MANILA -- Chinese tourist arrivals in the Philippines surged last year, despite a lingering dispute between the two countries over the ownership of islands in the South China Sea.
This territorial tension continues. Signs of reconciliation on both sides are still faint as Beijing resists an international arbitration launched by Manila, insisting that the dispute should be resolved through bilateral talks. Recently, Philippine military authorities accused Chinese coast guard vessels of harassing Filipino fishermen who were seeking shelter on the Scarborough Shoal during bad weather on Jan. 27.
Despite the dispute, the Philippines still welcomed 426,352 tourists from China in 2013, a 69.9% jump from the 250,883 recorded the year before. This makes Chinese the fourth-largest tourist nationality for the Philippines, after South Koreans, Americans and Japanese.
The increase in Chinese tourists surpassed the overall growth rate in foreign tourist arrivals in the Philippines, which rose by 9.5% from 4.2 million in 2012 to 4.6 million in 2013.
In comparison, Chinese arrivals grew by only 3.1% in 2012 compared with 2011. In 2012, China issued a travel advisory discouraging its citizens from visiting the Philippines after a standoff between Philippine and Chinese naval forces at the Scarborough Shoal.
"They (Chinese tourists) are still attracted to our destinations, especially Boracay Island. Even though there are tensions, they still travel (here)," Philippine Tourism Assistant Secretary Benito Bengzon said.
Bengzon added that daily charter flights launched last year in major cities in China helped add to these statistics.
Chinese tourists do not spend as much as those from South Korea and the United States, but Bengzon still sees this group as an "important market." The average Chinese tourist spent $64 a day last year -- South Koreans spent $140 and Americans spent $99 per day -- data from the tourism department shows.
"Because of the language barrier, Chinese tourists travel in herds. Usually, they have preset accommodations, food and tours, and preset packages are usually cheaper," said John Paul Cabalza, head of Philippine Travel Agencies Association.
Margie Munsayac, the president of the Hotel Sales and Marketing Association, said Chinese spending power was still significant. "They can be big spenders since they tend to buy a lot of stuff and shop a lot here," Munsayac said. "Their contribution is still significant."
A Chinese tourist stayed an average of eight nights last year, while South Koreans spent an average of six nights, according to government data.
The Philippine economy is striving to sustain its high economic growth, which stood at 7.2% last year, by strengthening the service sector.
Travel agencies and hotel marketers are happy with the growing interest seen by Chinese in the Philippines and hope that geopolitical tensions will not escalate and create another travel advisory, like in 2012.
"Hotels were gravely affected, especially for group tours," Munsayac said.
Despite tensions, Bengzon said the Philippines will continue to attract Chinese tourists as it aims to achieve 10 million arrivals by 2016, President Benigno Aquino's last year in the office.
"We will continue with our marketing efforts in major cities in China," Bengzon said. "We'll continue to support charter flights to our destinations."