years. For me, ecotourism is the sunrise product of the country,” claims Tourism Secretary Ace Durano. “In terms of volume, this year we’ll be reaching up to 85,000 to 88,000 [visitors] from this market, until the end of the year. And that has been an 18% growth year on year for the past 3 years; and despite the financial crisis here, we project a 10 percent growth this year compared to last year.”

Quite a promising number, and it does appear as though the visitor count could increase admirably over the coming months. “I have seen the interest and growth [of Philippine tourism] here. I have seen how the transactions increased,” says Philippine Ambassador to the UK Edgardo Espiritu. “When I started here, we were doing 37 transactions a day. Now we’re doing 250.”

The Department of Tourism has, alongside tour operators in the country, invested a great deal of effort in promoting the Philippines as a holiday destination, establishing its presence in France and Russia earlier this year. Its goal is to keep ties with nations that it visits and use a more focused approach by marketing the Philippines to travel organizations on a per country basis, thus achieving better results than promotions of a broader sort.

Laying the Nest Egg

Secretary Ace Durano met with organizers of the UK Bird Fair in Cambridge
Secretary Ace Durano met with organizers
of the UK Bird Fair in Cambridge

While that in itself may sound like an effective way to endorse the country as a tourist attraction, the DOT has decided to add a bit more to entice UK residents to fly to the Philippines by highlighting its birdwatching sites, a tourist attraction with possibilities that have, until recently, never been tapped to its utmost potential. It has come to the DOT’s attention that the UK has long been a prime market for this particular hobby, having a substantial number of avid birdwatchers and an annual convention called Birdfair regarded as the largest of its kind worldwide. “If the Philippines has the highest concentration per kilometer of bird species, I have to say that the UK has the highest concentration of birders per square kilometer. It’s the perfect match for this product of ours,” remarks Durano. “It came out that birdwatching is the right product for this market; to add value, to add dimension to the Philippines as a tourist destination. Something that makes us stand out.”

Of the 600 bird species that can be found in the Philippines, 200 are endemic; which is to say that these certain species can only be found in the country alone. That sort of abundance, diversity, and perhaps even the possibility of catching an as yet undocumented avian species on film is something that could give a country full of birdwatching enthusiasts reason enough to visit. In anticipation of the influx of birdwatchers, the DOT, together with local government units, has taken measures to establish tourist centers in 13 areas including sites in Palawan, Pangasinan, Subic, and Cavite, among others, with an eye towards developing more as the demand increases.

In relation to this thrust, the Philippines has become a sponsor of the UK’s Wetlands Center, a reserve founded specifically to nurture avian life right in the London area. Tourism attaché Ramon “Chicoy” Enerio officially signed an agreement with the center, effectively giving the department of Tourism access to a dedicated market and allowing it to promote its featured sites and activities related to birdwatching in the center’s publications.

Enerio has raised interest in the city by putting up ads in London’s famed double decker buses. The buses tour London’s streets, sporting a fetching profile of the Philippine Eagle, one of the species unique to the country. “We advertised in buses, national newspapers; we also advertised in an email campaign,” reveals Enerio. The move is certain to help spread awareness of the Philippines’ newest addition to its tourist attractions. True enough, during the brief time that was spent in London, it would have been an impossibility not to have noticed the buses.

Also, in a collaborative effort, the DOT, The Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, and the outdoor gear retail store R.O.X., released the first volume of Birdwatching in the Philippines, a detailed guidebook to birding around the country. Featuring the myriad species found in various local sites, the book was introduced to the UK market in a launch held at Grosvenor Square’s Marriot Hotel where the audience was given a glimpse of the Philippine birdwatching scene.

There and Back Again

Seeing as how getting to London simply wasn’t a walk in the Hyde Park, one finds that the patience that the Department of Tourism’s Team London possesses far exceeds that which could be considered humanly possible. Flying the people who made up the Philippine contingent off to the UK requires quite a bit more than happy thoughts and some fairy dust but, in remarkable fashion, they had managed to see us to London and back. Upon our return, I again lost the hours I had regained but, at this point, it had become tie well spent.