SHANGHAI/MANILA (1st UPDATE) - Chinese travel agencies have suspended tourist packages to the Philippines and promised refunds to customers who have booked trips, Chinese state media reported Thursday, as tensions over disputed islands in the South China Sea escalated.
Companies including Ctrip.com and Beijing International Travel Service have halted all tours to the Philippines and say they will not accept bookings until the situation improves, Chinese media reported.
The Chinese embassy to the Philippines warned its citizens in Manila to stay off the streets during planned anti-China protests expected to take place on Friday.
The two countries are engaged in a standoff involving four Chinese maritime surveillance ships and eight Chinese fishing boats confronting a Filipino coast guard ship and several fishing boats in the waters near what is known as the Scarborough Shoal in English and Huangyan island in Chinese.
Meantime, the Philippine tourism industry is bracing itself for the effects of Chinese travel agents' suspension of tour packages.
China 4th largest source of tourists
China is the fourth largest source of tourist arrivals to the Philippines, and the fastest-growing market. In the first quarter, there was a 77% surge in Chinese tourist arrivals to 96,455.
With the loss of Chinese tourists, the Philippine Travel Agencies Association (PTAA) on Thursday said the industry would have to focus its efforts in attracting tourists from other markets.
"Of course, it's very impactful for us considering its one of the top 5 markets that we have initially targeted. However, we just want to put into perspective that they are one of the target markets. If we want tourism to grow in the Philippines, then obviously, we would have to adjust our efforts into the other countries, should the conflict continue to persist," PTAA president Aileen Clemente told ANC's On the Scene.
Clemente sought to downplay the impact of the loss of Chinese tourists, saying the Philippines' top three markets are still South Korea, U.S., and Japan.
She also noted the PTAA has seen increased interest from countries like Australia, Canada, Germany, Malaysia, Singapore, and the United Kingdom.
"We believe they can augment whatever it is the Philippines will lose from Chinese tourists arrivals," she added.
Impact to last for 2 months
Clemente said the effects of the Chinese cancellations will probably be felt within a week, and will last for about 2 months.
"Some of our airlines are definitely going to hurt because we just recently got an update that their chartered flights have already been cancelled. It's a risk that we all take in travel," she said.
However, the PTAA still remains hopeful that the Philippines and China will resolve their differences amicably.
"While the PTAA wishes that circumstances are different right now, we are still very much hopeful the prevailing tension at the Scarborough Sholes will be resolved at the soonest possible time by our respective governments," she said.
Top 5 Tourist Arrivals to the Philippines (January-March 2012)
*Source: Department of Tourism