Philippine hostage fiasco highlights tourism security fears

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The Independent Travel

The Philippines may have some of the most beautiful tropical islands in the world, but a deadly hostage crisis looks set to reinforce the country's status as a no-go zone for many foreigners.

Security experts said Monday's tragedy, which saw eight tourists from Hong Kong killed as police stormed a hijacked bus in Manila, would deepen the Southeast Asian nation's stereotype as a lawless, corrupt and chaotic land.

"This will clearly have a tremendous impact on the Philippines' tourism industry and the country's ability to attract foreign investment," said Rommel Banlaoi, head of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism.

Banlaoi said that bungling by police, who waited more than 10 hours before storming the bus and even then could not get in, highlighted the inability of security forces across the country to help foreigners in trouble.

"It only indicates that our law enforcement agencies have few capabilities to handle situations like this," he said.

"It reveals that our police and security forces really need to undergo training in order to prepare for terrorist attacks, kidnappings and other situations."

The Philippines has long lagged behind its neighbours as a tourism destination, partly because of a lack of infrastructure such as airports and hotels but also due to security concerns.

About three million tourists visited the Philippines last year, compared with 14.15 million arrivals for Thailand, according to data from both governments.

Pete Troilo, Manila-based business intelligence director with the Pacific Strategies and Assessments risk consultancy group, said that the Philippines was actually as safe for foreigners as most other Asian countries.

However he said the "unique" and high-profile security threats in the Philippines - particularly terrorism and kidnappings - gave the country an unfair reputation for being far more dangerous than places such as Thailand.

Muslim bandits who roam lawless areas of the southern Philippines have frequently made world headlines in recent years by kidnapping foreigners who ignore government travel warnings and venture there.

"When you aggregate all the events it certainly doesn't sound like a place you want to visit for leisure... and perception is reality when it comes to the Philippines," he said.

"But common sense can protect foreigners from the vast number of risks in Metro Manila and elsewhere in the Philippines."

Bob McKercher, professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University's school of hotel and tourism management, said Monday's events would have a "devastating" blow on the Philippine tourism industry in the short term.

McKercher said most travellers to the Philippines were risk-averse sun seekers who get jittery over security worries, and would likely opt for other destinations including Malaysia and Thailand.

"Tourists are going to be pretty nervous about going there and they have lots of alternatives," he said.

"The perception is that the Philippines is less safe than other places. They have had a problem with insurgencies and there is a bit of a gun culture there."

McKercher said the country should launch a major public relations campaign to draw tourists back.

"They'll have to try to convince people how friendly the Philippines is, how welcoming the Philippines is and how safe it is," he said.

Philippine Tourism Secretary Alberto Lim said the government was indeed going to adopt such tactics, when asked to respond to the Hong Kong government's warning to its citizens to avoid the country.

"We have to take it on the chin but at the same time we also have to do our own public relations counter-offensive," he told reporters.

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