MANILA -- A group of several Chinese tourists stepped off a private jet at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, the gateway to Metro Manila in the Philippines recently. They quickly got into a black van waiting nearby, passports in hands. The van belonged to Solaire Resort & Casino, a huge complex that opened last year by Manila Bay.
Solaire has a luxury lounge on its second floor for wealthy Chinese guests. It is staffed by Chinese-speaking people brought in from Macau.
The Philippine government is promoting the Southeast Asian archipelago as a tourism-oriented country. As part of such efforts, several casinos of roughly the same scale as Solaire are under construction on Manila Bay. Their main target is Chinese tourists.
According to the Philippine Department of Tourism, Chinese tourists are flooding into the Philippines. The number of visitors from mainland China surged 70% in 2013 from a year earlier to 420,000.
The trend has continued into 2014. The number of visitors from mainland China jumped 42% in January and February compared with the same period a year earlier. The governments of the Philippines and China are at odds over a territorial dispute in the South China Sea. But the flood of Chinese tourists shows no sign of slowing down.
In addition to the casinos, there is something else that attracts Chinese tourists. The Philippine archipelago comprises over 7,000 islands, so it has many little-known resorts in pristine natural surroundings.
Travel + Leisure, a U.S. travel magazine, selected Palawan and Boracay, both in the central part of the Philippines, as the world's best islands in 2013. Chinese tourists are flocking to Boracay.
Benito Bengzon, an assistant secretary at the Department of Tourism, said that territorial tensions between the Philippines and China have not diminished the appeal of Boracay and other places for Chinese people. He added that the Department of Tourism will continue to promote tours to the Philippines in major Chinese cities.
The Philippine economy, as measured by gross domestic product, grew 7.2% in 2013, the fastest growth rate among the Southeast Asian nations. The country has lagged behind neighbors such as Thailand and Indonesia in the development of manufacturing. Promoting the tourism industry to create new jobs is essential to maintain economic growth of around 7%, which the Philippine government wants to see.
The Philippines and the U.S. on April 28 signed a military pact that paves the way for the effective restationing of American troops in the Southeast Asian country. The new pact aims to counter China's increasingly aggressive maritime advances. But for the Philippines, China is now not only a diplomatic foe, but also a driver of economic growth because of its many tourists.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III faces a dilemma. His government cannot accept China's claim of sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea. But offending China by playing diplomatic hardball could derail his government's efforts to maintain high economic growth.