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By David V. Crisostomo

DAVAO CITY, Philippines (Pacific Daily News, Jan. 18) – More than 3,000 people from around the world are converging on this Mindanao city, the host of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN] Tourism Forum 2006.

The yearly forum, which is rotated among member nations, is a cooperative regional effort to promote Southeast Asia as one tourist destination. The ASEAN member nations include: The Philippines, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

During ASEAN Tourism Forum [ATF] 2006, tourism destinations will showcase their products at TRAVEX, a three-day travel exhibition, where travel agents, airlines and other sellers promote their products and destinations. Member nations use the event to attract more travelers from a range of markets, including Guam's main tourism market, Japan. Sellers here are aggressively marketing eco-tourism products and destinations.

Also during ATF 2006, ATF delegates will participate in the ASEAN Tourism Conference to discuss crisis management and cooperative tourism efforts. Delegates are expected to focus heavily on the impact of bird-flu fears and terrorism on tourism in the region.

Member nations all have said they have experienced losses over fears of avian influenza.

"This annual convention ... calls together national tourism leaders and decision-makers from all 10 member nations to confer, exchange ideas, review industry developments and jointly formulate specific recommendations to further accelerate the growth of ASEAN tourism," according to a statement from ATF 2006 organizers.

This year's forum was initially scheduled to be held in Myanmar, but that country gave up its hosting responsibilities last year with no specific reason. Some wire reports have said Myanmar pulled out because of international pressure over its human rights record.

The Philippines had less than six months to prepare to host ATF 2006, but tourism officials here said they have managed to organize in record time.

"Each country usually had two years to prepare, ... but everyone was electrified about it and we prepared to work hard for this," said Philippine Department of Tourism Undersecretary Oscar Palabyab.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of forum, considered by its members as the region's premier tourism trade show.

Philippine Tourism Secretary Ace Durano said the hosting of ATF's silver anniversary in Davao City will help to boost the Philippines' efforts to increase its tourism sector. The country saw 2.6 million tourist arrivals in 2005. It saw 2.29 million tourists in 2004.

The forum is expected to pump nearly US$1 million directly into the Philippines' economy, Durano said. But, he added, the long-term benefits to Philippine tourism can yield millions of dollars and thousands of jobs. He said government officials hope that through efforts at the forum, the Philippines will see its tourism arrivals reach the 3 million mark this year.

Davao is taking advantage of the opportunity to host ATF 2006 as a chance for the southern Philippines to shine.

Davao is home to a number of Philippine national icons, including the Philippine eagle, the country's national bird and the world's second largest eagle; the Waling orchid; the smelly, but tasteful durian; and Mount Apo, the country's highest peak.

Davao also is considered the "Food Basket of the Philippines," because its main industry is agriculture.

Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte said his city has a lot to offer.

"Davao City is on par with most major tourist destinations in the Philippines and even in the ASEAN region. We have a world-class airport and adequate choices for accommodation, entertainment, dining, shopping, adventure and points of interest," he said. "Davao City's unique offering to the world would be its diversity of peoples, cultures and nature and how all of these interconnect and mix to create a truly cosmopolitan city."

Duterte has employed several measures, including more police on the streets, to ensure safety for delegates attending the forum. He stresses that Davao City has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.

TIME Asia recently dubbed Davao City as "the most peaceful city in southeast Asia," saying that people flee other trouble spots in the Philippines for Davao.

The mayor added that while the forum will give the Philippines a chance to show the world that it is a world-class tourism destination, there is still a lot of work to do to grow the country's tourism industry.

"Unfortunately, our leaders in government have brought us from one political crisis to another..." Duterte said. "This long-running political crisis gives the rest of the world the impression that the Philippines is unstable and unsafe."

ATF 2007 is scheduled to be held in Singapore.

January 18, 2006

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