Roundtable: The Philippines’ leisure ambitions

The country boasts beaches as fine as Thailand, good resort hotels and increasingly international-class casinos too. It is keen to establish itself as an international travel destination to rival regional alternatives, but this opportunity will require regular and consistent government support if the country is to achieve its full potential. ASIAMONEY speaks with a panel of experts on the opportunities and challenges that the tourism, leisure and gaming sectors present to the country.

  • 06 Aug 2013
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Moderator: Richard Morrow, editor, Asiamoney

Daniel Corpuz, undersecretary for tourism development, Department of Tourism (DoT)

Reynaldo Villar, executive vice-president, SM Hotels & Conventions Corp.

Jaime Raphael Feliciano, assistant secretary for planning and project development, Department of Transport & Communications (DoTC)

Hans Sicat, president and CEO, Philippine Stock Exchange (PSE)

Eduardo Francisco, president, BDO Capital & Investment Corp.

Enrique Y. Gonzalez, CEO, IP Ventures

Ciaran Carruthers, president and chief executive officer (CEO), Asia Pacific Gaming Management Consultancy (APGMC)

Asiamoney [AM]: Tourism is a sector where the government sees a great deal of potential. It wants 10 million arrivals and a doubling of tourism receipts. Is that an achievable goal?

Daniel Corpuz, Department of Tourism (DoT): Tourism receipts are one of the yardsticks we use to measure the performance of the tourism industry. The receipts are measured through the average length of stay of a traveler multiplied by the average daily expenditure.

During the past two years from 2010-2012 the average tourist expenditure rose from US$83 a day to US$93. Likewise the length of stay went from eight nights to 9.6 nights per traveler. Compounding that by 4.3 million foreign visitors we had last year you have the gross receipts from the tourism industry, estimated at US$3.8 billion. It is the fourth-largest foreign exchange contributor to our economy, behind the export industry, remittances from overseas professionals and labourers, and the fast-growing BPO (business process outsourcing) industry.

We are guided by the National Tourism Development Plan, and the aim of that is to achieve 10 million foreign arrivals [by 2016]. Given that volume as well as the continuing improvement of stays substantially we hope to hit over US$11 billion by year end 2016.

AM: Rey, are the aspirations of the government realistic?

Reynaldo Villar, SM Hotels & Conventions: While we didn’t make the 4.6 million tourism target last year 4.3 million wasn’t far off, and in the first quarter the growth of tourists was 11%. If you look at the target this year which is five million and compound those over the coming years if we don’t meet the government’s target it’s going to be pretty close.

Of course in the hotel industry we want the Department of Tourism to reach or exceed its target. SM Hotels is venturing into a mid-scale plan with the Park Inn by Radisson, and the first one is open in Davao. That’s the direction we want to go in as the Department of Tourism is targeting local tourists too, and the latter will reach about 35.5 million by 2016.

Enrique Gonzalez, IP Ventures: The government's tourism targets are achievable in the short-run if they can resolve our foreign relations issues with our biggest potential tourist market, which is China. Another needed step is to improve our tourism infrastructure, particularly upgrading or opening new international and domestic airports.

AM: The best first impression certainly isn’t made by the international airport in Manila. What can be done about it and other areas of transportation?

Jaime Raphael Feliciano, Department of Transportation & Communications (DoTC): With respect to the current facility Terminal 1 is in a state of disrepair, which is why the Department of Transport has drawn up or at least engaged architects and engineers to work on detailed plans for its refurbishment.

The biggest challenge the department faced was maximising the use of Terminal 3. It was mired in a legal dispute previously so we had to resolve this before we could transfer the operations from Terminal 1 to Terminal 3 and let us do the necessary repairs for Terminal 1. Now we’re happy to inform everyone we have started repairs for Terminal 3 and can transfer some operations from Terminal 1.

Territorial limitations will not allow us to grow that airport any further so we have to venture out and look at a dual-airport system. Clark (airport) is already there, the runway is there, and it’s a matter of expanding the terminal. So for the 2014 budget we’ve included in an amount that will jumpstart a budget terminal in Clark. We’re looking at a 45,000 square metre terminal, since 80% of travelers to that airport use budget carriers. That’s Phase 1.

