Culture, tourism top agenda for PHL-French connections

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FRANCE consistently ranks as a leading travel destination around the world.

Case in point: In 2018 the European country welcomed around 89 million visitors, with tourists easily outnumbering its citizens, according to Ambassador Nicolas Galey. (As of February 2019, the United Nations estimates visitors’ figures at 65.3 million.)

Ambassador of France to the Philippines Nicolas Galey

The envoy shared during his guesting at the BusinessMirror Coffee Club France’s objective: To reach, by 2020, the symbolic milestone of 100 million foreign tourists.

The good ambassador was asked about the elements that make his country singularly unique to the citizens of the world. Perhaps, the attractions of Paris are too obvious, or he has become accustomed to what foreigners find as exotic in his motherland. Or maybe, it’s the Europeans’ natural inclination not to blow their own horns—though people across the globe continue to rave about France’s diverse tourist draws.

Although to a local like Galey (pronounced “gah-ley”), his instincts would tell that these are simply common currency: “The City of Lights,” as Paris is known for, or the haute cuisine that was once served only for royalties and potentates. Or even, he is simply too cautious to say that his people are one of the friendliest inhabitants of the planet (albeit, appearing to be snubs at first glance). But deep within their Gaelic armor are folks imbued with the same passion for la belle vie.

Galey marched into our office for the interview armed with a ready smile, attired in a well-fitting suit and carried the air of a proper French patrician. He was warm and animated as he went around the room, shook everyone’s hands and greeted, “Manigong bagong taon to all.” 

“Everybody wants to go to Paris once in his or her lifetime. That’s certainly [a goal] for a lot of tourists,” the envoy shared.

He noted that in the 1970s to 1980s, many visitors wanted to get married in the French capital city and get glammed up for the occasion, as couples tied the knot aboard boats docked at the Seine River.

“You will very often see Asian couples [donned in formal] whites. We have agencies in Paris which specialize on [these types of occasions],” meaning the instant nuptials.

He offers one possibility of France’s seeming magical attraction to the world’s travelers: its gastronomic delights. For a long time, the country has been synonymous with its haute cuisine served in ultrachic establishments, gourmet restaurants and luxury hotels. The meals are characterized by meticulous preparation and careful presentation of food, which commands a high price.

The French diplomat also noted that their international airport could be one of the attractions to travelers. He is referring to the airfield dedicated to Charles de Gaulle, also known as Roissy Airport, the name of the local district where it is located. The biggest international airport in France and the second largest in Europe, it handled 72 million passengers and 480,945 aircraft movements in 2018.

“France is a nice country, and the French are nice people,” he pointed out, then referenced that many visitors of faith also trek to its numerous religious sites, including the famous Lourdes. “It may also be one reason [people arrive in] France.” 

(The small town in the south of France has been the site of pilgrimages since a 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous, prior to being canonized as a saint, saw the Blessed Virgin Mary in a cave. A total of 67 miraculous healings have been attributed to the area since 1858.)

Galey also ascribed the increased number of tourists to the hordes of Chinese who, armed with newfound wealth, are exploring the world. (Statistics from the China National Tourism Administration claimed 131 million Chinese tourists traveled overseas in 2017.) 

“The fact that more and more Chinese are traveling, with their population of 1.3 [billion] or 1.4 billion, will benefit every [country]. A simple increase of 1 percent every year [about 1.3 million tourists annually] has an impact on everything, including tourism.”

Visa, tourism matters

FRANCE’S top diplomat to the country noted that, although Italy and Spain probably host some 100,000 Filipinos, he said, “France has maybe about 20,000 to 25,000 Filipino residents.”

When queried that perhaps some more Pinoys are actually making a living in his country, the Frenchman gave his side: “Most of them are working in homes and families. There’s a small group of Filipinos in the fashion industry. They are very good [designers. They are] also in animation and cinema, and some other niche [industries].”

Galey said it only takes about two days to get a French visa, as long as documentation is complete. Deficiencies, such as the lack of some papers, could delay the process.

“If everything is OK, [processing is] 48 hours; but very frequently, one [document may be] missing or outdated, so we have to request more [time].” Compared with other Schengen or non-Schengen countries, “We’re doing well.”

He admitted that three years ago, the Philippines and France signed a tourism agreement, where one of the stipulations is to establish a joint committee on tourism.

The French envoy said the Department of Tourism (DOT) should be able to announce the progress of that agreement, since it would be set up in the Philippines. He added however that hopefully, in the coming months, this agreement would come to fruition, “not mainly to develop tourism flow, but to exchange knowledge and expertise in the field of tourism.”

He said that, although the World Tourism Organization is based in Madrid, Spain, France is still a prime draw for tourists, and that “Paris remains in the [top 3 of the most visited cities in the world], including Bangkok and New York.”

As was the norm, his country offers its scenic spots or beaches, “but tourists today ask for more,” he revealed, citing that the demand of a Chinese tourist is different from that of a Brazilian.

With that knowledge, he said the Philippines, which is blessed with so many assets for tourism, could certainly receive twice, or even three times more, the number of tourists than it is accommodating now.

On the other hand, Galey knew that the absence of direct connections between Manila and Paris is a major drawback to the increasing tourist flow from both sides. He hopes that flag carrier Philippine Airlines is looking at resuming trips to Paris, as it has in its fleet the A350 long-range plane to make a nonstop journey. 

The ambassador proposes that a direct link to France from the Philippines would be profitable if the flight could connect to Palawan, “and not only from Paris, but the other cities of France.”

“This is really something that we can discuss together to better organize tourism—to adjust very quickly to a growing market, and preserve the environment.”

