RIVALS finger-wag and call it a high-wire, high-risk gamble. But town-proud Cebuanos have taken it to heart. ''It'' is the posh new 359-room US$50 million Mactan Island Resort. Managed and 20 per cent owned by Hong Kong's Shangri-La group, the resort is the first deluxe foreign-managed hotel to open in the Philippines in nearly 25 years. Despite its rich natural beauty, the Philippines has been perennially plagued by all manner of troubles - political, social, economic and even geological. As a result, the country largely missed out on the tourism boom that swept through most of Southeast Asia in the 1980s. The island nation has been given a wide berth by virtually every major hotel firm since the 1970s. Even those hotel firms already there have never expanded. When a disastrous fire swept through the elegant Manila Regent in the early 1980s, Regent International opted not to re-open. Several years later, Hilton International decided not to renew the management contract for its Manila property. And, following the tragic 1987 Baguio earthquake, Hyatt International chose not to rebuild its hotel there, though it still maintains a Manila property. Club Med has been actively trying to enter the country for many years, only to be rebuffed each time by excessive demands on the part of local partners. The one bright beacon in the Philippines' otherwise bleak visitors' industry has been the island of Cebu, which boasts the strongest economy and the least political squabbling. Sensing the need to distance itself from the dubious image of Manila, Cebu's provincial government coolly marketed itself in Japan as ''an island in the Pacific.'' The campaign was so successful that plane-loads of normally skittish Japanese arrived oblivious to the fact that they were vacationing on the Philippines. A score of small, locally-owned, thatched-roof resorts soon encrusted Cebu's coral lined coast, to cater for Japanese scuba divers and honeymooners. But few of them offered more than 50 rooms. Shangri-La is the first international hotel firm to boldly wade ashore - with two hotels in Manila, and a resort property in Cebu - where older, more established, rival Western hotel firms have feared to tread. According to Wolf Flecker, Shangri-La's general manager, the group's gamble is already beginning to pay off. Mr Flecker says his new resort is virtually booked solid for the Christmas season, and dates for the Chinese New Year are filling up fast. The Hong Kong link is more than merely a financial investment. Hong Kong travellers are expected to be one of the resort's mainstays. ''Most of our guests are Asian, and Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan are our biggest markets,'' said Mr Flecker. There are also direct flights to Cebu from Kai Tak. Mr Flecker is optimistic about the country as a whole: ''With President Ramos in office, there have been far fewer political squabbles. ''More focus has been put on the economy. And that is what the country needs.'' Though the arrival of the Shangri-La high on its own hill has upset some of the smaller local hotels, most Cebuanos see the resort as a sign that Cebu is finally on the world's tourist map, and no longer need fall under the shadow of Manila. ''The Cebuanos are natural rivals to the people of Manila,'' said Mr Flecker. ''We think we'll be helping to make Cebu a destination for repeat visitors. Previously, there were only smaller resorts, places with just one restaurant, serving very average food, a pool, and that's basically it. ''That's fine if you just want to relax and do nothing, but most Asian travellers, and Hong Kong people especially, like to have lots of choices for things to do. They're very active vacationers.'' Aside from its seven F&B outlets, including Cantonese and seafood restaurants, the 13-hectare resort has a 350-metre beachfront with full marine sports, a health club, tennis courts, a children's nursery, a six-hole mini golf course, a business centre, a ballroom seating 500 and the largest pool on the island. It also has its own satellite dish to receive CNN, and 100 telephone lines for IDD phone service, no mean feat in a country where just getting a dialling tone can take hours. The Austrian-born Mr Flecker, who previously worked in Africa, the Caribbean, Manila, Bali and China, is well aware of how fussy Hong Kong people are about their food; in the late 1980s he managed the exclusive Aberdeen Marine Club. ''I think we have a real advantage in attracting the upper end of the Hong Kong market because not only do we have a wide choice of restaurants, we have the quality of food that Hong Kong people are accustomed to.'' But the hotel also provides pay cheques for nearly 600 Filipinos, mostly Cebuanos. Rank and file staff were recruited directly from the local community of Lapu Lapu, says Mr Flecker, but he was also lucky enough to find many experienced Filipinos, for department heads, who were working overseas, in Guam, Jakarta, and the Middle East. ''They were happy to return home.'' Having worked with both Chinese and Filipinos, the 47-year-old hotelier finds that both cultures have their strengths. ''I had very good experience working with the Chinese staff in Hangzhou. From both a human and a work experience it was very rewarding,'' he said. ''The staff in China are very industrious, very eager to learn. Filipinos can also be hard-working, and they have a natural warmth that can't be taught, but they are far more family-bound. ''Filipinos are very much tied up with family life, they're very close to their children and grand parents. ''If something happens at home, that problem must come first, before the job!''