In Phase 2 we’ll do a PPP [public-private partnership] of the legacy terminals as well as the operations and maintenance of the air and landside operations. We will start the construction hopefully by this year and we should be done by 2015, in time for the Apec (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit.

AM: Enrique, what do you think are the Philippines’ biggest attractions for tourists and gamblers?

Gonzalez, IP Ventures: Certainly you have the new casinos, which include entertainment shows, malls, hotels and supporting industries. Plus there are our beaches, which I think are the best in the world, and of course there is our people. Filipinos are known to be some of the most hospitable and tourist-friendly people, and our high level of English literacy makes it easier for foreigners in general.

Ciaran Carruthers, Asia Pacific Gaming Management Consultancy (APGMC): The Philippines certainly has all the natural beauty that attracts tourists to Thailand, and it has the sort of resort facilities on islands outside Manila that are so well received in places like Thailand. And I agree that it has a beautiful people. I think that the latest tourism campaign ‘It’s more fun in the Philippines’ has been successful in changing perceptions as to what the country has to offer as a destination.

AM: Where does the country need to make alterations to improve its image?

Carruthers, APGMC: There are things that need to be addressed. When you have an armed guard at McDonald’s and Starbucks it doesn’t offer the best impression. A more effective way of portraying that level of security would go a long way to addressing the perception of how insecure the Philippines is, which I think is the wrong perception.

Perceptions about security are a challenge in the gaming industry, particularly with VIPs and high rollers. In 2012 China had 83 million-84 million outbound tourists spending [a total of] US$102 billion, and [this is] projected to grow to 100 million who will spend close to US$120 billion [this year]. These security concerns need to be addressed to convince Chinese tourists that the Philippines is a safe destination to travel to.

I think it will be addressed quite quickly when more people start coming here due to, for example, the opening of Solaire and realise that the potential security issues are significantly overblown. Word of mouth in the tourism industry is a great tool.

Gonzalez, IP Ventures: As I mentioned before, a key issue is infrastructure. We need better airports, roads, and modes of transportation to reduce congestion, including more efficient mass transportation. Plus we need better urban planning to reduce congestion, add more parks, and create cleaner air in our cities. And an important factor for foreigners is visa liberalisation. The country still has restrictive visa requirements and application processes.

AM: Ed, are you seeing more demand for the financing you can provide for local projects for local tourism and gaming?

Eduardo Francisco, BDO Capital & Investment Corp.: We see a lot and on two fronts. First is the equity side where we’ve been involved in capital raising for the gaming and real estate side; most of the folks in the PSE are clients. We’ve also seen in the private placement side which you will not see.

A lot of work is being done at the grassroots and the SMEs (small and medium enterprises). The government is ensuring the roads and infrastructure are built, and the private sector is anticipating the impact of this infrastructure and we’re helping to finance them. They’re building small hotels, we’re investing because we see the growth of clustering, and our banking branches need to grow as we’re seeing more opportunities around the country.

The growth in tourism and the time they stay means we get a greater share of their wallets, which allows businessmen to set up more restaurants, malls and inns. That’s reflected in increased lending by banks. While the economy has been growing 5%-6%, our loan growth at BDO has been 20%-30% [per annum] for the past few years. And the capital markets team that I head is also helping to finance this.

AM: Hans, we’ve seen some successful IPOs in the gaming business and there has been an explosion in the stock market’s valuation too this year (the roundtable was conducted shortly before the market correction following the Federal Reserve’s announcement of a possible recalibration of quantitative easing that caused many equity markets in Asia including that of the Philippines to drop). Is there more potential and interest and do you see the stock exchange playing a key part in that?

Hans Sicat, Philippine Stock Exchange: There are four companies categorised under the hotel and leisure segment and eight under the casinos and gaming category. You mention some deals that have happened already, and we have seen the growth of the equity market has been a great motivator for other companies to do their own public offerings. We are going to see a few more, there are obviously a few reports other companies will do larger public offerings. Good solid macroeconomic fundamentals and an attractive financing market will spur more activity in the gaming and hotel sector.

