Black cloud over Manila
Simpson Cheung and Raissa Robles in Manila
It has the makings of the ideal destination for holidaymakers: it's cheap, home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, the people are friendly - usually - and it's only a 90-minute flight away.
But the Philippines still can't shake off the advice given to would-be tourists by Hong Kong's Security Bureau: 'Avoid all travel'.
On August 23 last year - just hours after former policeman Rolando Mendoza killed seven Hong Kong tourists and their guide on a bus in downtown Manila - the bureau announced its 'black' alert on travel to the Philippines, the worst designation in a three-tier, colour-coded system, advising Hongkongers that the entire country was unsafe.
The bloodbath in Manila severely embarrassed the Philippines police, for their bungled rescue attempt, and was a PR disaster for a country that prides itself as a tourist destination.
Since the black alert, many Hong Kong tourists have heeded the advice. Group tours to the Philippines from the city have been halted, and overall travel numbers are well down: from August 2010 to June 2011, there were 104,589 Hong Kong visitors to the Philippines, down 14.4 per cent on the same period a year earlier.
The Philippines Department of Tourism said Hong Kong visitors represented almost 4 per cent of all foreign travellers to the Philippines.
At the same time, relations between Manila and Beijing have reached a low point because of a territorial dispute in the South China Sea, and the recent execution of three Filipino drug mules by China despite Manila's pleas for mercy.
Nevertheless, attempts to repair the Hong Kong-Philippines relationship now appear to be afoot.
The Security Bureau of Hong Kong approved a 'familiarisation tour' of the Philippines for Hong Kong travel agencies and media, giving the city an opportunity to demonstrate the measures it has undertaken to protect tourists. Such a tour could take place as soon as next month.
Philippine authorities will also soon choose a representative in Hong Kong to promote the Philippines as a holiday destination
Tourism undersecretary Maria Victoria Jasmin and tourism assistant secretary Benito Bengzon outlined the measures to the South China Morning Post, saying they had both met officials from the Security Bureau in July to discuss the plan.
Manila's ultimate goal is to lift Hong Kong's black alert. Syria is the only other country that the Security Bureau deems worthy of this status, following the brutal crackdown on opponents of the Assad regime.
Philippine officials first approached Hong Kong officials with the idea of a 'familiarisation tour' for travel agents and media last December, Bengzon said.
Jasmin said that 'definitely, they [Hong Kong's representatives] agreed. They supported our plan. In fact they gave us additional tips ... perhaps we can include a sort of show, of how prepared we are [to safeguard tourists]'.
Bengzon said of those who will take part in the tour: 'We want them to come to the Philippines, particularly our major tourist destinations, so they can see for themselves the actual situation, the safety and security measures in place.'
Jasmin described the July meeting with the Security Bureau as 'pleasant'. She said 'they seemed to be happy with the developments' since the December meeting.
Alberto Lim, the outgoing Philippine tourism secretary, said: 'We've been in touch with the Security Bureau of Hong Kong. We've heard [from them] proposals on how to lift this black advisory.'
A Security Bureau spokesman said it would closely monitor measures taken by the Philippines to restore the confidence of Hongkongers travelling to the country. He confirmed its undersecretary, Lai Tung-kwok, met a Philippines delegation in July but did not reveal if there had been talk of a familiarisation tour.
Both Jasmin and Bengzon said they had also discussed plans for the familiarisation tour in a separate meeting with Hong Kong's Travel Industry Council.
'The schedule of September [for the planned tour] came from the TIC,' Bengzon said. 'We met with chairman Michael Wu and executive director Joseph Tung [Yao-chung].'
Tung confirmed that the Philippine tourism authorities had been lobbying the council to remove the travel alert. 'We have said to them that Hong Kong travellers still feel disturbed by the [hostage] incident. It may be helpful if they can show they have put effective security measures in place,' he said.
Alex Lee Chun-ting, general manager of Miramar Travel, questioned the need for the black alert, and compared safety in the Philippines favourably to, for example, the United States, which he considered to be at higher risk of a terrorist attack.
'Is there any political reason behind this? Is it that the government official who hoisted the signal could not find a good reason to back out.'
He said he believed the hostage shooting was a one-off incident and the Hong Kong government should not use the black travel alert to punish Manila. 'I think the black travel alert is a bit over the top and tourism and politics should be separated.'
Lawmaker James To Kun-sun, chairman of Legco's security panel, doubted whether there was a political consideration behind the black alert. He said it was simply because the Philippines had not done enough to improve visitors' safety.
Miramar's Lee said tours to the Philippines accounted for less than 1 per cent of his company's business, so it had not suffered badly.
But some smaller operators have been harder hit.
May Hung, general manager of Mabuhay Holidays, which specialises in package tours to the Philippines, said her overall business was down more than 50 per cent.
'Many customers dare not to go to Philippines as there is still a black travel alert,' she said. 'They still have a psychological barrier as the Philippine government still has no solution to the problem.'
Hung said tourism in both Hong Kong and the Philippines was suffering because of the black travel alert.
The number of Hong Kong customers flying to the Philippines was down 80 per cent, while figures for those coming from the Philippines to Hong Kong had fallen 10 to 20 per cent. She hoped the alert would be lifted soon. Not everyone agrees.
Tse Chi-hang, younger brother of tour guide Masa Tse Ting-chunn, one of the eight Hongkongers who were killed, has seen no improvement in travel safety in the Philippines over the past year.
In addition to Hong Kong, seven countries - Britain, the US, France, Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - have issued various levels of warnings against travel to the Philippines.
'If one day the government said it would cancel the black travel alert, I would loudly say 'objection', because I cannot think of any reason to cancel the alert,' said Tse.
He said the incident could not be branded a one-off, since safety problems including a poor medical system and the risk of kidnapping had long plagued travellers to the Philippines.
'I do not know what the political reason is [for the black alert] ... I only know that my brother escorted a tour group to the Philippines and many people passed away. This obviously shows the country is dangerous. So to me the black travel alert is very logical,' he said.
The rise in the number of foreigners visiting the Philippines last year, despite the hijack and warnings of terror attacks