MANILA Philippines — There were no red banners nor angry speeches greeting the participants of the Second Ambassadors/Consuls General Tour to the Philipines on July 15 unlike in 2005 just some intermittent rain-showers that cooled down the otherwise hot and humid metropolis.

In President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s speech at the Heroes’ Hall in Malacañang the official seat of government of the country she asked the Filipino-Americans for support in changing the Philippine Constitution through a “people’s initiative” locally dubbed as “Cha-Cha” short for charter change.

The returning Filipinos or “balikbayans” and other American tourists gave Arroyo rousing applause and a standing ovation at the end of her speech which Eloise R. Baza president of the Guam Chamber of Commerce described as “upbeat”.

The visit with the president in Malacañang highlighted the tour from July 15 to the 18 which included visits to the newest condominium developments by the Lopez group’s Rockwell Land Corp. and Ayala Land Inc. trips to museums new shopping malls and bars and a presentation by leading Manila cosmetologist Vicky Belo known for her staff’s expertise in botox treatments liposuction mesotherapy and other fat reducing treatments.

After the official tour in Metro Manila some participants also went on short vacations to premier tourist destinations outside Manila such as Laguna Cebu and Bohol Boracay Island Davao Palawan Laoag and Vigan in the Ilocos region Zamboanga City Cagayan de Oro and Camiguin Island Baguio City Bacolod City in Negros Occidental and the Subic Bay free port.

Alberto G. Romulo Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs expressed satisfaction over the size of the tour group this year although at 502 it was slightly lower than last year’s 516 participants. “I’m happy with the turnout. This means more investment and economic opportunities for Filipino-Americans ” he told the Journal after Arroyo’s speech.

Among the participants were 30 from Guam headed by Teresita G. Mendiola Philippine Consul General and included first lady Joann G. Camacho and Sen. Jesse Anderson Lujan (See story on Page 7); and seven from the Northern Mariana Islands led by Wilfredo G. Maximo Philippine Consul General and included Robert Jeffrey Schorr field representative of the Office of Insular Affairs U.S. Department of Interior. Several business leaders lawyers and academicians were also among the Guam and NMI delegations. (See Focus on Page 20).

Albert del Rosario former Ambassador to Washington D.C. was not able to make the trip due to an “illness ” according to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) even as he earlier announced that he would attend the tour and meet with Arroyo. The tour is his brainchild.

Despite perceptions of peace and order problems and security risks in the Philippines Americans have consistently been the top visitor group to the country. Of the 3 million visitors last year 20% came from the U.S. led by balikbayans. Schorr told the Journal he personally felt safe visiting the Philippines and stressed that while he was not a security expert. “I see no reason for concerns on security and from my observation I’ve never heard anyone express concern for security (in the Philippines) ” he said. Schorr was visiting with his wife Hannah a Filipina.

Meanwhile in her speech before the tour participants on July 15 Arroyo said the government was “addressing constitutional reforms to open up the economy and investments.” The economic star of Asia in the 1960s and 1970s the Philippines became mired in government corruption and slowly became known as the “sick man” of the region. While on its way to recovery the country’s momentum for economic reforms have been stymied by “too much politicking ” according to the government.

Last year Arroyo came under fire for allegedly cheating in the last presidential elections and her perceived insincere apology for lying about talking to an election official. The protests and demands for her resignation were what greeted last year’s participants in the first Ambassador’s/Consuls General Tour.

But the “Cha-Cha” initiative has been widely criticized by Arroyo’s opponents as it seeks to transform the government into a parliamentary system from the present presidential system with direct elections by the public. Her critics say that changing the form of government will not help solve the economic problems of the country.

Arroyo told the various delegations from the U.S. and Canada “to relay the good news to your friends that the Philippines is an incomparable shoppers’ paradise and has innumerable business opportunities… Remember we have one of the most beautiful tourist spots in the world. And the Filipinos are among the friendliest in the world.”

She also gave participants a preview of her State of the Nation address on July 24 wherein she will explain the designation of four “super regions” in the Philippines dividing it according to the regions’ competitive advantage in a bid to attract more investments and boost their economies. The super regions are Northern Philippines and Mindanao which has an edge in agribusiness; Metro Luzon which starts from Clark Pampanga a former U.S. airbase to the Batangas City port south of Metro Manila which will be the “center of industries to compete with the rest of the world; and Central Philippines which includes the Visayas region and Palawan as “centers of tourism”. Funds from the infrastructure to be spent on these super regions the president added would come from the “VAT (value-added tax) dividends which Filipinos in the United States supported.”

Arroyo told her audience “it is a good time for you to come visit.” The Philippines is celebrating its 60th year of friendship with the U.S. and the 100th year of the first Filipino immigration to the US.

In an e-mail to the Journal on July 11 incumbent Ambassador Del Rosario said the tour will be an annual event. “Last year our priority was to entice Filipinos in the U.S. who had not vacationed in the Philippines for a very long time as well as those interested in exploring business opportunities in our country. This year we are catering to those who aside from desiring to see our tourist attractions are also interested in looking for opportunities both in business and in investments and in the possibility of retiring in the Philippines. Moreover we are making available experts on pasarap paganda pasaya at pangkabuhayan packages (health wellness medical tourism and entrepreneurship) whom tour participants may wish to consult or meet with or whose services they may wish to avail of.”

The services above were showcased in a tiangge or bazaar at the Makati Shangri-La Hotel where most of the delegates were billeted.

Del Rosario added that there was a positive impact from last year’s tour “both (in) quantitative and qualitative terms. There was an increase in tourist arrivals in the Philippines from the U.S. for this year. The qualitative impact is a positive improvement in perception about the Philippines: that it is a safe and enjoyable place to visit and vacation in.”

He said “Discounted rates (were) offered in this special tourism and marketing program which is a collaboration of the departments of Tourism Foreign Affairs and Trade and Industry.” The basic tour package costs $1 695 per person for those living in the U.S. For those on Guam and the NMI the basic package costs about $700 which included meals basic tours airfare and hotel accommodations. MBJ