The Philippines offers 7,107 islands of endless possibilities. Great shopping and entertainment compete with serene beach escapes, while island-hopping adventures bring cultural encounters, delectable food and an abundance of Filipino pampering.
Routes Asia 2016 host, the Philippine Department of Tourism, promotes the country using its “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” campaign to highlight the main destinations, including Boracay, Davao, Manila, Cebu, Bohol, Albay, Palawan, Banaue, Vigan, Zamboanga, Cagayan de Oro, Iloilo, and Siargao.
The job is made easier by the Philippines’ natural exuberance. Even the natural world gets in on the act with new species – be it plant, bird or fish – cropping up regularly to the delight of the scientific world.
The islands are hotbeds of life with 12,000 plant species, 1,100 land vertebrate species and at least 400 coral species. The variety is partly a result of the country being just shy of 1,200 miles long, from the tip of Luzon to the toe of Mindanao.
That stretched-out geography helps the Philippines to be host to plenty of “mosts”. There are the most volcanoes per square mile, for example; the most mangrove species in the world; the most bio-diverse reef system. The list is virtually endless.
And the country is not just long – there’s height and depth too. The tourist has extensive mountain ranges to hike through or underwater landscapes to dive in, not to mention cave systems, waterfalls, rock faces and lakes.
Getting more tourists to take in these delights is the responsibility of the Market Development Group, part of the Philippine Department of Tourism. Russia, India, and the Middle East top the list of desirable connections. But France, Spain, Turkey, Israel and, more locally, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam are also seen as opportunities ripe for development.
The Market Development Group isn’t just dividing the world along borders either. Niche markets that it is actively targeting include diving holidays and cruises. There is also a vibrant sector based on “English as a Second Language” courses while medical tourism is growing.
New bilateral Air Services Agreements (ASA) forged with Singapore, Oman, Mexico, Russia, Qatar, Turkey, Australia, and the United Arab Emirates will make attracting new airlines and tourists easier and will doubtless provide more air seats in the short to medium term. Other developments that augur well for the travel and tourism industry, particularly the aviation sector, include the relaxed limits imposed on the number of flights from the country by the US Federal Aviation Administration.
Meanwhile, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ Open Skies agreement taking effect in 2016 should contribute to the launching of more intra-regional routes. The Department of Tourism is aggressively pursuing more bilateral ASAs to generate additional frequencies.
Making the most of Manila
Just as the Philippines is made up of many different islands, Manila, which is situated in the centre of the northern Kalusunan island, is a city of many contrasts. The city’s history dates back to the 1570s when Spanish Conquistadors first established it in the Intramuros area, which tourists can still visit today.
Simply walking around the site in the centre of the city gives travellers a flavour of the area and its history, but those wanting to know more should visit San Agustin church which is believed to be the country’s oldest stone church having been built in 1571. It is well known for its baroque altar and ornate interior.
Fort Santiago, to the north of Intramuros, is also worth a visit for its history. Not only does it date back to the Consquistador era but more recently it housed Jose Rizal – one of the heroes of the country’s independence movement before his execution in 1896.
Other places worthy of a visit include the National Museum of the Philippines which operates four different museums; the National Museum of Fine Arts, National Museum of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History and National Planetarium.
Meanwhile, those interested in how the country’s wheels of power operate should visit the Malacanang Palace, the official residence and workplace of the president of the Philippines. Highlights of the tour of the palace include seeing the Roxas Cabinet Room and the Presidential Museum and Library, while its gardens also provide the perfect opportunity to linger and enjoy some peace and quiet in this frenetic city.
However, none of this is to suggest that Manila is a city focused purely on the past as the SM Mall of Asia proves. With more than 600 shops and 217 food outlets and restaurants, it is one of the biggest malls in Asia and as a result provides the perfect opportunity for a bit of retail therapy.
Anyone looking for a more traditional shopping experience can visit Manila’s Divisoria traditional market, although you may have to haggle to get the best prices.
Food lovers will also find they are well catered for in a city that offers the entire range of options, from street stalls selling just a couple of dishes to Michelin-starred restaurants where visitors can indulge to their heart’s content.
The cuisine has been influenced by a number of cultures from Malay and Indian to Chinese and American. Although it is not as spicy as other cultures, Filipinos are proud of their food heritage with both lechon, whole roasted pig, and pinakbet, a vegetable stew flavoured with shrimp paste, well worth a try.
(This article first appeared in Routes News – Issue 2, 2016)