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SM Investment Corporation’s Merril Yu says the Philippines has everything a tourist could want, from pristine beaches to mountain retreats

Merril YuThe Tourism Act of 2009, passed earlier this year, anticipates that tourism will remain one of the country’s top earners. The SM Group’s aggressive development of shopping malls, resorts and hotels suggests that they think so too. SM Investments Corporation senior vice president Merril Yu sat down with ChinaBusiness Philippines to tell us about the future of Philippine tourism, and why we should still be saying “Wow, Philippines.”

The Philippines is lagging behind countries like Thailand in tourism promotions when it probably has more to offer. What has happened for things to change?
Every country evolves in its own way. Changes in the political background have affected the country. A marriage between government and industry perhaps provides a set-up for the country to take off. It is those two paths coming together that really brings a country forward.

What distinguishes the work environment in Philippine hotels from those in China and the US?
Nothing is really different because young people working in Manila are just the same as working in China or in the States. You have young people who want to make something of themselves. They’re looking for avenues to either learn or find their passion.

It’s probably the most exciting time for young people because there are so many jobs out there. There are a lot of jobs looking for the right kind of people. And I heard that the hotel and restaurant management major here is the second largest major behind nursing now.

Why is that so? They want to go abroad? Is that why they’re taking that course?
I think they look at tourism as the boom industry. It’s exciting, and that’s why they’d like to get into the business. But I think they should realize that for you to create the glamor, the glitz, there’s a lot of work involved.

If a foreign guest were to ask you about the top three places to visit in the Philippines, what would you say?
Here in Manila? Of course, check out where it all began. Of course, in Intramuros, walking through the streets of Intramuros. It probably has more history than most places in Asia. Hong Kong barely has it. Malacca has some. Was it Vigan? You know, the World Heritage Site? There is so much to do here in terms of history.

Go to Chinatown. Understand the traders, the commerce. Take a trip to Bacolod, Iloilo, Cebu to see where a lot of different kinds of culture have transformed. Palawan has stunning, world-class, eco-friendly beaches. You’ll get to see why the Philippines is very special.

There is obvious optimism in the sheer quality of SM’s Philippine investments in the past year. What is the reason for such overflowing optimism?
First is the strategic location of the Philippines. We’re in the middle. You can go to China in an hour and a half. Hong Kong... From Japan, it’s three-and-a-half hours. You can go to Malaysia, Indonesia. We are centrally located.

Next, the people. The people, even after traveling and living around the world, are really physically, nationally, typically Filipino. They naturally are very friendly people, and that’s the difference. They’re naturally engaging. They’re more extroverted than they are introverted. When you combine these, they give you a color that is very rare to see.

Last, but not the least, is the diversity. You want history? You have it here. You want culture? You have it here. You have beaches, you have mountains. In terms of raw undeveloped land that people really want to get to, we have more diversity, you know. It’s not all beaches. Beaches are popular, but we also have mountains.

Adrian Zecha, the founder of Aman Resorts... I heard him say that anyone can do beach resorts. What people want now is exclusivity. They want to get away from the rest of the population. They don’t want to see somebody else’s boat sailing by. You know, honestly, they want to go to a hideaway in the mountains where they can commune with nature...and you have lots of that.

We’ve tied up with the World Wildlife Fund, a partnership to make sure we develop the whole of Ilocos. And that it is done in a thoughtful, smart way. Also, Ilocos is about 5,700 hectares,but we’ll only change about one-fourth of it, which means that everything else remains untouched. Beautiful.

Print ed: 10/09


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