AM: Have these gaming and hotel stocks been particularly successful?

Sicat, PSE: Yes very successful. If you look at what happened to the Bloomberry equity issue [in May]; technically it was a private placement but in fact it was a backdoor IPO (initial public offering). There is a lot of interest in the gaming sector and this interest is from issuers too. Hence the talk around other large gaming companies going to the market to do a massive transaction. Hopefully you’ll see a few of these large deals coming through in the coming months.

AM: Rey, this doubling of tourists must offer your group an opportunity in terms of adding new projects?

Villar, SM Hotels & Conventions: Yes. The plan is to build one property a year. We are looking at areas where we have malls, as that’s going to be our anchor. We are looking at Clark, and we are looking at Bacolod, Iloilo, and other areas where we have big malls. We see the convergence of people especially in these mall complexes; you have shoppers and people visiting from other far-flung areas for the weekends. And as I said that 35.5 million is such a big market that we’d like to be a part of it.

AM: Daniel, Ciaran raised the point that there are perception issues and there are security concerns, particularly in the south. How can you allay such concerns?

Daniel Corpuz, Department of Transport (DoT): The tourism department is in the midst of what we call the National Tourism Development Plan, which calls for programmes in three areas. First and foremost is market accessibility and connectivity; or improving our airports and seaports, and expanding our roads and infrastructure.

The second direction is relevant to what you’ve mentioned, which is to pursue a promotional and product portfolio diversification. This involves extricating ourselves from the dependence of sun and beach tourism and beach holidays, which currently constitute 70% of our holiday arrivals. It requires diversification of our portfolio to develop lifestyle entertainment activities. The trend nowadays is to introduce integrated tourism complexes. One of these efforts is Entertainment City.

We just had a meeting with Melco Crown, which will operate in Entertainment City, and they ventured their desire to work with the Department of Tourism to accelerate our promotions for international conventions and exhibitions. Image-wise we want to project a country destination that has a highly diversified tourism offering.

This has to be filtered in terms of our third direction of improving institutional governance. Ultimately certain basic requirements for travelers, such as hygiene and health and safety, are part of the functions delivered by our local government units. We are fortunate to have been given US$7 million by the ADB (Asian Development Bank) to enhance the capabilities our local government units to deliver tourism services and formulate their tourism action plans in synch with what we desire.

AM: Are there enough aeroplanes to bring in these new tourists, and enough berths for these planes?

Feliciano, DoTC: We have too many planes. We need to increase the number of airports or expand the existing airports.

The problem is a matter of fiscal space. In previous years we didn’t have enough money to build airports or expand them, but now we do so that problem has been partly eliminated. We are working with the Department of Tourism, which has identified these tourism clusters in the country [which include hotels, good entertainment facilities end leisure facilities].

AM: How many tourism clusters are there?

Corpuz, DoT: We have adapted nine priority clusters as we have nine international airports, from Laoag in the north to Davao down the south. That’s where some SM properties are already sprouting.

Villar, SM Hotels & Conventions: What we’d like to do is attach the properties with big malls as that’s where we see the attraction being. We are not only looking at tourism in terms of shopping and leisure. A big part of our market that we are all targeting is Mice (meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions), and a lot of the demand for this comes locally, from pharmaceutical companies, electronics associations, government meetings. We see this as being a big part of our business in all hotels. That’s the reason why we’re also building SMX convention centres; one is in the Mall of Asia, the second is in Davao, and the most recent is the SMX Aura.

Carruthers, APGMC: The need for diversification in gaming is clear. Gaming isn’t for everybody, but it is an integral part of the diversified tourism menu, and Mice is also an important part of that in Macau and in Singapore and will be a crucial part of the hospitality industry here in the Philippines.

The gaming industry here is in its infancy in terms of its international appeal. You have only had Solaire [Resort & Casino] open quite recently, and Belle Grande [Casino and Resort Manila] is on track to open next year. Plus a large number of small boutique properties, such as the Midas Hotel & Casino, provide facilities to the local populace. As gaming entities none really stand up just in terms of gaming, so you need to provide a large amount of F&B (food and beverage), whether it’s Jollibee or fine dining, plus a retail component and large entertainment facilities. And Mice is a component of that. It brings critical mass to the facility.

