Summer fun: Boracay island is popular with Emirati travellers, say tourism department officials Image Credit: Corbis

Bathrobe open to my navel and towel across my knees, I sit back and let the therapist go to work. The next moment I yelp in shock. She’s just sicked a vacuum pump onto my lower abdomen that freezes, burns and numbs my stomach alternately over the next half hour. It’s like wearing frozen socks in midwinter, but appaprently it’s all to the good: Within a few weeks, stubborn belly fat cells, which are highly sensitive to the cold, should have crystallised, broken down and been eliminated naturally.

Health tourism

The treatment, Lipocryo, is among a range of services being offered by Vietura, an aesthetic institute attached to Manila’s Sofitel Philippine Plaza hotel.

Hotel general manager Adam Laker says that the facility’s strong revenues in the one year that it has been open are evidence of a rising demand for beauty and wellness holidays.

“Providing comprehensive beauty and wellness programmes in a five-star luxury resort setting has not only attracted a new market segment for the hotel, but also supported the country’s bid as a medical tourism hub in South East Asia,” he says. “Gone are the days when guests looked for a hotel to stay. Today, they are looking for a luxury resort environment to escape, unwind and rejuvenate.” Beauty retreats at the hotel, priced from PHP22,000 (about Dh1,853), including one night’s accommodation and a choice of treatments, are available from UAE travel agents Seat Holidays, GTA and Kanoo Holidays.”

Political uncertainty in neighbouring Thailand, considered the go-to destination for medicaltourists, and the relatively low cost of health care in the Philippines have boosted health and wellness tourism to the island nation. The sector grew 18 per cent in 2012, research agency Euromonitor said in a recent report.

“From the economic standpoint, most procedures we offer are reasonably priced if not cheap. And we offer these without sacrificing quality,” says Dr Daniel Franciso T Morales, a cardiologist at the Manila Doctors Hospital. “It helps that English is the second language for most Filipinos and that it is ingrained in our culture to care for the elderly.”He says many hospitals are now working with hotels and travel agencies to market their medical services abroad.

Value offering

Health is only the latest niche being marketed to the UAE traveller. Business remains the top reason Middle Eastern residents travel to the Philippines, but family deals and value-for-money offerings are tempting holidaymakers, say officials.

“We are promoting the Philippines as a value-for-money destination where tourists get their money’s worth and even more,” Benito C. Bengzon, Jr, Assistant Secretary – Market Development at the Department of Tourism, told GN Focus. “A family-friendly destination is likewise being promoted to both Arabs and expatriates. We showcase activities that can be enjoyed by the whole family, such as shopping, spa, and gourmet. There are festivals and theme parks that they can all enjoy not to mention the natural and man-made attractions that they can explore.”

In recent months, UAE travel suppliers have been marketing holidays with the slogan, “It’s more fun in the Philippines”. The department of tourism recently ran joint promotions with Dnata and Al Rais Holidays, while at Arabian Travel Market (ATM), Cebu-based tour operator Divaishnavi promoted an eight-night beach holiday taking in Manila, Cebu, Bohol and Borocay at $1,550 (about Dh5,693) per person inclusive of local transfers and accommodation.

Budget airline Cebu Pacific is currently promoting its Travel Thru fares for sale and travel until June 30. Prices start at Dh329 from Dubai to the Luzon cities of Puerto Princesa or Laoag.

Glen Agustin, Chief Tourism Operations Officer, Market Development Group at The Philippines Department of Tourism, spoke to GN Focus at ATM. “Overall, tourism has been increasing very encouragingly, with a growth rate of about 11-12 per cent in 2012-13. That’s a good start,” he said. “The UAE is currently the number 23 market, but we are confident that with new market representatives in the UAE — AviaReps — and regular familiarisation tours for media and travel agents, that business will double this year.”

He says the country caters to a wide range of UAE residents, from nationals to overseas Filipino workers and other expatriates. “For Emiratis, it’s mostly metro Manila and of course they like to go to another metropolitan place with a beach that will be Cebu. And beach parties in Boracay are popular with Emiratis,” he said. While Emiratis choose business class packages and customised tours, the rest may be in the form of group travel or even meetings and incentives travel.”

Clear skies ahead

Air traffic is also on the up. “Based on external data, the Philippines to Dubai market has grown close to 30 per cent compared to the same period last year, since Cebu Pacific launched its Dubai-Manila service. When annualised, this is an additional 150,000 passengers on the route,” Alex Reyes, General Manager for Cebu Pacific’s Long-Haul Division, told GN Focus.

He says average fares for the entire market have dropped 10-15 per cent in recent months, with the carrier, now the country’s largest airline, offering tickets up to 35 per cent lower than route competitors. Base fares on the Cebu Pacific during seat sales can be had at Dh1, especially if booked in advance.

The Philippines is well connected to the UAE with 52 non-stop flights a week. Emirates flies three times a day between Dubai and Manila, but recently closed a regular frequency to Clark. Etihad Airways runs two daily connections between Abu Dhabi and Manila. Philippine Airlines operates five weekly flights each from Manila to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and Cebu Pacific launched a daily Manila-Dubai route last year.

The country has a long way to go before it can catch up with its neighbours, admits Bengzon. Thailand had 26.73 million tourist arrivals in 2013, Malaysia 25.73 million and the Philippines 4.6 million arrivals. Divaishnavi’s Stephanie Villahermosa says that’ll change when people realise how underrated the Philippines is. “What sets us apart from them are the unique natural attractions that can only be found here like the Chocolate Hills, as well as the people who are able to communicate very well in English.

“Our culture is a mix of East and West: You can taste it in our food, see it in our architecture and design and in our behaviour, which makes it easy for tourists to enjoy themselves — and keeps them coming back.” Or of course, the weight loss treatments.

- With input from Thomas Billinghurst, Features Writer