Philippines feels force of China travel warning

BORACAY Image copyright Ray Tabafunda
Image caption Boracay is a popular beach destination for tourists

The beaches and restaurants of Boracay Island are usually bustling with tourists from around the world.

But this year, they are quieter than usual. A travel advisory issued by Beijing has caused a sharp fall in arrivals from China.

"We are worried and we are affected," said Dionisio Salme, president of the Boracay Foundation Inc., the island's resorts' association.

Since the warning was issued on 12 September, Boracay has seen a steep drop in Chinese visitors. Numbers fell from 18,479 in August to less than 7,000 in September.

This trend continued into China's week-long public holiday in the first week of October, normally one of the peak travel seasons for Chinese tour groups.

According to Mr Salme, while bars and clubs on Boracay's main beach are still crowded with Filipinos and tourists from other countries, the large resorts which take in busloads of Chinese tourists are nearly empty.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The travel advisory has caused regional budget carriers like Cebu Pacific (pictured) to cancel flights

Cancelled flights

Airlines have been hit too. Cebu Pacific (CEB), a major Philippine budget carrier, cancelled 149 chartered flights scheduled between September and December 2014, with a loss of an estimated 24,138 passengers.

AirAsia has also suspended flights from Beijing and Shanghai to Kalibo, the regional airport servicing Boracay. As the travel advisory hit its fourth week, it also reduced flights between Manila and Shanghai.

Jorenz Tanada, vice-president for corporate affairs for Cebu Pacific, remains cautiously optimistic. "CEB continues to operate scheduled commercial flights to and from mainland China," he said, adding that the airline hoped the advisory would be "lifted at the soonest possible time".

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Chinese and Philippine vessels have been engaged in tense stand-offs in the South China Sea region

Regional tensions

In its advisory, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs cited a "worsened security situation in the Philippines" that may see Chinese nationals targeted.

It followed an alleged bomb plot against the Chinese embassy, the kidnapping of an 18-year-old man in the southern Philippines and general concern about criminal gangs.

The Philippine military has since dismissed the alleged bomb plot, noting that the man arrested was a fringe politician whose bombs were merely firecrackers, and the Chinese embassy has yet to determine if the kidnapped man was indeed a Chinese national.

Aileen Baviera, a professor who specialises in Philippine-China relations at the Asia Center of the University of the Philippines Diliman, said it seemed hard to justify the advisory.

"There are so many Chinese in the Philippines, they're all over the country. So these are really isolated incidents," she said.

But the advisory was issued amid high tensions between Beijing and Manila over territorial disputes in the South China Sea and is widely seen in the Philippines as going beyond Beijing's security concerns for its tourists.

"Hyping up the danger to their own nationals in the Philippines is one way that they [Beijing] put subtle pressure on the government," Ms Baviera said.

Image copyright Aurora Almendral
Image caption How will the Philippines cope without business from Chinese tourists?
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption China also issued a travel advisory in 2012 due to heightened tensions with the Philippines

China issued a similar travel advisory in 2012, at the height of a stand-off at the Scarborough Shoal - a reef claimed by both Beijing and Manila.

That time, it cited a protest planned outside the Chinese embassy in Manila. Of the 1,000 protesters expected by the Chinese embassy, only about 200 showed up, and anti-Chinese violence did not materialise.

The new fall in tourists has already had an economic impact. China is the fourth largest source of foreign tourists in the Philippines, after South Korea, the United States and Japan.

Chinese tourists spent 6.46bn pesos (£89.5m; $144.7m) in the country between January and August 2014, according to a report by the Philippine Department of Tourism.

But in the four days immediately following the advisory, Boracay alone announced 500m pesos in losses due to cancellations.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Philippines said China's territorial claims were "illegal" under a United Nations law convention of the Sea

Some of the people most affected are ethnically Chinese Filipinos who operate the travel agencies used by Chinese tourists.

James Lim is a Mandarin-speaking Chinese-Filipino guide based in Cebu City, the jumping off point for many of the Philippines's most popular tourist destinations.

Mr Lim, who is accustomed to back-to-back tour groups arriving in Cebu directly from China, said the drop in arrivals has put him on an unplanned holiday. He was spending most of his days at a cafe, or playing ping pong.

He declined to read into what the travel advisory could mean for Philippine-Chinese relations, but insisted that Chinese nationals are not specifically targeted by criminals.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The Philippines has accused China of strengthening its military presence in the South China Sea

'Hoping and praying'

Like other private businesses feeling the strain of the travel ban, Mr Salme is looking for assurances and solutions.

He has asked the Philippine government and the Department of Tourism for help, and invited representatives to the island to discuss ways to bridge the gap in revenue until the advisory is lifted.

"We're just hoping and praying that this can be resolved in the shortest period of time," he said.

Government officials, meanwhile, appear reluctant to discuss the subject. The Department of Tourism declined to elaborate to the BBC, as have some large private firms who are concerned about straining their relationship with the Philippine government over the sensitive political nature of the advisory.

In a press briefing on 6 October, Charles Jose, the spokesman for the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, said officials were "trying to map out concrete steps that we could take to basically convince China that we are taking measures and that we are guaranteeing and ensuring the safety and protection of their nationals".

On Boracay island, Mr Salme said local authorities were not aware of any incidents targeting any nationalities.

"For us, tourists are a big help and we want to really protect all nationalities," he said. "It is beyond our control what's going on. It's up to our government to find some solution."

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