Philippines Safe for Vacationers, Officials Insist

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three days after Islamic rebels kidnapped a group of tourists from the Dos Palmas resort on Palawan island, Philippine leaders struck back: They gave away a trip for two to the same resort.

Over the past three weeks, as soldiers have chased the kidnappers across the southern Philippines and fought them in deadly battles, tourism officials have launched their own campaign to salvage the country's reputation as a safe place for visitors.

"We have 7,107 islands here in the Philippines, and we have trouble on only a couple of them," Ricky V. Ordonez, president of the Philippine Travel Agencies Assn., said Friday evening at an event here in the capital to promote tourism. "The Philippines is still a safe place to visit."

Since May 27, when Abu Sayyaf rebels raided Dos Palmas and seized 20 people, including three Americans, many would-be visitors have changed their plans and canceled reservations to destinations all over the country. Even Manila, 600 miles from the conflict zone, has seen a drop in the number of visitors, officials say.

Next week, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo will try to reverse the trend, and demonstrate that Palawan island is safe, by going to the Dos Palmas resort. Tourism officials, meanwhile, have scheduled a meeting of their own there and will fly in a group of journalists to stay for a couple of days--at no charge.

"The kidnappers are terrible people, but at the same time you have to put it in perspective," said Tourism Secretary Richard Gordon. "It's a big country."

Tourism accounts for 9% of the Philippine economy, bringing in $2.5 billion a year. But some countries, including the United States, have issued travel advisories warning tourists not to go to troubled parts of the nation.

Authorities said Friday that they had no word about whether hostage Guillermo Sobero of Corona is alive. The rebels asserted Tuesday that they had beheaded Sobero. But despite an intensive search, the military has not found his body in the area where the killing supposedly occurred.

Rebel spokesman Abu Sabaya claims that he has a videotape of the slaying--he has reportedly tried to sell it to at least one television network--but so far the tape has not surfaced.

The 20 hostages seized from Dos Palmas consisted of 17 tourists and three workers. Among them were Martin and Gracia Burnham of Wichita, Kan., who had been working as missionaries in the Philippines.

The kidnappers escaped to Basilan island, where they executed two of the resort workers and seized at least 15 more hostages. However, while the kidnappers were occupied fighting with the military, nine of the original hostages escaped.

The Abu Sayyaf rebels say they are fighting to create an Islamic state in the southern Philippines. The government calls them bandits whose main activity is kidnapping for ransom.

Arroyo has mobilized 3,500 troops to fight the kidnappers, who are now holed up on Basilan. They are estimated to number about 700.

Perhaps Abu Sayyaf's bold raid last year on a diving resort on the Malaysian island of Sipadan should have served as a warning to the tourists on Palawan. Both spots are a long distance from the rebels' home base of Jolo island.

The kidnappers seized 21 hostages on Sipadan, all but one of them foreign tourists, and eventually got as much as $25 million in ransom from Libya.

The rebels may well have targeted the Dos Palmas resort because its cottages are built out onto the water, making them an easy target.

The 50-room resort aims to attract ecotourists and is marketed primarily to residents of the Philippines.

The Burnhams live in the Philippines, but Sobero traveled from California--without the knowledge of his family--to vacation on the island. All the other hostages were Filipinos.

The resort was closed for two weeks after the kidnapping but is once again open for business. At the government's initiative, a free three-night stay, including air fare, was given away at a May 30 event sponsored by the Philippine Chamber of Commerce.

Gordon, who became tourism secretary in January after Arroyo took office, said the hostage crisis has made the industry realize that it must promote itself abroad if it is to avoid a serious downturn.

"This has awakened people in the tourism business," the secretary said. "They hate Abu Sayyaf. I don't want to get beat by those bums."

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