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MANILA: The Philippine tourism sector is shifting to promote the country as a medical and wellness destination, expanding beyond its recreational profile to attract more visitors from the Middle East.

More than 2 million international travelers visited the Philippines since the beginning of the year, with receipts between January and April reaching $2.7 billion. This data, the Department of Tourism said last week, was a 120 percent recovery rate from the same period in 2019 — before COVID-19 lockdowns brought the industry to a standstill.

The department’s data also showed a 10 percent increase in visitors arriving from Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which are among the Philippine government’s key emerging-market targets.

To further boost their arrivals and make the country a more attractive destination, tourism stakeholders are shifting their strategy to focus more on the wellness sector, Philippine Tour Operators Association President Arjun Shroff told Arab News.

“This strategic shift aims to position the Philippines as an emerging medical and wellness destination in Asia, expanding beyond its traditional recreational tourism offerings like beaches and diving spots,” he said.

Efforts have also been undertaken to expand the footprint of halal services and goods.

The predominantly Catholic Philippines — where Muslims constitute about 10 percent of the nearly 120 million population — plans to raise 230 billion pesos ($4 billion) in investments and generate around 120,000 jobs by expanding its domestic halal industry by 2028.

The cross-sector efforts include tourism as well, with the Philippines trying to position itself as a leading halal tourism destination.

“We have recently implemented a range of strategic initiatives to enhance our appeal to visitors from the Middle East. Central to our approach is a commitment to inclusivity, ensuring that all tourists feel welcome and safe,” Shroff said.

“In line with this commitment, we have actively promoted halal establishments to cater to the dietary preferences of Middle Eastern travelers. By offering a variety of halal dining options, we aim to provide a seamless and enjoyable culinary experience.”

Filipinos have been exposed to the Middle East, especially Gulf countries, which are home to some 2 million Philippine expats. They understand cultural differences and many also know Arabic.

The tourism sector has lately been tapping into Arabic-speaking talent to help facilitate tours for Middle Eastern travelers.

“We have invested in bilingual tour guides proficient in Arabic … These guides play a vital role in facilitating communication, providing valuable insights, and enhancing the overall experience for our Middle Eastern guests,” Shroff said.

“Philippine travel and tourism agencies strategically target the Middle East market … (it) holds great potential for the Philippines.”

In 2024, the Philippines is targeting to welcome 7.7 million international visitors, nearly its pre-pandemic record-breaking achievement in 2019 which ended with 8.26 million inbound arrivals.

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