[dropcap]M[/dropcap]any factors have changed the recent tourism climate in the Philippines. Among these factors is a recent softening of the relationship between the Philippines and China following a visit by president Duterte in 2016, which had a huge influence on the diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Increase in the Total Number of Chinese Visa Seekers

According to reports from the Philippine embassy in China, the total number of Chinese Visa applicants more than tripled following president Duterte’s visit in the country. According to Ernesto Pernia, the country’s socioeconomic planning secretary, the total number of visa applications jumped from 400 to 1400 per day, which is pretty impressive.

Many Chinese tourists have been reported to choose Manila and other popular destinations in the country for Chinese New Year’s celebrations and spring break as well. According to many observers, the trend shows no sign of slowing down and more and more Chinese tourists are visiting the area every year.


Local Establishments Adjusting to the Demand

Many lower end lodging establishments in the region have tightened up issues such as pest control to meet the higher demand. Some have even sought council from American companies such as Go-Forth Pest Control to meet new standards. This is in conjunction with a widespread campaign by the government to improve the image of the local hotel industry.

China Lifting Regulations

Another factor that has contributed to the recent surge of Chinese tourists in the region is the softening of many regulations that hampered travel for Chinese citizens up until recently. Directly after president Duterte’s visit, China immediately lifted a travel advisory that targeted the country. This gesture alone made the country a much more attractive destination for Chinese residents.

And what’s interesting is that while the advisory did much to increase the popularity of the country with Chinese tourists, the country was already seeing a surge in popularity long before the president’s visit. As a matter of fact, China sent the third highest number of tourists to the Philippines in 2016 with 11.3% of the country’s total, with South Korea coming in second with 148,000 visitors in total. The United States sent the highest number of visitors to the region in 2016, with 840,000 visitors.

Government Efforts Finally Paying off

The Philippines rise to prominence did not happen overnight and was the result of many efforts from all levels of government to increase the profile of the country worldwide. The country already enjoys a great flora and fauna and also has some of the most impressive biodiversity the world has to offer. In addition, the archipelago counts 9 UNESCO heritage sites in total.

Since 2010, government officials have made it their personal mission to put the Philippines back on the map as a world class destination by making major infrastructure investments and by launching an aggressive marketing campaign. While other neighboring countries such as Thailand attract as many as 6 times more visitors per year than the Philippines, visitors are now more numerous and are significantly extending their stays, which is a good sign.

Foreigners are also spending much more than they used to in the country. And this trend should be on the increase with new infrastructure that will facilitate transport to smaller, less frequented areas. A $6 billion casino is also currently in the works.

For instance, long haul visitors extended their stay by two days on average under Aquino’s administration. Short haul visitors, on the other hand, nearly doubled their stay. Many short haul visitors come from neighboring countries such as Malaysia, Hong Kong, Korea and China.

But an increase in spending wasn’t limited to visitors alone. The Philippines rising middle class spent a lot of money on domestic travel, and this can be largely attributed to the boom the budget travel industry has enjoyed in the region. With more lower cost travel options at their disposal, more locals can afford to become tourists in their own right.

Emerging on the Global Stage

The country’s rise to prominence on the global stage started with a brief four day visit by Pope Francis in 2015. While the visit was short, it did much to showcase the country to the world. The country also held over 80 government official meetings with heads of various governments in the Asia Pacific region. This can be attributed in part to the Philippines role as chair of the APEC forum.

In addition, the local government made sure to hold as many of these meetings in remote, low traffic destinations such as Boracay, Cebu, Tagaytay and Clark for instance. This gave these little known destinations much needed recognition and showcased the country’s diversity even more. Cebu, for instance, has seen a recent surge in popularity and is gaining more recognition as a major business hub in the region.

Since President Aquino’s term in 2010, the country has made significant strides, especially when it comes to infrastructure. It all started with his national tourism plan which aimed to make the country a world class destination again. Many airports went under renovation and public roads have been revamped. Many historical churches have been revamped as well. In addition, a brand new convention center was created in Iloilo city, and a few gaming institutions were built in and around Manila Bay. During Aquino’s rule, the number of total investments in tourism shot up to 40%, according to a report by the WTCC. In 2015, 4.2% of the country’s GDP came from tourism alone.

Many promotional efforts have been launched with varying levels of success. For instance, MTV had a series of video and print campaigns aimed at showcasing the country’s many destinations. They also had a series of online and television ads. The country’s tourism department changed its original slogan to “Visit the Philippines” and began showcasing the particularities of some of the country’s most iconic attractions such as Iloilo’s trading post and Spanish heritage, Davao’s unique scenery and Palawan island’s underground river and scuba diving.

Another factor that contributed to the popularity of the country as a travel destination was Boracay’s inclusion as one of the best party islands on the planet by Conde Nast Traveler magazine. Boracay is one of the destinations in the Philippines that has seen the most impressive growth in the past few years thanks partly to its newly found reputation as a party spot.

Investments Have Paid Off

While tourism visitor targets are hard to meet, the Philippines has seen steady growth in the amount of visitors from all over the world during the years Aquino was in power. As a matter of fact, the archipelago has seen an 8% annual growth in the number of visitors each year Aquino was in office, which is quite impressive. Another factor to be noted is the steady increase in domestic travel. As a matter of fact, the domestic travel sector has grown by as much as 14% every year since Aquino’s policies have been implemented. This can be attributed in part to the larger and younger middle class the country has been enjoying lately.

What is Next?

Many observers were wary as to whether the momentum the country has been benefiting from would continue after Aquino’s reign. However, everything seems to be going according to plan and the country exceeded its target of 56 million domestic travelers in 2016.

The various diplomatic efforts by Duterte’s administration seem to have been very beneficial in changing the world’s perspective of the country and making it more traveler friendly. Hubs like Cebu City are beginning major centers for digital nomads thanks to their fast growing infrastructure, worldly population and world class connectivity.

However, compared to neighboring countries, the Philippines still has lots of work to do. For instance, Malaysia and Thailand each welcomed almost 30 million international visitors in 2015, which is huge in comparison to the Philippines.

A recent report by the PATA estimated that 5.4 million visitors should step foot on Philippine soil in 2018. While it is a great improvement, the local administration needs to do more to showcase the beauty of the country’s 7000+ islands. While the country is known the world over for its warm people and hospitality, there is still much work to do when it comes to infrastructure, especially airports and roads.

According to Michelle Reyes of the PATA, areas such as Manila and Makati are still very difficult to navigate and heavy traffic is the main culprit. Much more government funding will be needed in the area, but the local administration will have to be careful not to plunge the country into a state of perpetual debt just to boost the tourism industry which can be very volatile.

All in all, the future of the country’s tourism sector seems to be very bright and Duterte’s administration seems to be very well committed to following in Aquino’s footsteps. Only time will tell if they will be able to surpass their objectives, but all signs seem to point to yes at the moment.