Envoy's touch to boost tourism

Philippine ambassador to Malaysia recently led a group of Malaysians on a special tour of his country.

My staff at the Philippine Embassy presented an audacious plan for me to invite and escort Malaysian tourists to the Philippines in a programme billed as the "Ambassador's Tour of the Philippines".

"With you around, they would be assured of having a nice time," they reckoned. That come-on worked!

Following promotional efforts at Malaysian trade fairs and an article in The Star, a good cross-section of Malaysian society signed up for the tour; 112 to be exact.

They included business executives, educators, lawyers, architects, housewives, a retired police officer and a ship captain who brought along nine siblings for a reunion trip. I guess all were piqued that an Ambassador was to be their tour guide.

Once the date was set, I took to heart my self-appointed role as tour guide and personally welcomed the participants as they stepped down at Manila's Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3.

Their base was the Manila Hotel along the picturesque Manila Bay - an excellent choice given its recent renovations.

The first major item in the five-day, four-night tour programme was a welcome dinner at the Grand Ballroom of the newly opened, glitzy Solaire Resorts and Hotel.

Welcoming them were the Deputy Foreign and Deputy Tourism ministers amid lively tunes by a rondalla guitar ensemble.

The visitors soaked in much of the Philippine culture, history and hospitality in the next four days, visiting landmarks such as the Jose Rizal National Monument and Park, the Spanish-era Fort Santiago and Casa Manila, the majestic San Agustin Church and the Chinese Cemetery, which has a mausoleum with rooms - a feature which Chinese Malay­sians found unique.

They also toured the business districts of Makati and the Bonifacio Global City and went shopping at the SM Mall of Asia, one of Asia's biggest malls, and at Rustan's, which is similar to Pavilion Kuala Lumpur.

Travelling in three air-conditioned buses, the participants were regaled by stories and insights by professional tour guides on what supposedly makes the Filipino tick.

I hopped from one bus to the other and related what I could recall from history books and jokes from friends, perhaps to the relief (or possibly, irritation) of the real guides as a participant remarked: "This tour gets better every day!"

There was still the excursion to Villa Escudero Plantation and Resort, an agriculture estate three hours away from Manila. Upon arrival, we toured the plantation aboard a carabao (water buffalo-drawn carriage) while being serenaded by locals.

By the fourth day, our Malaysian friends had fully adjusted to the country, moving about as if they were locals. The fact that Filipinos speak English made communication so much easier.

There are also an increasing number of halal restaurants. Many participants went on another excursion to the Taal Volcano, a petite active volcano within a lake within an extinct volcano. Others went bargain shopping in Chinatown, and had fun riding back to the hotel on a tricycle, a mode of transport similar to Bangkok's tuktuk.

I had a good laugh when one participant said, "This is so much better than I expected. There is so much to see. It is also very safe here. I will come back with my friends."

Yes, please do. There is so much more to explore such as the world-renowned fine, white sands of Boracay beach, the perfect cone-shaped Mayon Volcano and island hopping at El Nido in Palawan.

Can the trip be topped? Could the tourism experience have been better? Certainly. Efforts have to be made to ensure less traffic jams in tourist areas, among others.

It is only in recent years that the country has again embarked on a high-level tourism promotion campaign with the slogan "It is more fun in the Philippines". So, arrangements can only get better.