Newest Tourism Import: Camels

In a bid to lure tourists to the region devastated by the Mt. Pinatubo volcanic eruption, the Philippine government plans to import three Egyptian camels.

Camel rides through "laharlandia" - a desert of thousands of acres rendered infertile by volcanic ash - or lahar, is just one of the more outlandish ideas to breathe new life into the area.

The camels will not be the first African animals to visit these tropical shores.

Giraffes, zebras, and several species of antelope are thriving on the tiny island reserve of Calauit after the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos brought them over in the 1970s.

Tourism Secretary Mina Gabor says the Egyptian Embassy in Manila has arranged for three baby camels to be "acclimatized" in an area of Egypt that has a similar climate to the Philippines before shipping them over later this year.

"Our ecological specialists agreed that the lahar is an excellent environment for the camels. It looks just like a gray desert. The world is getting smaller, and this is an opportunity to bring a little piece of Egypt here," she adds.

But some experts are more cautious about the project. Manila Zoo's veterinary surgeon, Romolo Bernardo, says local knowledge of the animals is almost nonexistent. The zoo's own camels died many years ago.

The project, instigated by President Fidel Ramos to rejuvenate the area and help fund livelihood projects for victims of the volcanic disaster, does not rely solely on camel rides to attract visitors.

The government hopes to transform the area into a world-class destination based on the Mt. St. Helens site in Washington State.

Three elevated observation decks will give views of the volcano's crater and the streams of lahar flows during the monsoon season. Guided walks and light aircraft tours of the area are already available.

The consequences of the June 1991 eruptions were enormous. Up to 1,000 people were killed, and 200,000 were left homeless as volcanic ash covered 167,494 acres of farmland. At least 700,000 people lost their jobs.

Whole towns were submerged in a disaster described by one congressman as worse than the bombing of Manila in World War II. The US Air Force base at Clark Field, Pampanga, was so badly damaged that the servicemen never returned.

Slowly, the area has been rebuilt and the old air base has been transformed into a special tax-free economic zone - home to a new international airport, world-class hotels, and golf courses.

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