Friendly hospitality spawns half a billion in tourist dollars

Jose Aspiras sounds just as he should as a minister of tourism -- an enthusiastic promoter of the attractions of the Philippines. He's even got a touch of the carnival hawker.

"Tourist attractions are everywhere, perhaps better than here," said the former newsman in an interview here. "But a smiling people is very hard to find nowadays, especially in 'civilized' and 'progressive' countries. The best asset we have is a people who smile. It is our biggest come-on."

Visitors here find that there is considerable truth to Mr. Aspiras's boast. The Filipinos are friendly and they do smile a lot.

Mr. Aspiras says, "We have been trained to be extra polite and hospitable to strangers." He speaks of an old legend that holds that a stranger might be God checking up on your character.

The tourism minister is somewhat concerned that Filipinos will lose some of their easygoing friendliness to strangers as the number of tourists increases. "I would hate to lose this quality of the people," he said.

This year he expects the number of foreign tourist arrivals for the first time to exceed 1 million -- and to do so by this month.

"Tourism is relatively new in our country," Mr. Aspiras noted. "Before martial law [declared in September 1972], the highest number of tourist arrivals was in the neighborhood of 166,000 in 1972. Probably the reason for this low count was the state of disorder obtaining at the time when everybody packed a gun. Who would want to come here?"

Mr. Aspiras recalled that churches sometimes had posted on their door a sign that read: "Leave your guns outside the door before you receive your Lord."

Using his new martial law powers, President Ferdinand Marcos banned "gun-toting," and the police collected hundreds of thousands of weapons from the people. A beautification program was launched in Manila.

"Then came the sudden realization that tourism can be made a pillar of the economy by its sheer drawing power of foreign exchange," Mr. Aspiras said.

In 1973 a number of offices were drawn together into the Ministry of Tourism. Thereafter, the number of foreign visitors increased rapidly each year.

Says the minister, "From nowhere, tourism became the third-largest dollar-earning industry -- almost half a billion dollars last year."

During the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank held here in 1976, there was considerable criticism in the foreign press of the construction of several first-class hotels, an expensive international convention center, and a cultural center. The money, it was argued, would have been better spent on programs for the poor.

Mr. Aspiras maintained that these investments were proving profitable in attracting tourists and businessmen. What's more, tourism already directly employs 420,000 Filipinos, he estimates. Indirectly it probably supports five times as many. "It is a people's industry," he said.

The new hotels -- 11 of them by now -- are enjoying an occupancy rate of 69 to 70 percent -- "a little over the breakeven point." But it took some years to reach that occupancy level.

Now the construction of more first-class hotels is scheduled.

The convention center, he says, already has some 311 international conventions scheduled for the years 1981-83. It is paying for itself, he maintains, in that it attracts large numbers of visitors -- some 15 percent of foreign visitors this year. Moreover, Filipinos can benefit from the knowledge shared at scientific, technological, legal, and many other types of conventions.

Officials at the Central Bank, which runs the Convention Center, note that the center is expensive to maintain and run. but it is the only such large, modern facility in Southeast Asia.

One shadow hangs over the tourist business -- the rising cost of oil. "The energy crisis has shattered all our plans," Mr. Aspiras said.

With the cost of flights from North America or Western Europe rising substantially, the Tourist Ministry is shifting its promotion toward nations in the region, particularly Japan. Already the Japanese are the most prominent of the foreign tourists here. They numbered 253,717 last year, or 26.2 percent of the total arrivals of 966,873.

Referring to the Japanese occupation of the Philippines in World War II, he commented: "This time they don't come with guns, they come with yen."

One of the attractions of the Philippines is that it is relatively cheap. A single room in the best hotel costs about $35 a night. "It is cheaper to stay seven days in Manila than two in Tokyo," Mr. Aspiras said.

A new $100 million international airport will welcome visitors before the end of the year. So will a horde of porters and bystanders. It is probably a good idea to keep an eye on your bags. They have been known to disappear in the hands of unauthorized porters.

Further, make sure the taxi driver puts teh meter on. One tried to charge this correspondent something like five times the normal rate. We switched taxis. Normally, taxi rides are extremely cheap.

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