The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2007 that there were approximately 3.1 million people who are Filipino or part Filipino living in the country. Filipinos, especially those who have left their homeland in search of a better life (overseas Filipino workers or OFWs), and Filipino-Americans living in the 50 states form significant populations in California, Hawaii, New York, New Jersey, Nevada, Washington, Florida, Virginia and Alaska. They are the second largest ethnicity among Asian Americans.
Many Americans are familiar with Filipino food (lumpia is now synonymous with the spring roll in many households), the country’s role in World War II, its rising status as an English-speaking overseas call center, and the fact that it’s an island nation in the South Pacific.
But what does the average American really know about the Philippines past and present? How many of them list the country among their top international vacation destinations? How many Americans associate it with breathtaking landscapes, white sand beaches, hospitable people, colorful festivals and adventure sports? And what about first-rate medical services, world-class casinos, and a rich cultural and ethnic mixture?
A long history of Western colonial rule (namely by Spain and the U.S.) and a steady influx of migrants from China, Indonesia, Malaysia and other Asian nations come together to form a true blend of cultures, myriad dialects and physical traits, and religious diversity. Yet what unites all Filipinos is their warm hospitality, an aspect immediately appreciated upon arrival in the country or upon meeting a Filipino abroad.
The country’s sprawling capital, Manila is a bayside melting pot that combines old and modern, gritty and sparkling, greasy and epicurean. Brand new entertainment and leisure centers, along with luxurious hotels cater to the discerning traveler, while bustling streets give a glimpse into everyday life for the average Manilan or Manileño.
Venturing outside Metro Manila, visitors will encounter natural wonders, authentic villages and exciting cities spread throughout the Philippines’ 7,107 islands.
World War II shipwrecks and one of the world’s largest coral reefs teeming with brightly colored fish provide a unique backdrop for snorkeling and scuba diving. In Donsol, Sorsogon, snorkelers can even interact with whale sharks, known as the ocean’s ‘gentle giants’. Philippine fresh and salt waters also set the stage for kayaking, sailing, fishing, white water rafting, and dolphin watching, just to name a few.
Landlubbers can experience phenomenal settings for rock climbing, trekking and mountain biking, while Philippine flora and fauna – including the Philippine tarsier, the smallest primate in the world, – spectacular volcanoes and caves, and colonial churches and villages can be enjoyed by the more grounded. For those who wish to pamper themselves, the characteristic Filipino warmth lends itself ideally to relaxing massage therapies and also transcends into the gastronomy, which goes miles further than the characteristic lumpia. Using fresh seafood, marinated meats, tasty sauces and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, Filipino cuisine almost invariably puts a few pounds on unsuspecting travelers.
Aside from providing an exotic and friendly setting for adventure, relaxation, shopping and playing, the Philippines is also an ideal destination for health tourism. Last year, 200,000 medical tourists arrived in the Philippines, yet given the country’s high quality healthcare sector and affordable prices, this number is but a drop in the bucket of what it could potentially be.
Secretary of Health, Dr. Enrique T. Ona, is looking to expand the capacity of the already lucrative medical tourism industry. “We are looking at medical tourism not just in terms of cosmetic surgery, but also letting the world know about the ability of our medical staff to deal with major illnesses and operations that can be very expensive in some countries. The cost of healthcare here is at least 50% cheaper if not more,” he says.
One day, medical tourists to the Philippines could be contributing to improving the lives of the country’s less fortunate. Dr. Ona explains: “We would like to have a mechanism whereby part of the funds raised by medical tourism will be channeled to assisting the poorer people within our population.”
The Philippines is improving its international access through a recently approved open skies policy as well as its internal transportation network. Although the country received just 3 million visitors last year, Secretary of Tourism Alberto Lim is optimistic that the new government administration’s efforts will pay off in tourist arrival numbers.
“We are ambitious enough to predict that we are going to double our tourism figures in six years. It took us 40 years to get here, and it’s going to take us six to get to where we want to be,” he forecasts.