IN hosting the SEA Games, the Philippines are not only hoping to clinch the overall championship, they are also seeking to boost their lackadaisical tourism industry.
With the venues of the Games spread around the tropical country, officials are taking advantage of the SEA Games to showcase some of the Philippines' best tourist destinations.
From Manila to the central province of Cebu and the northern Subic Bay Freeport, the venues for the Games give visitors a glimpse of what the country can offer for leisure and adventure, including beaches, diving spots and nature attractions.
Officials are hoping that the publicity from the Games would help boost efforts to spark a tourism revival that would bring five million foreign visitors to the Philippines annually by the year 2010.
Tourism Secretary Joseph Durano said tourist arrivals for 2005 were already expected to exceed the government's target of 2.5 million, up 8.3% from last year, but still small compared to South-East Asian neighbours.
In 2004, a total of 2.29 million visitors arrived in the Philippines, compared to 15.7 million in Malaysia, 11.74 million in Thailand, 8.37 million in Singapore, 5.32 million in Indonesia and 2.92 million in Vietnam.
Cebu, which will host six events including cycling and various martial arts sports, said one of the major reasons for hosting was the opportunity to project an image as “a perfect destination for business and leisure”.
“This image will be projected in the living rooms of people and newspaper all over the world,” the organisers said. “Foreign guests will likewise have the opportunity to experience Cebuano culture, warmth and hospitality.”
Located 585km south of Manila, Cebu is dubbed as the Philippines' “queen of the south”, where tourists can choose from a wide variety of destinations and things to do during their vacation.
To the north, the offshore islands of Malapascua and Bantayan are havens for beach-lovers and backpackers, while the western island of Olango, home to a wildlife sanctuary, is a favourite destination for birdwatchers and divers.
Cebu City, a younger and less chaotic version of Manila, has dozens of places of interests, including the country's oldest church in the downtown area and a museum housing artefacts retrieved from a sunken Spanish Galleon.
A must-see in the city is the Taoist Temple, where the teachings and philosophy of the 600 B.C. Chinese thinker Lao-Tze are preserved. Visitors have to climb 99 steps to reach the temple, where they can even have their fortunes read.
Nearby Bacolod City, the venue for soccer, weightlifting and volleyball, is known as the “City of Smiles” for its famous MassKara (multiple faces) Festival held every October, when street dancers and revellers don exotic, merry masks.
It is being pushed as an emerging sports, eco-tourism and business centre in the central Philippines.
A key attraction is the Mount Kanlaon Nature Park, about 35km south of the city proper, an adventurous destination popular among hikers and birdwatchers.
The park is rich in wildlife, including the perilously rare bleeding-heart pigeon and the Philippine spotted deer. It is also noted for several species of wild orchid.
Also taking the centre stage in the SEA Games is the Subic Bay Freeport, a former American naval base 90km north of Manila, which will host archery and some water sports.
Just a two-and-a-half hour drive north of Manila, Subic is a favourite weekend getaway packed with various activities, such as beach-hopping, forest trekking, wreck diving, jungle survival training, golf and fishing.
Subic has two popular theme parks - the Ocean Adventure, Southeast Asia's first and only open-water marine park, and the Zoobic Safari, a 17ha animal kingdom showcasing deep golden-eye tigers and exotic animals.
The bay is also considered one of the best wreck diving sites in Asia, being home to such wrecks as the 19th century Spanish gunboat San Quintin, the Japanese luxury liner Oroku Maru and the ex-US New York, a battle cruiser scuttled by American troops in 1941 to keep it out of Japanese hands.
Just south of Manila, the other venues include the mountain resort city of Tagaytay, which is home to the picturesque Taal volcano and its famous crater lake, and Laguna province, best known for its selection of hot spring resorts.
Around Manila, the events are being held in various suburban cities, including Marikina, the shoe capital of the Philippines and awarded for being the most environment-friendly city in the country, and Makati, a shopping mecca. – dpa