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The Philippines archipelago of more than 7,000 islands is sandwiched between Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, and flanked by the South China Sea. All her neighbours have magical tourist appeal, but the Philippines, even though the sea is just as blue and clear and the myriad coral islands just as alluring, seems to have missed the boat when it comes to fully marketing its attractions.
Bad press in recent years, after some high-profile terrorism and kidnapping incidents, have not helped matters. The country has also laboured under a turbulent political reputation and is still overcoming the effects of martial law. Its poor infrastructure, dilapidated roads and unsafe ferries, have also all played a role in deterring potential travellers and the country has been overlooked as an eco-tourist destination because of local disregard for its natural resources (such as fishermen dynamiting coral reefs). While resources are being channelled into education to prevent such practices a great deal of damage has already been done to the environment.
The good news is that Filipinos themselves are warm and welcoming - as underscored in the country's tagline - 'where Asia wears a smile'. Apart from some beautiful, remote tropical islands and legendary scuba diving spots, the archipelago's best resource is the friendliness and laid-back attitude of the Filipino people. Their hospitable and embracing attitude is enough to put a smile on any visitor's face; and this is even more the case in country's rural areas. The Philippines has some superb all-inclusive luxury resorts spread around the islands which cushion visitors from the general degradation and safety risks of the cities and towns, and a major plus is that the country is amazingly cheap for foreign tourists who have dollars, pounds or euros to spend. Also, the food is delicious, and English is widely spoken.
Independent travellers who like to wander off the beaten track, and do not mind doing without the conveniences of running water and the like, will find plenty to fascinate them in the countryside and coastal parts of the Philippines; albeit without the assistance of guide books. The Philippines is one of the few places left in the world where adventurers can wander through tribal lands, unfettered by modern interferences. Travellers are however advised to follow the current safety advice on areas to avoid.
Many attractions in the Philippines share the dichotomy of their allure and their difficulty to reach. The capital city Manila is an easy place to start. There are marvellous buildings and cathedrals such as the Intramuros and San Agustin Church standing as testament to the history of Spanish colonialism. The Nations Museum and the Malacanang Palace are great attractions to learn about this history.
From Cebu, island attractions and beaches such as Visayas are a chartered flight or ferry away but the city itself has things to do including visiting an important religious site Basilica Minore de Santo Nino or Fort San Pedro. Davao is also a great starting point to visit nearby island attractions such as Camiguin Island and the pristine Lake Sebu. These are best visited between May and July, although any time of year will do, as the attractions never become too busy.
Third party introductions are useful when conducting business in the Philippines and face-to-face communication is key. Emphasis is placed on building good working relations and getting to know each other. Business is conducted formally, and although punctuality is important, meetings may not begin on time. Dress should be conservative; suits and ties are the norm, although many Filipino men wear a shirt known as a barong tagalong, which is a far cooler option in the humid environment. English is widely spoken in business circles and business hours are usually from 8am to 5pm Monday to Friday.
The Philippines has a tropical marine climate dominated by a rainy season and a dry season. The summer monsoon brings heavy rains to most of the country from May to October, and the winter monsoon brings cooler and drier air from December to February. Manila and most of the lowland areas are hot and dusty from March to May, when temperatures can rise to around 99°F (37°C). Average sea-level temperatures rarely drop below 80°F (27°C). Monsoons are possible between July and October. Weather-wise, the best time to visit the Philippines is between January and May; however, be warned that this is also the high tourist season, and so accommodation and flight prices will be higher.
The international access code for the Philippines is +63. The outgoing code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 001 for the United States). City/area codes are in use, e.g. (0)2 for Manila. The major towns, cities and popular tourist spots are covered by GSM 900 and 1800 mobile phone networks. Internet cafes are available in Manila and the tourist resorts.
The concept of 'shame' is very important in Filipino culture and visitors should avoid offending or embarrassing anyone in public while visiting the Philippines. Failure to live up to accepted standards of behaviour brings shame not only on themselves, but also on their family. Any food or drink offered should be accepted, as this is a sign of hospitality.
Travellers to the Philippines over 18 years do not have to pay duty on 400 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 250g pipe tobacco; and 2 litres of alcoholic beverages. Prohibited items include firearms or parts thereof, explosives and ammunition; printed material that contains subversive, obscene or pornographic content; drugs, gambling machines, lottery sweepstake tickets, or coin-operated video machines; gold, silver and other precious metals that do not have authentication of quality; non-identifiable brands of medicines or foodstuffs; coca leaves and any prohibited drugs; plants or parts thereof, fruits and vegetables.
Electrical current is 220 volts, 60Hz. Two-pin flat blade attachments and two-pin round plugs are used.
The official language of the Philippines is Filipino, but English is widely spoken. Tagalog is the most predominant of the many dialects or local languages spoken throughout the islands.
The currency of the Philippines is the Peso (PHP), which is divided into 100 centavos. Major credit cards are widely accepted in the cities and tourist destinations. Banks do not always accept travellers cheques, but a receipt of purchase is useful. ATMs are available in the major cities. US dollars are widely accepted in Manila and other tourist areas and are the easiest currency to exchange; otherwise Euros and Pounds Sterling can also be exchanged in banks and hotels. Banks open from 9am to 3pm, Monday to Friday, but their ATMs are open 24 hours. It is best to carry pesos when travelling outside of major centres.
Everyone entering the Philippines must have a passport valid for at least six months beyond the intended period of stay. All visitors must have return or onward tickets, documents necessary for further travel, as well as sufficient funds. A visa is not required for a stay of up to 21 days provided these criterion are met. Extensions for visas are possible and should be made with the Bureau of Immigration. Visas may be issued on arrival for stays of up to 59 days for a fee of USD 59, and multiple extensions up to one year total are possible.
Safety and security should be of paramount concern to any visitor to the Philippines. It is vital to be fully informed of threats and developments regarding crime, terrorism and kidnapping before and during a visit to the islands. Vigilance is vital throughout the islands, particularly in Manila, as opportunistic crimes are motivated by circumstances of poverty. Extremist groups have a history of kidnapping foreign tourists, and terrorist bombings have occurred in Manila and Mindanao, targeting transport and public places. Recent explosions in Mindanao have killed and injured many people. Security has been increased across southern Philippines, and many foreign governments have issued warnings against travelling to Mindanao. Terrorist groups have also threatened to attack passenger ferries and other vessels, particularly those operating from Mindanao. The threat of terrorism and kidnapping is greatest in central, southern and western Mindanao, Basilan, Tawi Tawi, Jolo and the Sulu archipelago; the FCO, US Department of State and other governments advise against all travel to these areas, and care should also be taken in Palawan and at coastal resorts and tourist centres throughout. There is a high incidence of piracy and armed robbery against ships in and around Philippine waters, and a risk of kidnappings at sea. It is believed that terrorists are continuing with plans to kidnap foreigners from the islands and coastal areas in southern Philippines, putting all boats travelling to and from offshore islands in the Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago, as well as at dive sites at great risk. Safety standards on ferries are low, and rescue services are not very comprehensive. It is advisable to avoid travel off the beaten track, and to leave travel plans with friends, colleagues or relatives. The area is prone to typhoons between July and November, when flooding and landslides can occur: Typhoon Fengshen in June 2008 caused flash floods, landslides and rough seas that has lead to hundreds of deaths.
Local time is GMT +8.
Tipping is expected for most services in the Philippines. The standard practice is 10% of the total bill. Tipping is optional on bills that already include a 10% service charge.