Hong Kong, Philippines resolve bus hostage crisis as families accept payout
Philippines closes dispute over 2010 tragedy in Manila by expressing its 'sorrowful regret', with grieving relatives receiving undisclosed compensation
Samuel Chan and Raissa Robles in Manila
More than three years of strained ties over the 2010 Manila bus hostage crisis ended yesterday.
The Philippines expressed its "most sorrowful regret and profound sympathy" over the tragedy which claimed the lives of eight Hong Kong people.
A joint statement issued by the two governments announced the immediate lifting of sanctions against Philippines officials and a "black" travel alert imposed shortly after the incident.
Watch: Hong Kong says Philippine hostage row over
The families of those affected received an undisclosed sum in compensation, which they have described as reasonable.
The Philippine government had consistently refused to offer a formal apology for the deaths during a botched rescue after sacked police officer Rolando Mendoza hijacked a Hong Kong tour bus before being shot dead.
Although the final agreement did not contain an apology, Tse Chi-lin, the brother of Hong Kong tour guide Masa Tse Ting-chunn - one of those gunned down by Mendoza - said the two national-level Philippine officials used the words "apologise" and "sorry" when they met the families.
It was also announced yesterday that three senior Philippine police officers responsible for the botched rescue had been demoted and the brother of the hostage-taker had been dismissed from service, pending an appeal.
Each victim and their families received a letter from Philippine National Police director general Alan Purisima, which ended with the line, "Please accept our most sorrowful regret", which lawmaker James To Kun-sun - who has been assisting the families - described as "having the meaning" of an apology.
Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada, who arrived in Hong Kong on Tuesday, also handed over two resolutions passed by Manila's city council expressing the authorities' apology and declaring August 23 will from now on be a day of prayer for the souls of those who died.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said he and the families believed the sincerity shown by the Philippines helped make the agreement possible.
"I also believe the bilateral relations between the peoples of Hong Kong and Philippines will start a new chapter," Leung said.
The breakthrough came after Estrada, with Philippine President Benigno Aquino's two close allies - police chief Purisima and cabinet secretary Jose Rene Almendras - visited Hong Kong.
Another crucial point came on April 4 when the Hong Kong government notified Tse of the Philippine government's bottom line on the choice of words for the final agreement.
"We were left with only two choices … to decline would mean stepping up the sanctions," Tse said. "We do not wish to see other innocent people going through what we have endured over the past three years," he said.
Additional Reporting by Phila Siu and Johnny Tam
Hong Kong travel agents prepare to resume trips to the Philippines as black travel warning lifted
Hong Kong tour agencies are looking into the feasibility of restarting tours to the Philippines after the government lifted its black travel warning yesterday.
The warning, issued in the wake of the 2010 hostage crisis that saw sacked policeman Rolando Mendoza kill seven Hong Kong tourists and their guide, was lifted yesterday after a deal on compensation and an apology from Manila.
Officials on both sides yesterday expressed hope that the end of the diplomatic row would see rapid growth in tourism.
The black travel warning, the highest on a three-point scale, advised Hongkongers against all travel to the country. It has been replaced by an amber alert, the lowest, meaning travellers should monitor signs of threat and exercise caution.
Tours could resume in as little as two weeks, Hong Kong Travel Industry Council executive director Joseph Tung Yao-chung said. Companies that had not dared to offer trips to the Philippines in the wake of the hostage crisis would be able to do so now.
"The Philippines is attractive. Destinations such as Cebu are popular," he said, adding that he expected Philippine tourist authorities to roll out promotions and discounts to woo visitors.
However, local tour agencies Wing On Travel and Hong Thai Travel said they could not set a timetable for the resumption of tours yet.
"Safety of our clients, tourism facilities and trends will be our primary concerns," Wing On's deputy general manager Simon Ma Sai-man said.
"As the products have been suspended for quite a long time, it will be necessary for us to get in touch with airlines, hotel runners and agencies. We will continue to monitor the situation."
Benito Bengzon, assistant secretary for international tourism promotions of the Department of Tourism in the Philippines, said he hoped the upward trend of arrivals from Hong Kong would continue. "Maybe what's important here is to stress the fact that arrivals from Hong Kong have registered positive growth and of course we remain hopeful we will have closure [on the tragedy]," he said.
The number of Hong Kong tourists dropped 16 per cent year on year to 112,106 in 2011, the year after the hostage-taking when the black travel alert was issued.
The number of Hong Kong tourists has since grown slightly to 126,008 last year, still below the level in 2010.
The number of visitors from the Philippines to Hong Kong has risen over the past three years, unaffected by the diplomatic row. Arrivals grew from 603,030 in 2010 to 705,319 last year.
The crisis had a mild impact on trade. The freight-on-board value of Philippine exports to Hong Kong slid to US$3.7 billion in 2011 from US$4.3 billion in 2010, the Philippine Department of Trade and Industry said.
However, the value of exports rose to US$4.78 billion in 2012 despite the stand-off. Last year, when Hong Kong started talking about imposing sanctions, exports from the Philippines to the territory dropped slightly to US$4.4 billion - but they were still higher than the level just before the August 23, 2010 killings. The country's main export to Hong Kong is petroleum products.
From 2010 to 2013, total trade between the two rose 12.7 per cent to HK$63.9 billion, according to statistics from the Hong Kong Trade Development Council. The growth picked up pace in the first two months of this year with an increase of 5.5 per cent from the same period a year ago.