AM: You’ve got tourism clusters and developing multi-functional facilities. You must have an enormous number of prospective companies looking for your money to help build those facilities?

Francisco, BDO Investment Corp.: Yes, in fact we were fortunate to have been the lead for raising funds for Solaire. It was just a small number of banks and we were able to close it in a couple of weeks. We were also the ones to lend the financing for Resorts World. We truly believe in the integrated model and complex.

To give you an idea about how we are there to support these companies, we helped the concessionaires who were bidding for an NAIA expressway [toll road concession], which San Miguel won recently after bidding PHP12 billion (US$276.9 million). When the government was planning this [toll road concession] they were willing to provide a subsidy of PHP6.5 billion and eventually there were four bidders. But San Miguel was willing not only not take the subsidy but instead pay a PHP12 billion premium on top of the PHP15 billion project.

Think about the implication why would somebody pay so much to manage that toll road? You would pay a big premium because Resorts World [Bayshore] is there [in Pagcor City], the four gaming casinos are there, SM [Group] is there as the backbone of that area, so if you can control the traffic and ensure smooth traffic from all their domestic airports into Aroras Boulevard you can see the potential.

Feliciano, DoTC: That bid shows that for PPPs there’s a lot of externality that the private sector can capture which the government doesn’t necessarily take into account when evaluating a project. The same occurred for the Dang Hari toll road, which is only four kilometres that connects Cavite to the South Luzon expressway. Ayala won that bid because they took into account the potential value that toll road would bring to their properties in that area.

When we evaluate the projects governments are usually very conservative. But the private sector looks at it differently, and captures a lot more externalities which sometimes leads them to say that they will pay a premium to operate a facility.

AM: Is this an opportunity for companies to raise capital and mean more companies eventually listing?

Sicat, PSE: Clearly the opportunity space for increased economic activity is a big driver for looking at various funding opportunities. The government is saying it needs to spend at least 5% of GDP for infrastructure and infrastructure-related projects. Last week I was at a forum in which a professor showed a slide that revealed we’d only spent 2% of GDP on infrastructure over the last 10 years, whereas the benchmark analysis from various countries revealed that infrastructure is a driver of the economy and they are spending 5%-7% of GDP annually. This type of spending is a base for the various economic multipliers we are talking about.

The stock market of course relies on having a strong fundamental economic base. To me this is good news; if the government can spend 5% on infrastructure it will lead to a healthier stock market, and increase trading volumes and values on a daily basis.

AM: Ciaran, four gaming licences have been awarded to new casino operators. But Macau and Singapore operate well-established casinos. Can the Philippines compete?

Carruthers, APGMC: The short answer is yes, and there has been a great deal of local and foreign corporate interest. I don’t see anybody thinking we will ever supersede Macau as the world’s largest gaming destination and nobody has that as their intent. This year Macau will probably have 28 million-30 million visitors and US$40 billion. To put that in perspective Las Vegas might do US$6 billion this year if they have a very good year.

Singapore on the other hand is a city state that has really driven its tourism for many years through retail. It has two of the most successful casinos in the world that drive US$3 billion each in gross gaming revenue.

The Philippines is building a tourism industry and the casinos are an integral part of the development of that industry. Nobody is going to spend US$1 billion on building a large resort without the backbone of a casino to generate the returns that are necessary. So to have the large convention centres and build the resorts that will help drive those 10 million tourists a year and beyond, you need the large attractions.

Gonzalez, IP Ventures: I think that the Philippines will become the third-largest gaming hub in the world after Macau and Singapore by 2016. We can compete with Macau because [the latter] has a ceiling in terms of visitors from China – the number of visas that are issued. We should benefit from the spillover effect. Meanwhile Singapore doesn’t accept junkets, but the Philippines will, so junket operators will come here.

AM: Enrique, IP Ventures is involved in online gaming. How will this compliment or compete with the casinos?

