Thứ Sáu, 6 tháng 6, 2014

More vivid in Phl

The colors of nature, according to Thomas Ossowski, are more intense in the Philippines than in his native Germany.

Only someone from the temperate zone would have noticed this. The more vivid colors are among the attractions that Ossowski says would lure more travelers from his country to the Philippines – if we can work a bit harder to bring the Germans here.

As the new German ambassador to Manila, Ossowski is hoping to drum up tourism between the two countries. Last year about 60,000 to 70,000 German travelers visited the Philippines. Thailand, on the other hand, had 700,000 German tourists.

Ambassadors can be among the best pitchmen for the country where they are assigned. In his two months here, Ossowski has trekked to Mt. Pinatubo, spending a night in a hotel near the foot of the volcano, and ridden a horse up to the rim of a large crater where he looked down at tiny Taal Volcano sitting in a serene lake. An avid diver, he has also enjoyed the waters of Palawan.

“You have wonderful tourism possibilities,” Ossowski told STAR editors during a visit earlier this week.

So what’s keeping his compatriots away from the Philippines, and drawing them to Thailand? Apart from better marketing and direct flights, Thailand has better tourism infrastructure, he said.

Among the things Germans look for, he said, are package deals for flights, accommodations, transfers, guided tours – all the things that tourism industry players can put together to make a visit to a foreign land as hassle-free as possible.

In terms of tourism development, perhaps the Canadians can help. Another visitor to The STAR, Canadian Ambassador Neil Reeder, told us about his country’s program to assist certain local government units in developing micro-tourism potential to create jobs and stimulate economic growth.

Among the beneficiaries of the $18-million Canadian program, which runs from 2008 to 2016, are the Tivoli “dream weavers” of Lake Sebu in South Cotabato.

Canadians are among the top 10 tourists in the Philippines, with about 120,000 visiting the country each year, according to Reeder. This could be due to the fact that there are about 800,000 Filipino-Canadians. Philippine Airlines has just doubled its direct flights to Vancouver to 14 a week. Ours is the only Southeast Asian country with direct flights to Canada.

The European travel market, long focused on the Southeast Asian mainland grouping, is a tougher challenge for us.

We can fail to meet the Germans’ initial requirements. One thing they need, Ossowski said, is comfortable transportation – from going to their hotels from NAIA or taking connecting flights to smaller airports and land transfers.

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The ambassador also wants more German investments here, noting that his compatriots put more money in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. While Germany is the Philippines’ most important economic partner within the European Union, “we are running below potential,” Ossowski told us.

Things have improved under the Aquino administration, he said. “We have moved a good way forward, but more needs to be done.”

The first thing that greets German visitors here is of course the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, whose Terminal 3 has been a sinkhole for one of the biggest German firms, airport operator Fraport AG.

Ossowski hopes the reported transfer of five foreign carriers from NAIA 1 to NAIA 3 in August will lead to a final resolution of the dispute that stemmed from the previous administration’s scrapping of the NAIA 3 deal. Fraport found itself entangled in a corruption scandal involving its local partner Philippine International Air Terminals Co. Inc. (PIATCO).

“We want to close that chapter,” Ossowski said. “It has cast a shadow on bilateral relations in the past and we want to overcome that.”

Manila should be a vacation for Ossowski, who was previously posted in Afghanistan and Rwanda, among others. But the challenges for a foreign service officer in this country, as any diplomat previously posted in conflict zones quickly finds out, can be more intractable.

Our government must be able to reassure investors that contracts are honored in this country even as the campaign against corruption is pursued. Investor uncertainty is increasing as time runs out on the daang matuwid administration.

When President Aquino assumed power, several big-ticket contracts were suspended and subjected to an interminable review on suspicion that they might have been tainted by graft. At least one of those suspended contracts could cost taxpayers about P150 million now that it has been restarted.

At the Department of Transportation and Communications, not only deals approved during the Arroyo administration were suspended, but also several of those approved by Ping de Jesus after he was replaced by Mar Roxas. (Those long “reviews” make the “emergency” award of that MRT 3 train maintenance contract to a two-month-old, undercapitalized firm co-owned by the MRT chief’s uncle in-law even more remarkable, but this is another story.)

As things stand, investors fear that their contracts and incentives would be scrapped or amended not only by a new administration but also by a new department head.

The Koreans, for example, are now having second thoughts about the Philippines as an investment destination, as shipbuilding giant Hanjin waits for the government to restore the subsidized power rates approved for the conglomerate by the Arroyo administration.

Hanjin and its Korean partner Daewoo are also waiting to be paid $10 million for constructing a railway extension in Manila plus $3 million as tax refund. The government reportedly no longer wants the project, but the contract has been fulfilled and we should stop punishing investors for the government’s flip-flopping.

Smaller Korean investors are reportedly also being harassed by various agencies and running into a mountain of red tape.

This is on top of growing fears in South Korea about the safety of their citizens who travel to the Philippines.

South Korea is the Philippines’ top source of tourist arrivals (over one million a year) and one of the biggest sources of foreign direct investment. I’ve been told that like the Germans, the Koreans are now looking at Malaysia for their FDI.

What’s Malaysia doing right? It has a one-stop shop for investors, I was told; the country truly rolls out the red carpet for investors and makes it easy to do business.

Combined with the feeling that they are safer in other countries, investors and tourists alike can easily overlook the vividness of nature’s colors in the Philippines.

More vivid in Phl

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