MANILA, Philippines - Before several Chinese travel agencies suspended tour packages to the Philippines amid a territorial dispute, China was the fourth largest source of tourists for the Philippines.
From January to March, 96,455 Chinese tourists visited the Philippines – an increase of 8.40 percent from the same period last year, according to data from the Department of Tourism (DOT).
Chinese tourists continue to come to the country despite reports that travel agencies in China have suspended tourist packages to the Philippines, tourism industry leaders said. They added that they have yet to receive reports of cancellations of tours from China, but received information that Chinese who want to take a vacation continue to arrive in the country.
“We have been hearing reports of suspension of tours from China only in news, however, we have known private individuals from China who have not changed their plans at all and have come here for a visit,” tourism industry leader Jaime Cura told The STAR.
He expressed belief that the Chinese travel agencies’ decision to cancel trips to the Philippines was part of “political posturing” amid the prevailing territorial disputes between the Philippines and China.
“They really do such things, like when the Luneta hostage taking incident happened they imposed a travel ban,” he said.
However, Cura urged the government to stop its “retaliatory efforts” since the Philippines can ill afford this and may only result in bigger economic losses for the country in the long run.
He also appealed to the media not to play up the issue and for the government to exert efforts to resolve the disputes through unofficial channels.
“Media should not interview arriving Chinese tourists because it makes them uncomfortable,” Cura explained.
At the moment, he said, tourist arrivals from China may still not be affected by the ongoing dispute, but it may eventually discourage Chinese tourists from coming if the problem is not resolved soon.
“We all know that tourism thrives if there are friendly relations between countries, so we have to address the issue,” he said.
Philippine Travel Agencies Association (PTAA) president Aileen Clemente said they are hopeful that the dispute would not adversely affect the country’s efforts to lure more tourists, including those from China.
“Chinese tourist arrivals to the country have grown by double digits. But to put things in perspective, China is only one of the Philippines’ many target markets. Our top three markets remain Korea, United States of America, and Japan,” she said.
The PTAA is also seeing increased interest from countries like Australia, Canada, Germany, Malaysia, Singapore, and the United Kingdom that could augment whatever is lost from China.
Meanwhile, Filipino banana exporters have been losing P174 million a week since March 5 when China began restricting its exports from the Philippines reportedly due to fruit infestation.
The restriction came more than a month before the outbreak of the standoff at the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal last April 10.
Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association (PBGEA) executive director Stephen Antig said they have already lost at least P1.44 billion since China imposed the restriction more than two months ago.
He said the government should step in to prevent the industry from collapsing, but did not specify what help the government could offer.
He also noted restrictions on other Philippine fruit exports like pineapple and papaya.
“It started with the shipment of Sumifru wherein China said the banana was infested with ‘scale insect’ which we were able to correct by sending one team and disprove the Chinese quarantine, that the pest does not affect banana,” Antig told The STAR.
He said that after they had addressed the Sumifru case, China again sent another notice that listed 43 companies whose banana exports would not be accepted.
“From just one, it is now 43 and we are all made to follow very stringent quality requirements after China claimed our bananas contain mealy bugs. China has given us until June 1 to comply with the requirements,” Antig said.
“Mealy bugs are common and can be remedied. If we have succeeded in shipping bananas to Japan, which has the strictest standards, we also hope to be able to meet their requirements,” Antig said.
China is the country’s biggest market of Cavendish bananas. It accounts for one-fourth of the total market for Philippine bananas.
Millions of Filipinos will lose their jobs if the banana industry collapses, he said.
Hardest hit, he said, are small banana growers who cannot afford to buy the necessary equipment or chemicals for treating mealy bugs.
He revealed that more than 1,500 container vans of bananas are being held in the different ports in China. Each van contains 1,550 boxes of bananas.
“It would be very hard for our fruits to get into China already. It is not just banana. China is also closing its doors on our pineapple and papaya,” Antig pointed out, adding that the country has no alternative market for its bananas.
“Aside from the fact that China is the biggest market so far, it is also not competitive for Filipino banana exporters to vie for the United States market and even the Middle East market because of the distance. Banana growers in the North Americas are able to get these markets,” he said.
“We are now facing a very big problem with displacement for millions of people who depend on the banana industry for a living,” Antig said.
“There are realities this government has to face and to separate politics from economics. We are now facing a very big problem with displacement of millions of people who depend on the banana industry for a living.”
The Philippines may find itself gasping if China further tightens its squeeze on trade, lawmakers warned yesterday.
Ang Kasangga party-list Rep. Teodorico Haresco and Iloilo Rep. Jerry Treñas raised the warning as the standoff at the Panatag Shoal entered its forth week.
Chinese travel agencies on Thursday announced the suspension of trips to the Philippines in the light of rising tensions in the West Philippine Sea.
Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said appointing a new envoy to China may help ease tensions between the two countries.
“I’m not saying the absence (of an envoy) is causing problems but the appointment of a new ambassador can help resolve issues,” Belmonte told reporters.
The lawmakers called the suspension of tour packages and the restrictions on Philippine fruit exports “China’s subtle warning versus Philippines on its vast economic arsenal.”
“The decision of Chinese travel agencies to suspend travel to the Philippines could be China’s subtle warning that it does not even need its military to bring widespread economic destruction in the country,” Haresco said.
He said the suspension of tour packages to the country by Chinese travel agencies “could be the beginning of a larger and more sustained campaign to remind the Philippines and even the United States that its economic arsenal is as devastating as its three-million strong People’s Liberation Army.”
He said the only way to solve the problem in the West Philippine Sea is through direct bilateral dialogue with China. The lawmaker stressed that while the US will always remain a valuable ally to the Philippines, dragging Washington into the West Philippine Sea dispute “will do more harm than good” as this is being viewed as an indirect provocation by Beijing.
Haresco said a joint Philippine-China study commission should be created to conduct bilateral talks focused mainly on how both countries can resolve their territorial dispute.
Treñas, on the other hand, is not discounting the possibility that China might actually try a military takeover of disputed territories.
“There is really a need to intensify our diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the situation in the Spratlys. Instead of scrambling our aging second-hand naval vessels to the Spratlys, we should scramble the DFA to talk to the Chinese,” Treñas said.
“The Philippines is a soft target for China because they know pretty well that we are incapable of repelling even a token Chinese invasion force. China needs the resources of Spratlys pretty badly and I would not be surprised if it would try to use force to remove us from Spratlys,” Treñas said.
Based on estimates, the areas claimed by the Philippines in the disputed Spratly islands potentially contain hydrocarbon deposits estimated at $26.3 trillion.
“With China’s military might, there is very little possibility that the co-claimants of the Philippines in the Spratlys would even dare to intervene in the event that China sets their crosshairs on Philippine territorial claims as its first targets in its quest to take over the chain of small islands and islets which is teeming not only with marine resource but is believed to be rich with oil and gas reserves,” Treas said.
“Any Chinese quest to physically occupy and take full control of the Spratlys would most certainly begin by targeting the weakest target which is the Philippines,” he added.
He said the Philippines should launch a “sustained diplomatic offensive” to pressure China to submit itself to international arbitration.
Meanwhile, an official of the Casecnan Multi-purpose Irrigation and Power Project (CMIPP) said the Panatag Shoal standoff might endanger financing for the second phase of the project.
“As it now stands, the controversy seems to get in the way of the project,” said Alexander Coloma, CMIPP-Irrigation Component project manager.
He said around 75 percent of financing for the project is expected to come from the Chinese government. –With Edith Regalado, Paolo Romero, Manny Galvez