Fri, September 17, 2010
China > China & World > Probe into Manila Hostage Crisis

Bus hijacking alerts Chinese tourists

2010-09-17 00:39:13 GMT2010-09-17 08:39:13 (Beijing Time)  China Daily

This photo shows the hostage site in Manila where eight Hong Kong tourists were killed. The banners read: "Chinese students in the Philippines deeply mourn the compatriots who were killed on Aug 23." [Raymond Zhou / China Daily]

MANILA - At the observation deck overlooking the perfectly shaped mounds known as the Chocolate Hills overlooking Bohol Island in the central Philippines, Korean is the foreign language most often heard.

Two weeks after eight Hong Kong hostages were killed during a botched rescue attempt by police in the capital city of Manila, Chinese tour groups have all but vanished from various tourist destinations around this archipelago nation.

In a span of an hour, only one couple from Beijing and another from Hong Kong could be heard hiking up the 214 steps for a panoramic view of the mountains that are reminiscent of chocolate kisses.

More than 1,000 package tours from Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland have been canceled since the violent standoff, the Philippine Department of Tourism Undersecretary Simeon Marfori said during an industry forum in Guilin earlier this month.

The consequences will be losses of more than $200,000 to the Philippine tourism industry - which is expected to sustain losses of more than $500,000 over the next three months, sources told China Daily at the beginning of September.

The Hong Kong SAR government issued a "black travel alert", while the central government has advised caution to its citizens bound for the Philippines.

"The National Day golden week (Oct 1-7) is finished - no hope at all. Hopefully business can rebound by Chinese New Year," said Zhu Lili, a travel agent with Beijing CTS South Asian View.

Liu Xin, Southeast Asia general manager of China CYTS Outbound Travel Service, happened to have a group of 22 arriving in Manila on Aug 23 just as the tragedy was unfolding.

In fact, the group was staying in the same hotel as the hostages. And when reporters swarmed into the hotel for interviews, the unwitting tourists were at a total loss.

"But our Beijing staff had called up everyone's family member to inform them that they were okay," said Liu. The group proceeded with their trip as scheduled, but later tours from Beijing were all called off.

Under the circumstances, travel agencies gave full refunds to their customers, even though they may yet sustain losses from not being able to cancel connecting domestic flights. "Most international airlines were very understanding," however, said Liu.

There are still sporadic package tours from Shanghai and other southern Chinese cities. Most Philippine-bound tourists, however, have opted for other Southeast Asian destinations like Thailand or the Maldives.

Meanwhile, some agents who book tours to the Philippines are taking time off, while others have temporarily joined their colleagues in pitching other markets to beach-oriented customers.

Some admit their income will be negatively affected from the sudden cut-off of tourist traffic to their market.

"China is the fastest-growing source of tourists for the Philippines, with 155,000 tourists last year, and the annual growth is 43 percent," said Francisco Benedicto, the Philippine Ambassador to China.

Last year, according to the website of the Philippines Department of Tourism, Chinese tourists - including those from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland - made up 12.6 percent of the Philippines' total inbound tourist volume.

Emotional impact

Tour operators were shocked at how quickly the situation got out of control after a disgruntled Manila policeman seized a bus carrying 21 Hong Kong tourists in a bid to get his old job back.

"In my 20 years in the business I had never heard of something like this. We've had hostage situations, but they were always resolved peacefully," said Bing Lim, a Manila travel agent with El Sol Tours, who specializes in receiving Chinese clients.

Most Chinese, in other words, got the impression that the Philippines are unsafe not because of the actual hijacking itself - but because of the failed rescue.

A similar chain of events unfolded in nearby Thailand earlier this year when, after men in Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts fought it out with police in Bangkok, many tourists avoided the Southeast Asian tourist hub like the plague.

This not only affected the tourism business in Thailand, but neighboring countries as well, not least because Thailand also functions as a jumping-off point for tourists who want to explore the region.

Such decisions are more psychological than logical, according to many tour operators. Even at the height of its crisis, Thailand remained relatively safe for the tourist who eschewed crowds and public gatherings.

In addition, the riots took place only in Bangkok, while most heavily visited tourist destinations are Phuket and other islands.

The bus hijacking in Manila does not reflect overall security in the whole of the Philippines, either, said many tour operators. Nonetheless, the travel agents said they understood the anxieties people have at this time.

Some, for instance, have rescheduled tour itineraries to bypass Manila altogether, instead coordinating flights directly to islands such as Cebu, Boracay or Palawan. Not surprisingly, even those who travel to Manila are not taken to the Quirino Grandstand, the site of the shootout, unless they request it. It has become, for many Chinese, a spot of "heartbreak".

But "while it was horrifying it was an isolated case," noted Ambassador Benedicto.

In time, he added, the Philippines will once again become a draw for Chinese visitors who can "appreciate the beauty of its 7,107 islands and its people."

Bing Lim, the Manila travel agent, echoed this sentiment. "I want people in China to know that the Philippines is overall very safe."

The problem for travel agents in China, and people in the Philippines who depend on tourism there, remains how much time it will be before Chinese realize this is the case.

Many industry insiders predict it will be three months before conditions improve.

The Thai market, for instance, rebounded pretty quickly after the riots subsided, said Zhu Lili, the Beijing travel agent, but the Manila incident will leave a longer, bitterer aftertaste, given the fatalities.

"Lowering prices will not help," she said. "For one thing, a package tour to the Philippines is already quite low, around 4,000 yuan ($595). What deters people is the emotional factor, the perception, which will change only gradually."

In that sense, Cebu Pacific Air could not have chosen a worse time to launch its Beijing-Manila-Beijing route.

Joe Kwok was shaking his head with resignation on Aug 30 before he made the announcement at the Philippine Tourism Recognition Awards Night in Beijing.

The general manager of Cebu Pacific Greater China is a Hong Kong native and understood the sentiments in the SAR. The maiden flight from Beijing in the wee hours of Sept 6 was barely half full, and one week later, it was mostly full - though Filipinos well outnumbered Chinese passengers.

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