RATHER than copy the attractions that have made other places around the world popular, British Ambassador to the Philippines and Palau Asif Anwar Ahmad said that locals should embrace what has made them unique and improve these qualities instead.

In a visit to Cebu last week, Ahmad said the Philippines needs to be proud of what it naturally has, such as its food, jeepneys and bancas. Malls and casinos, in contrast, are easy to build and can be found in most major cities in the world.

But to draw in more tourists, the country needs to make it easy and safe for tourists to explore natural attractions on their own.

The ambassador pointed out that travelers from the United Kingdom will have to take a 14-hour flight to reach the Philippines. After spending nearly a day to reach their destination, they don’t want to spend the rest of the holiday traveling long hours on buses to reach another attraction.

He said uniquely Filipino things like the jeepney should be embraced and made attractive so tourists can use it. Food, he said, should maintain its Filipino characteristics and not be changed to taste like Western fare. He cited the way Thai and Chinese cuisine have become globally recognized because of their authenticity to their culture.

Tourists from the UK are mostly families who have about two weeks to spend on a holiday or students who are more adventurous. There are also some retirees who enjoy going on trips to tropical places. “They don’t mind exploring but they need to feel safe. They need to know that if they get into an accident, they will have access to medical care,” he said.

He added that UK tourists who have saved up for their trips want to be sure their vacation is trouble-free and that if they need something done, it can be done without much difficulty.

UK tourists to the Philippines have reached 134,000. But the ambassador said that if more direct flights to the other parts of the country could be opened up, more could be expected.

“Most only have two weeks. If four or five of those days are taken up by traveling, they will not consider (the Philippines.)” For now, only one route flies direct to London via Manila. To reach Cebu, there are connecting flights to other Asian hubs.

However, he lauded efforts to improve country’s infrastructure, saying the improvements to be made at the Mactan-Cebu International Airport will make tourism more attractive.

Ahmad said the Philippines has a good service culture, which it can use to its advantage in advancing tourism.

As for Filipino tourists visiting the UK, Ahmad is encouraging more Filipino travelers to consider the UK for their next vacation. Contrary to what most perceive, they have a low rejection rate for visa applications. He added that Cebuanos and those from neighboring provinces can apply at the UK Visa Application Centre in Cebu City. (This is located in the Keppel Center on Samar Loop in the Cebu Business Park.)

He admitted that the UK can be an expensive destination, but said Filipinos have options, museum attractions and art galleries that are mostly free and hostel accommodations for those on a budget.