Chinese tours to Boracay canceled
ILOILO CITY—Resorts and hotels on Boracay Island have been hit by cancellations of tourist bookings from China amid a standoff over Scarborough Shoal, now on its 33rd day, a tourism official said Sunday.
The Chinese move has also prompted Air Philippines to suspend the thrice weekly charter flights between Kalibo, Aklan, and Beijing and Shanghai since Friday, according to Helen Catalbas, regional director of the Department of Tourism.
Since Friday, bookings for at least 65 rooms in four hotels have been scrapped, Catalbas told the Inquirer in a telephone interview.
In Manila, President Benigno Aquino III’s deputy spokesperson, Abigail Valte, played down the reported cancellations.
“It’s not a travel ban. It’s just an advisory which is normal when they feel that they have to give their citizens warning about a certain event,” she said, referring to last Friday’s street protests in Manila against the Chinese.
She said in a radio interview that the Philippines was “de-escalating” the situation at Scarborough Shoal. “It’s not helpful for any side to escalate tensions,” she said.
Catalbas said the canceled reservations were mostly group bookings for packages for two nights and three days stay or three nights and four days stay, she said.
“We hope this is going to be temporary and the dispute would be resolved through diplomatic means soon,” she said.
In a dispatch from Beijing last week, the Associated Press reported that China was suspending some tourism to the Philippines and had ordered tighter inspections on imported Philippine fruit, such as bananas, of which China is the single largest buyer.
The reports followed Beijing’s summoning of Manila’s charge d’affaires three times, while retired and serving military officers have called for a limited military operation to shore up China’s credibility on the matter—a potentially explosive move.
The impasse started on April 10, when the Philippines said Chinese fishermen were illegally fishing in Scarborough Shoal, a cluster of reefs and islands 220 kilometers west of Zambales.
Both the China and the Philippines, which calls the area Panatag Shoal, are claiming the area.
China is the fourth biggest market for foreign tourists in the Philippines. Around 71,600 Chinese tourists visited Western Visayas last year, or an average of 6,000 tourists monthly. Of this number, 69,000 went to Boracay, according to Catalbas.
Henry Chusuey, chairman of the Boracay Foundation Inc. (BFI), a group of business operators, said the cancellations would affect from 15 to 20 percent of tourist arrivals on the island.
He said hardest hit would be hotels and resorts which rely on tourists from China to up to 60 percent of their bookings.
“It will mean lesser revenues for us but we cannot blame our government. We just have to work harder to attract tourists from other countries,” Chusuey, a Filipino of Chinese descent who owns the Boracay Regency group of hotels, said in a telephone interview Sunday.
He said it was “important to show tourists from China that they are still welcome here despite the suspension of tour packages from their country.”
Tourists from China not traveling in tour packages were still coming, he said.
Chinese arrivals in Boracay also fell in the aftermath of the bloody Aug. 23, 2011, hostage-taking incident in Manila where eight Hong Kong tourists died in a botched police rescue attempt. The slack was covered by local tourists and those from other countries.
China and the Philippines are among six claimants to waters and island groups in the South China Sea, which Manila calls West Philippine Sea and which has heavily traveled maritime lanes, rich fishing grounds and a potential wealth of mineral resources.
Beijing’s moves on tourism and fruit imports are a variation of unacknowledged economic pressure employed in past international disputes.
The AP report said that China International Travel Service, one of the country’s largest, had announced that it was suspending trips to the Philippines from Thursday based on safety considerations. Nationwide online agency Ctrip.com has also suspended trips, an agent said, citing “anti-China sentiments in that country right now.” She said the company acted on its own without official orders.
The Shanghai Tourism Bureau had also ordered a suspension, according to staff with the Yiyou and Guojikuaixian travel agencies in the eastern financial hub, AP said.
On Friday, Hong Lei, a spokesperson of the Chinese foreign ministry in Beijing, noted that the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) had initiated a “restoration of diplomatic contact” with the Chinese Embassy in Manila.
On Saturday, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario confirmed that consultations between Filipino and Chinese diplomats had resumed to break the 33-day impasse.
At the same time, the Department of Defense clamped a news blackout on Panatag, referring queries to the DFA. With reports from TJ Burgonio and Jerry E. Esplanada
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