Seeds planted for new niche

Tourism stakeholders contemplate upselling strategies, tax holidays and a template to grow its budding farm tourism niche

Batad, northern Luzon, is home to some of the country's best preserved rice terraces

The Philippines may be a latecomer in developing agritourism as compared to some of its neighbours, but its tourism industry is not short of ideas on how it could compete for a slice of the market of farm-loving travellers.

Batad, northern Luzon, is home to some of the country’s best preserved rice terraces

The Department of Tourism (DOT) had begun taking notice of agritourism’s potential during the yearly gastronomy event, Madrid Fusion Manila. The Farm Tourism Development Act of 2016 soon followed, and the Farm Tourism Travel Guide was launched at the 2017 Madrid Fusion.

Building awareness and being heard over the competition is essential, said Patria Chiong, executive vice president of the Philippine Travel Agencies Association (PTAA), who acknowledged efforts to develop agritourism products should have begun 10 years ago.

For Afro Asian Travel’s president Angel Ramos Bognot, “farm tourism is viewed as a day package… You pick fruits, eat them, go home”. What she would like to see are more educational, creative and experiential farm stay products that stretch over several days, like those in Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia and Australia.

“Tourists can plant the seeds and the farm can assign staff to take care of their plants, update them with photos, teach them Filipino cooking, then invite them to return after a few months to harvest what they planted,” Bognot suggested.

Also promising to change perceptions of farm tours as day packages is the DOT’s launch of a farm and faith tourism programme in December last year.

Roberto Alabado III, then tourism regional director, said Davao is the launch pad for agritourism because of its vast farms and plantations, and a farm tourism template is being prepared to be replicated across the country.

Alabado noted that the Calabarzon’s farm-to-table and organic farm concepts are already starting to get awareness, adding that there are also existing farm tours in Luzon and the Visayas.

Aida Briones, president, Batangas Alliance for Farm Tourism Development, comprising 20 organic and natural farming practitioners, noted the bright potential of the niche product, which can be combined with beach, heritage, culture, spa and wellness, and even faith tourism.

But she is pushing for tax breaks and reduced business permit fee for start-up farms, given that farming is capital intensive and return on investment can take time. For example, trees can take five to seven years to bear fruit.

Moreover, increased government support will be valuable especially in terms of staff training as well as marketing and promotions, she continued.

More players are jumping into this niche market. An example is Sheridan Organic Farm and Eco Village in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, run by Sheridan Beach Resort located in the area.

Resort director for sales and marketing Hannah Yulo said the 50ha agritourism farmstead has a hotel-standard dorm, in addition to activities such as tree planting, animal feeding, vegetable harvesting, field ploughing and farm-to-table dining to tempt guests to stay longer.

Newcomers could learn from farms and plantations that have successfully morphed into tourist destinations, including the Malagos Garden Resort in Davao, which became popular when its chocolate products won European awards.

Resort general manager Hermie Tabanag said that to meet the increasing demand, they have renovated the accommodation and added a new attraction, the Chocolate Museum, in March last year.

Costales Nature Farms in Laguna, which started organic farming of vegetables and herbs in 2005, offers accommodation, a convention hall, tour packages, workshops and an internship programme.

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