Gonzalez, IP Ventures: Our online games are a completely different market and segment to the casinos. What ties both together is that both segments will benefit from a growing Philippine economy.

However, we are also diversifying into hotel, and resorts, and recently acquired a prime beach front property in Boracay, as well as a large casino property in CEZA. These investments will benefit from the expanding tourist base, which will partly occur because of the casinos.

AM: A recent court ruling said casinos need to pay a 30% corporate income tax that wasn’t in the original expectations of foreigners coming in. Is this a problem?

Carruthers, APGMC: It’s a concern on a couple of fronts. One of the great appeals of the Philippines previously was partly its central location to the entire Asian region. Whether from North Asia, China or Korea, or Southeast Asia, the Philippines was very accessible. The cost of entry compared to Macau or Singapore was relatively low to when compared to those markets and the cost of operating here is considerably lower than Macau or Singapore.

These tax rates offered the Philippines an opportunity to be very competitive in the high end VIP market. These are very high net worth individuals who come on gaming trips and also spend a lot of money on gaming but also retail, entertainment and F&B (food and beverage). And also there are the junkets that are comprised of pure gamers who spend a lot of money in the casino and thus generate a lot of taxes for the government.

The changes in the tax potentially make us less competitive than we were previously. I say potentially because it’s not yet certain how it will play out and affect the bottom line of operators. The local and international operators did not expect this change to occur.

Foreign investors need a level of consistency when it comes to regulation and law, particularly anything that will impact their local tax bill.

AM: Rey, I understand a tax perk on hotel and resort owners in metro Manila, Macatan island, Cebu city and Borocay was removed quite recently. Did that affect the industry?

Villar, SM Hotels & Conventions: There are mixed feelings about this; the BoI (Board of Investments) said the reason why the hotels need to be taxed more is to build more infrastructure, which we need in the industry. But the hotel owners say when you build a hotel it takes several years before you have a positive income; you may have positive margins but it takes time to bring a positive income to the banks. You reach a level after four or five years where the income is positive but then need to plough some back in the form of renovations after six or seven years. So unless you’re in the market for 10 or 20 years and have made enough money to bring to the bank, [the tax perk] is important for new hotels.

Metro Manila is a big area and there is a concentration of five star and four star hotels in Makati and metro Manila, while there’s a smaller presence in Ortigas and even Quezon city, north of Manila. It’s a broad area and maybe they should identify whether it’s Makati or Manila only. Developing a hotel in north of Manila in Quezon city or Bulacan (province) or south of Manila should not be taxed as a start-up. It’s very important; you can’t compare them to Makati or Manila hotels.

AM: Ed, have discussions over tax changes impacted the appeal of these centres with companies?

Francisco, BDO Investment Corp.: I agree with Ciaran on the changing goal posts. Either from the equity or the debt side if you’re an investor you will have invested in a company because you expected it to make a certain amount of profit and that you’ll only have a certain percent of taxes on the gaming revenues. When there’s a sudden change mid-stream or once you’re operational, once it becomes profitable it changes the long term potential of that hotel. From the debt side we’re concerned, because if there’s less cash flow, there’s less cash flow to repay us. But it’s especially unfair to the equity investors because you’re expecting a certain margin and that can be compressed.

Sicat, PSE: When you change the goal posts in the middle, it does have an immediate impact for the publicly listed companies. You could look at two industries as examples. The first is the mining sector, which 18 months ago a lot of licences for projects were not approved because the government decided to change the taxation royalty arrangement with a lot of these players. What has happened? Lo and behold, until today a final decision has still not been made and last year it was the only sector that has underperformed and has dropped significantly from a valuation perspective.

Then in the finance sector this issue came up when the government decided that a bond issue that was supposedly non-taxable became taxable just before maturity. It’s created a very worrisome situation. From a macroeconomic perspective the government should be very aware that these types of announcements and actions do have consequences.

