MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines has announced it will stop marketing its tourist attractions to Hong Kong as the key market is lost after a hostage-taking fiasco left eight people from the southern Chinese territory dead.
Tourism Secretary Alberto Lim said the government would instead focus its marketing efforts on other countries to hit the target of 3.3 million arrivals this year from just over 3 million in 2009.
"Going to Hong Kong at this time would be wrong. They would say we are only after their business. We should show sympathy instead," the minister added.
The Chinese territory issued a an alert warning against all visits to the Philippines after a sacked police officer hijacked a tourist bus in Manila, killing eight Hong Kong visitors as police mounted a bungled rescue.
The August 23 bloodbath outraged China and Hong Kong residents and prompted many prospective visitors to cancel. Some tourists already in the country left abruptly before their tours were completed.
It was a huge loss, with Hong Kong and China accounting for 9% of tourist arrivals in the Philippines, according to the tourism department.
Secretary Lim said the Philippines lost about P40 million ($890,000) in tourist income in the first 2 weeks after the hijacking.
New President Benigno Aquino has tagged tourism, currently seen as performing well below its full potential, with visitor arrivals at just a fraction of the traffic in nearby countries, as a key economic growth driver.
Samie Lim, vice-president for tourism for the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said he found in recent visits to Hong Kong and China that the tragedy remained front-page news there.
"We are in the newspapers every day. We are on television. Everybody knows about it. The visual of what happened is very fresh in the minds of the public," the business leader said.
"This will be a difficult market to turn around," he warned.
To mollify foreign governments, Aquino named a high-level panel to investigate the bloodbath and look into whom might be culpable.
Though the results have not been made public, its head, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, said it recommended the criminal prosecution of more than a dozen people including police officials.
Cesar Cruz, head of the Philippine Tour Operators Association, told AFP the key to recovery is for the authorities to do everything necessary to prevent the tragedy creating a long-lasting negative impression.
"We can now feel the immediate impact as this is the season for holidays in most of our regional markets like Hong Kong, Japan, China and (South) Korea," he said.
"If we (and) the authorities like the Department of Tourism will play their cards right, we can avert a long-term effect," Cruz added.
Secretary Lim said the promised delivery of the report to the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities would help soothe the anger against the Philippines.
"It will definitely help especially if it is credible. If it will satisfy the Hong Kong government, then it will help. They will see that the incident was resolved and there was closure," the minister told AFP.
The tourism ministry hopes public anger over the incident will have passed by December, peak season for tourists arriving from Hong Kong and which extends to the Chinese lunar new year the following February.
"We should emphasise other markets to make sure there are replacements," Secretary Lim said.
He said that despite the furore over the hostage incident, tourists from other key markets like South Korea, the United States and Japan were not deterred and were still coming to the Philippines.
"Even the Taiwanese are still coming. They don't feel personally threatened," he added.