DUBAI // A push by the Philippine tourism department to sell its country's attractions to UAE travellers has yielded some quick results.
Five travel agents were invited by the department's new office, which opened in Dubai last April, to spend eight days in Manila, Davao, Cebu and Boracay. Ifraheem Henry, 35, a senior holidays consultant at Sharjah National Travel and Tourism Agency, was impressed after recently returning from his first trip to the country.
"The Philippines is an amazing place," Mr Henry said. "I particularly loved its beaches, water sport activities, the shopping options and the hospitality. People here are not aware of what the Philippines has to offer as a destination."
His agency now offers packages to Boracay, among other spots.
The "buy Philippines" drive appears to be succeeding, but it has come as something of a surprise to Filipino expatriates that the man leading the push is not one of their countrymen, but a Syrian - Mohamad Ibrahim Masri, 33.
Mr Masri, the director of the new office, said being an Arab has given him credibility to sell the Philippines to the region.In June, he spent nine days in Manila, Cebu City, Bohol and Boracay to look at hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions, trains and buses.
"The Philippines is a beautiful country," said Mr Masri, previously the marketing manager for the Malaysia Tourism Board in Dubai.
"The Philippines has always been eyeing the Middle East market. It has participated in the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai for the past four years."
Angeline Rivera, the tourism office's Filipina sales and marketing co-ordinator, said it may seem odd to have a non-Filipino promoting her country.
"But he's so passionate about it," Ms Rivera said. "Emiratis are looking for something new. They've visited Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia three to four times.
"Mohamad believes the Philippines has so much to offer and he is keen to promote it in the Middle East."
Mr Masri said the more than 600,000 Filipinos in the UAE should think of themselves as ambassadors and talk more about their country. He said he particularly loved Boracay's white beaches, the Mactan resorts in Cebu, the Chocolate Hills of Bohol and dolphins swimming next to his boat.
Mr Masri said he would eventually like to have a chance to promote Syrian tourism, "but everything will happen when the right time comes".
The reactions from local Filipinos to having an Arab represent their country's tourism has been mixed.
"Why did our department of tourism hire a non-Filipino to do the job?" asked Boyet Briones Damot, 42, a project manager in Abu Dhabi.
"Was it a matter of logistics and funding? If we are proud about the Philippines as the destination of choice, shouldn't the drum-beater be a Filipino?"
But Mr Damot admitted he was impressed by Mr Masri's enthusiasm for the Philippines.
"If he were to deliver the same presentation to a group of Emiratis and Arab nationals, there's a good chance that they would also discover for themselves their piece of paradise in one of our 7,107 islands."