Gonzalez, IP Ventures: I believe that cutting these incentives [for casinos and hotels], while well intentioned, was a strategic mis-step that exchanged long-term value for short term-gain. The government should consider reviving and extending the incentives and tax holidays granted to gaming and hotel/resort operators. These steps would help ensure our private companies are more competitive against alternatives around the world.

AM: To conclude, what changes would you like to see in the rest of the term of president Aquino that will bolster the Philippines appeal as a tourism and leisure destination?

Feliciano, DoTC: I hope we will continue to see the good governance that the Aquino administration has started as, if you have good policies these should not be changed mid stream. I hope we see this so we can really expedite the implementation of infrastructure, as a change in administration makes a big difference. If they have a different set of policies in mind and didn’t feel for example that PPPs should be the economic centerpiece of their administration then that might be an issue. We’d like continuity and good governance.

Carruthers, APGMC: To echo Jim’s points the consistency and certainty around regulation and the continuing development by this administration and the next in terms of the infrastructure and the continuing promotion and development of the Philippines as a tourism destination. And continuing to work with the private sector with the gaming and tourism industry.

Most of the casinos when completed are looking at general visitation numbers of 15,000-20,000 a day, and a lot of that is driven by domestic foot traffic. In terms of revenue there have been a lot of numbers bandied around in terms of what gross revenues could be three to five years from now. It could end up comparable to the size of the Singapore industry today, which is a US$6 billion industry. It will also offer employment benefits, with 4,000-5,000 jobs being created directly and indirect employment being a possible multiple of four times that number in terms of the feeder industries and support industries.

Sicat, PSE: We think there’ll be a couple of great transactions this year and I hope that this will fuel other transactions too. If you couple that with what was mentioned earlier and that the government starts spending 5% of GDP now instead of waiting that will have a huge multiplier effect for the real economy and be a big driver for the financial markets.

Francisco, BDO Investment Corp.: We see potential in all industries, but we want at the potential income to be well spread not just to the big boys but the mid market and smaller cap companies too. Hans and his team will have to encourage them to list.

Villar, SM Hotels & Conventions: What I’d like to see even with the travel agents is a decongestion at the airport because we are the gateway in Manila and Clark is in the offing. Getting out of Manila is a problem. I’ve seen some progress; I have not been up north in some time until very recently and I have seen that there are wider roads there now. We appreciate that and wouldn’t mind paying the income tax at all if we get it.

Gonzalez, IP Ventures: We face some obvious challenges but I remain bullish. We will see the establishment of truly world class developments, Solaire already being a prime example, and an improvement in the F&B, nightlife and entertainment sectors. My group invested in the first ice-bar in the Philippines, and we are launching soon a pioneering offering. Big brands are entering the Philippines soon including some big Michelin [restaurant guide]-level propositions. This is a confluence of a strong domestic economy and a growing tourism industry. I call these the twin engines.

Corpuz, DoT: New airports are to be built. New airport terminals are to be added. New navigational systems should be put into place to make our airports 24-hour operational. And our Philippines carriers are awaiting the delivery of 33 aircraft from January to March 2014, which is the reason why Philippine Airlines (PAL) and Cebu Pacific are announcing new routes.

These planes cannot be used to fly to foreign markets if governments are not successful in bilateral agreements. The government controls the seat entitlements of these routes, so if we want more Chinese tourists for gaming we have to have an expanded bi-lateral agreement with the People’s Republic of China to allow Chinese airlines and Philippines airlines to introduce new or expand existing routes, which is translated into seat entitlements. PAL recently introduced new routes to Darwin, Brisbane and Perth because we were able to expand the existing seat entitlements by adding 1,000 seats to the existing 5,000 weekly seat allotment for Philippine carriers and the same for Australian carriers.

One final ingredient in terms of accessibility is travel documents. If we do not come up with a speedy system to provide visas it makes it tougher and we require Chinese nationals to have visas to come here, and in India too, whose populations exceed 1 billion each. Our Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) competitors have a visa on arrivals system where you can apply through the web and pay for the visa upon arrival. It will require investments in hard cash from the private sector and the government sector, but given new aircraft and 15,000 hotel rooms in the pipeline by 2015 the outlook is quite optimistic.

  • 06 Aug 2013

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