MANILA - Filipinos in traditional attire on Tuesday played bamboo marimbas and handed out necklaces and gifts to their first Chinese visitors since before the pandemic, seeking to lure back tourists after China's scrapping of its COVID-19 curbs.
Chinese travellers no longer need to quarantine on return home and holiday bookings have surged from what was the world's largest outbound travel market in 2019.
"After three years I got to visit Manila again from China. It feels great, so many happy places," said Anthony Lee, a 38-year-old Chinese businessman who was among about 200 passengers who arrived on the Xiamen Airlines flight to Manila, the first since 2020.
China was the Philippines' second-largest tourism market, with 1.7 million visitors in 2019, government data showed.
Only 39,627 people from China visited last year, when the Philippines started relaxing its restrictions.
"I have not gone to any countries. I am very happy now," said Atsushih Amemye, 28, after he passed through immigration.
The once $255 billion annual global spending by Chinese tourists ground to a virtual halt during the pandemic and left a hole in the Asian market.
The Philippines, known for its powdery white sand beaches and lush marine life, is targeting 4.8 million foreign tourists this year, after 2.6 million in 2022.
"We anticipate even more Chinese tourists to arrive, which will greatly help us in our effort to transform and recover the tourism industry," Tourism Secretary Christina Garcia Frasco told reporters.
"Our intention is not only to regain our pre-pandemic numbers but to exceed it."
(Reporting by Adrian Portugal; Writing by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Martin Petty and Timothy Heritage)