The Philippines on Thursday moved to rebuild its image as a tropical paradise in Asia amid a recurring hostage nightmare involving a small Muslim extremist group.
Tourism Secretary Richard Gordon said measures had been taken to thwart further attempts by terrorist groups to strike at the country’s popular tourist destinations.
He said the government was confident it could reverse the bad publicity.
In a daring dawn raid, the Abu Sayyaf Muslim rebel group snatched 17 Filipinos and three Americans from the Dos Palmas island resort off the western province of Palawan on Sunday.
The raid was the first time the rebels had ventured into waters off Palawan, touted as the country’s last frontier for its rainforests and unspoiled white sand beaches on more than 1,000 islands.
The rebels are mainly based in the islands of Basilan and Jolo in the Philippines’ southern tip where authorities have launched a massive search and rescue operation.
The raid came just days after sea pirates belonging to another group attacked the world-famous Pearl Farm report on the island of Samal, killing two resort owners.
Gordon Thursday said he personally visited Palawan and Samal to meet with local tourism officials and resort owners and strengthen security measures. A promotional blitz in resorts in the south will also be launched this weekend.
He said the Philippines will “get over” the bad publicity, citing other countries which had also been hit hard by terrorism.
“Tourism is our money maker,” Gordon told AFP. “Amidst the news and images relating to our peace and order, and which put the country at a bad spot, let us share in the task of telling the world that everything is fine here — that our country is still a safe and sound tourist destination.”
He noted that foreign investors and tourists were not deterred by the sarin gas attack in Japan and neither were they discouraged after Muslim militants launched bomb attacks in New York in the ’90s.
Gordon said the Philippines needed to pour more promotional investments into the 2.5 million U.S. dollar industry as well as improve its security and infrastructure sectors to snare a larger share of the region’s 75.2 billion U.S. dollar tourism industry.
Government figures show there were only 2.2 million visitors to the Philippines in 1999.
In contrast, there were 8.7 million visitors in Thailand and 7.9 million in Malaysia. Singapore had 6.9 million visitors while Indonesia had 4.3 million.
John Cogul, chief executive officer in Asia of the Spain-based Barcelo Group, which manages the Pearl Farm, said the Philippines’ long standing reputation as a top tourism draw in the region far outweighed effects of the Abu Sayyaf attack.
He said the firm, which operates some 113 hotels and resorts in 19 countries, will relocate its regional base to Manila from Shanghai.
Barcelo is the fifth largest worldwide tour operator in the world and its transfer to Manila could pave the way “for a major influx of tourists” from Europe.
“We are evaluating setting up our Asia-Pacific operations here,” Cogul said. “While nobody likes to hear about kidnappings, the Philippines as a tourist site is still renowned worldwide.”
The latest Abu Sayyaf raid came just a year after the same group hit international headlines when they nabbed 21 foreign and local tourists in forays into nearby Malaysian resorts.
All hostages last year were freed, except for a Filipino diving master who is believed to be still somewhere on Jolo.