Manila: The Philippines is turning to its 10 million citizens living abroad and friendlier ties with China to help boost tourism in a country that lags Southeast Asian neighbours in visitors.

The “Bring Home a Friend” programme encourages Filipinos to invite foreigners to visit the country and stand a chance to win prizes, such as gift certificates worth 200,000 pesos (Dh14,322 or $3,900), a Toyota Vios car and a 7 million peso-condominium in Manila. The initiative, which began in October, will help the government meet its target of 7.4 million arrivals in 2018 from a record 6.6 million last year, Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo, said in an interview.

Only about 6 million tourists visited the Philippines in 2016, compared with 26.8 million for Malaysia and 32.6 million for Thailand, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation.

Rickety infrastructure and safety concerns — particularly in the south of the country, where a long-standing insurgency persists — have discouraged tourists. Among the favoured spots for visitors are the white-sand beaches of Boracay and diving sites like El Nido.

Chinese travellers are also discovering the Philippines as relations warm under President Rodrigo Duterte’s so-called pivot to the mainland.

China became the nation’s biggest tourist market after South Korea last year, surpassing the US, Teo, 65, said in Manila on Jan. 24. They’re going not just for the beaches but also for its casinos as gamblers try their luck in Manila.

The United Arab Emirates, India, and Canada are emerging tourism markets, the minister, who was a former flight attendant and travel agency operator, said. The tourism department is also considering boosting the nation’s attraction as a sports and culinary destination, she said.

The government aims to generate 473 billion pesos in revenue from foreign visitors and 2.13 trillion pesos from local tourists this year, Teo said. By 2022, the target is 12 million tourists.