Emerging tourist markets give Cebu hope

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TRAVEL and tour companies in Cebu anticipate a better year ahead as travelers continue to allocate funds for vacations, whether traveling within the Philippines or abroad.

They also foresee the entry of new markets, as requests for familiarization tours have increased this year from Russia, Israel and Australia. Additionally, the rise in code-sharing agreements among airlines is expected to bolster flights to the Philippines.

“We initially thought that 2023 would be a banner year, but it didn’t happen because of some restrictions in borders and our usual markets did not find it easier to come in,” said Alice Queblatin, president of Cebu Alliance of Tour Operation Specialists Inc., referring to visa challenges.

“But with the easing of restrictions, and with the increase in code-sharing flights that will open up new markets and with the request for more familiarization tours, that is the first sign that people are really interested. Then there is also a sign that we’re gaining momentum... We are hoping 2024 to be a better year with all these developments. I believe it will.”

Queblatin, who is also a trustee of the Cebu Chamber of Commerce and Industry Inc., noted that tour operators in Cebu have recently organized familiarization tours with Russian tour operators, while another agent is arranging a similar experience for a group from Israel.

Russian tourists, in particular, are known to be high-spending and long-staying tourists. Another potential tourist source market is Australia.

Tourism stakeholders also await the full return of Japanese and Chinese tourists. Based on the arrival statistics, only 305,580 Japanese tourists and 263,836 Chinese tourists visited the Philippines in 2023.

“Everybody is waiting for Japan to really rebound because Japan has not yet really reached its full potential. We still need more flights to get from Japan into the Philippines,” she said.

Queblatin also added that President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s visit to the Czech Republic this month is also a welcome development, especially since he wooed Czech nationals to visit the Philippines.

“There may be charter flights that might start in November (as a result of this visit),” she said.

“One big factor why they are now looking at the Philippines is, well, of course, Thailand is always the number one destination in Southeast Asia, but everybody is going there, so they would like to go into a new country but still look for the iconic beach because that’s what everybody wants to have from other parts (of the globe).”

Code sharing

Moreover, code-sharing flights among airlines are another tourist draw.

Philippine Airlines (PAL) will code-share with American Airlines to provide passengers with flights from Los Angeles to Atlanta, Denver, Houston, Las Vegas, Miami, Orlando and Washington D.C.

Meanwhile, American Airlines will work with PAL in bringing travelers to Manila and Cebu via Tokyo. Likewise, American Airlines will code-share with PAL’s flights to Manila by way of Guam and Honolulu.

Code-sharing refers to the industry practice of two or more airlines publishing the same flight under their respective designators. This means that a carrier may sell seats for a trip offered by partners.

PAL and Singapore Airlines (SIA) have signed a new code-share partnership agreement. SIA will also code-share on PAL’s flights from Manila to 27 destinations within the Philippines, while PAL will code-share on SIA’s flights to six destinations in Europe — Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Milan, Paris, Rome and Zurich.

Both airlines will also explore an expansion of the code-share agreement to include SIA’s flights to additional points in Europe, as well as destinations in Australia, India, New Zealand and South Africa.

“With these new plans, we can see that new routes will really open into the country,” she said.

Queblatin, however, reiterated the need to ease travel entry into the Philippines for inbound tourism to fully recover.

In the first two months of the year, the Department of Tourism reported that some 1.2 million foreign tourists visited the country.

Challenges

Apart from visa restrictions, infrastructure and traffic congestion are the two big challenges in growing the country’s tourism industry.

Queblatin mentioned the poor image of the country’s major airport, which has received negative feedback, and the need to improve road infrastructure, which is causing traffic congestion.

“Roads will have to be improved; traffic is the number one problem of the city right now. In fact, we are also upfront about it, we’re losing. We have cancellations from guests who would like to come to Cebu, and where are they going? Palawan, because it doesn’t have traffic. This is what they expect in an island vibe,” she said.

Due to traffic congestion, Queblatin said tourists now opt to shorten their visit to Cebu from seven days to three or four days and then cross to Bohol, where there is less traffic. From Bohol, they fly to Palawan.

“These destinations are very well interconnected, so we have come up with a multi-destination package,” she said.

Price is another concern.

According to Queblatin, the Philippines is already an expensive destination compared to its competitors in Southeast Asia.

But rather than using “expensive,” she’d rather describe the Philippines as a “value for money” destination.

“We must not forget that when travel reopened, we have to compete with other countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia. You know, we used to be up there, but Vietnam is coming up strong. So we have certain strategies that I’m sure the government is also responding (with), but expense is one of them,” she said.

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