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Key Takeaways from Philippine Travel Exchange (PHITEX 2017)

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I recently presented at the Philippine Travel Exchange (PHITEX) organised by Tourism Promotions Board (TPB) on 31 August 2017. The country’s biggest travel trade event, PHITEX aims at bringing in international tourists through foreign travel agents. In its 16th year, the Travel Exchange hosted an educational seminar as a learning activity to discuss tourism marketing and strategies. At the seminar, I shared trends and forecasts on travel and tourism on the global and regional levels, as well as the Philippines. The content drew wide interest from the audience. Today, global tourism is increasingly shifting towards the east. New Consumerism megatrends identified by Euromonitor International, such as ‘experience more’, ‘healthy living’ and ‘sharing economy’ are becoming increasingly relevant in Asia. More and more Asian tourists are travelling within the region and their own countries. Chinese outbound tourism will be seeing revolutionary growth over the next decade, given that fewer than 10% of China’s citizens currently own a passport. The archipelago Philippines poses huge potential in tourism while insufficient connectivity and negative images of terrorism attacks are major barriers to growth.

In addition, the following are some of the key learnings from the event:

Recovery marketing for tourism

Tourism Promotions Board also invited a renowned UNWTO consultant, Dr Eran Ketter who spoke about tourism marketing in times of crisis. He shared case studies of media strategies in tourist destinations such as Israel and Egypt. These destinations successfully altered negative public images and drove a rebound in tourist growth. Israel suffered several terrorist incidents in recent years. Its second largest city Tel Aviv (after Jerusalem) is globally known for its sunny beaches and lovely cuisine. In the 2016/2017 campaign “Two Cities One Break” by Israeli Tourism Board, tourists were invited for a refreshing experience of beautiful scenery and rich heritage in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The absence of Israel from the campaign was an attempt to strategically shake off the country’s terrorism image. Moreover, the use of hashtags on social media can be powerful in changing people’s perception towards destinations in crisis. Travellers share real life stories, showing their affection for places. Like Israel, Kenya was also affected by a series of terror incidents, and a tourism campaign invited tourists to use #whyiloveKenya in social media posts, which was a success.

Myths of Chinese tourists debunked

The Travel Exchange received more than 200 international buyer delegates from all over the world and organised tours to key attractions and destinations in the Philippines. This is intended to allow them to experience what the archipelago country can offer as a tourism destination. Euromonitor was invited to participate in one of the tours, joining overseas travel agents, to Dumaguete-Siquijor-Simulon, one of the five targeted destinations in the tourism campaign.

The Philippines saw a tremendous surge in Chinese tourists in 2016, and PHITEX drew increased interests from Chinese travel agents. During the five-day tour, traits of Chinese travellers and their exploits on outbound tourism stood out in my conversations with the delegates. To many travel companies, Chinese tourists are difficult to deal with and hard to please. Media reports of bad behaviour by Chinese tourists gained a lot of attention. Confirmation bias is rooted in cultural difference and misconduct by a minority, and thus unfairly projects a negative perception across the vast population of China. Mr Sheng Yongjun, Vice President of DRTS, a listed travel agent in China, advised removing prejudice against Chinese tourists through getting to know more about their history and life values. He also shared that, slowly but surely, outbound Chinese will become politer and learn what etiquette and honour are, as more and more Chinese start to travel.

The majority of outbound tourists are pleasure-seeking Baby Boomers and Generation X. Character traits of hard work and self-reliance were cultivated during the hard times of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and the Little Red Book of Chairman Mao in the 1970s. They became the driving force of China’s economic take-off. Rising middle-class consumers are very eager to see the world, and group packaged tours cater to the needs of millions of first-time Chinese travellers coming from smaller cities and towns. To resolve travellers’ bad reputation abroad, the Chinese government imposed laws and guidelines, educating nationals to behave themselves and to respect local customs. Travel experience often lies on cultural exchange. My take to overcome biases on Chinese tourists is to walk towards them, to visit ancient towns in China, and to learn the language. Furthermore, destinations with Chinese tour guides serve as an advantage to cater to the growing demand from Chinese tourists.

Tighter conservation practices are needed to curb mass tourism

Sustainability was another key topic during the tour. The rich marine biodiversity of the Philippines draws an influx of tourists who are attracted exclusively to distinctive marine wildlife. Without unique sea creatures and beautiful coral reefs, most tourists are unlikely to travel such a long distance when other beaches and beautiful cities are closer. Sea turtle and whale shark encounters are among the top attractions in the Philippines and visited by thousands of tourists every year, putting these endangered species at risk. Oslob is the whale shark capital of the Philippines, and the government avoids promotion of Oslob as a destination due to mass tourism. For an average fee of USD20, tourists can spend half an hour in the water swimming alongside these creatures. Since the lucrative industry was born in 2011, many tourists flock to swim with the sharks and catch an underwater selfie with the giants of the ocean. Visitors are required to follow rules including forbidden of sun tan lotion and staying four meters away from whale sharks. However, strict enforcement of the rules is much needed. As part of existing conservation practices, whale sharks encounters are opened in morning until noon, but tourist crowds begin since early dawn. To curb mass tourism in Oslob, imposing limits on the number of visitors is advisable. Moreover, instead of animal sighting, local authorities and travel operators need to cultivate a travel experience of discovering and understanding wildlife habitats to visitors.

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