Environmental efforts

SPEAKING of such, he praises the Philippines for being one of 195 countries that signed the Paris Accord, or the Paris Agreement, within the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, which deals with greenhouse-gas-emissions mitigation, adaptation and finance, and will be in-force in 2020. 

“We remember that when the Paris Accord was signed, the Philippines was very helpful [in bringing] many Asian and Pacific countries, and you remain a very strong advocate of this agreement.”

The envoy said France was appreciative of the country’s move to preserve the environment, and gave as an example the closure of the famous Boracay Island.

“Preserving the environment is very positive, because if you don’t pay attention to this, you’re destroying your own assets,” he advised.

 “Everybody in the world knew [almost] overnight that it was closed, but it would take months…to restore the great reputation that Boracay had 15 years ago,” Galey warned. “It’s the same for a country, and…for a destination in general, so that’s the subject we will discuss [with the DOT] in terms of tourism flow.”

‘Positive developments’

IN terms of trade, Galey pointed out that because of his country’s membership in the European Union (EU), the French, Europeans and Filipinos have benefited from recent agreements across the European bloc.

He noted that since France and the Philippines both adhere to the Generalized System of Preferences agreement, or GSP, which facilitates export of goods into the EU, it gave the opportunity for Filipino businessmen to increase their exports by 60 percent.

Among the country’s shipped products to the said region are electronics, food and optical items; while on the other hand, the EU reciprocates with medicine, wine, chemicals and also items for consumption.

The top French representative to the country said the recent deliveries of Airbus planes to Philippine carriers are “positive developments,” although he admitted: “You don’t sell an A350 every day.”

He was full of praises for the country’s robust economic growth: “We are very jealous of [it]: more than 6 percent—nearly 7—in the last 10 years. It’s very steady and stable, according to most, if not all, economic institutions. Solid [numbers], with so-called fundamentals, which appear to be…very good.”

This healthy growth, he offered, “obviously attracts interests from economic partners. He emphasized: “There are not many places in the world where the economy is growing that fast.”

Global, local economy

THE ambassador, who holds a diploma from Institute of Political Studies in Paris, and a was former student at the École Nationale d’Administration, advances the idea that even some countries that have been observed to be very optimistic economies “are threatened by some clouds.”

Galey might be alluding to China’s economic slowdown in the wake of its trade war with the United States, including the problems besetting one of the former’s major telecommunications companies.

Going back to the Philippines, he said EU exporters, investors and expatriates who want to experience the Philippines should come over to discover our newfound emergence as a sort of “economic miracle,” “because you have started to become an Asian dragon.”

Only, he rued the historical reality that the Philippines is not as close to France like the US or Spain, “but of course, we knew each other.” Such is held true, since the Philippines and France established diplomatic relations only 70 years ago.

Galey then took stock of what had been realized in the last 10 years through his predecessors, and noted that the relationship has been “growing year after year.”

He appreciated the huge market of 100 million citizens the country represents, and the current “strong, solid growth of the economy, including the high level of education, the ability of practically every one to [converse] in English, which he noted bodes “extremely well in most cases” as a positive advantage over our Asian neighbors.

“All of these [facts] are starting to be known in [all of] Europe—including France.”

Galey estimated there are about 40,000 nationals of EU countries in this country—about 3,000 of them, French—whose numbers are increasing gradually, consisting of “young people, investors, and start-up [proponents].”

Culture sharing

WE also touched on the subject that France is very well known for: its distinct culture.

Galey offered to aspiring Francophiles that they could learn “something French” at the Alliance Française in Makati City, where it holds the Les Jeudis culturels (Cultural Thursdays) and offers shows highlighting France’s popular music, among others. (The last week of January had a tribute to the late Charles Aznavour, the “Frank Sinatra of France.”)

The diplomat is of the opinion that culture promotes knowledge and understanding of the feelings of “those on the other side of the border,” and that it “comes in handy on many occasions; when there are hostilities among nations.”

“At our modest level at the French Embassy, we also have that mission, which is to make our culture, language and art activities known. We certainly believe it is [now] more important than before, in the globalized world, that we sustain that kind of policy.”

He noted that in the past, cultural exchanges were more or less reserved to the elite. “Those people [had no problems exchanging] among themselves, as that had been the case for centuries.”

The French ambassador also commented on the influence of modern technology, “with everybody [now on their] smartphones. Through the Internet, you can see where this disease of fake news started.”

Thankfully, he said, there still exists responsible media that is able to let truth prevail, then advanced the idea that “it’s much easier to do it, after one had established cultural links with people who spontaneously understand what you’re saying, because they have heard about you before.”

Citing their media such as movies and radio that were able to help amplify their cultural elements, the envoy believes his country succeeded in reaching out to various peoples in the world, including the Philippines.

As one of the first BusinessMirror Coffee Club guests for 2019, Galey told us he arrived in Manila in December 2017, following his posting in the Middle East. 

The 59-year-old envoy was France’s Deputy chief of mission from 1999 to 2002, assistant director of Egypt and the Levant, directorate for Middle East and North Africa between 2002 and 2004, and counselor to the Minister’s Office in 2004.

He started his stints as an ambassador in Cyprus from 2007 to 2009, as envoy to Egypt from 2012 to 2014 and Interministerial delegate for the Mediterranean between 2014 and 2017.

Galey said that after his Middle East stationing, he likes the experience of his current Philippine assignment “because the country has plenty of European background by culture, history and language.”

Aside from that, the French diplomat found the Philippines easy to work in, its people as nice and gentle, and its nature innately beautiful.

Image Credits: Jimbo Albano