I wasn't sure what to expect from my first ASEAN Tourism Forum. For that matter, I wasn't sure what to expect from the Philippines either. As a destination, I have always imagined the Philippines as curious and exotic. At the same time, I know plenty of Filipino people who are just pleasant and friendly. Perhaps, a couple of good reason's why I jumped at the chance to attend this year's ATF.

I would soon dream of mysterious islands filled with social and fun people "“ barely considering the ATF, the reason why I would be going to the Philippines. I would soon discover that the ATF was a big deal. From the moment I landed in Manila, ASEAN logos were everywhere: plastered on banners, billboards, and magazine covers that littered the newsstands heralding the pending event "“ not to mention the logos affixed to my own luggage. When I landed in Davao, I barely made it out of the gate before I was met by a hero's welcome. There were enthusiastic guides baring gifts. There were dancers, singers, fantastic drumming by local children dressed in colorful costumes and headdresses, and police escorts. I was not alone, 3000 delegates worldwide were expected to attend this year's festivities.

I know what you're asking, "What is the ATF?" Well, the ATF is a yearly gathering of the ten member nations that comprise the ASEAN community (Association of South East Asian Nations). These member nations gather to exchange ideas, set goals, strengthen cooperation between neighboring countries, explore tourism trends and decide on best ways to present Southeast Asia as a worthy tourist destination. These nations include: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Countries take turns hosting the ATF, by alphabetical order.

This year it was Davao City's turn to host the ATF. While the ATF location was initially scheduled for Myanmar (Burma), Davao City became a last second replacement after Myanmar opted out as this year's host. Myanmar's nebulous decision left Davao City with only six months preparation time and journalists looking for answers. The event also marked the ATF's 25th anniversary, which was themed, "Celebrating the many faces of ASEAN." It was a good premise considering that Asia may be the most culturally diverse continent in the world and these countries are sometimes lumped together through their geography. I admit there was a lot to learn.

As one of the few American journalists at the event, I had the opportunity to learn about ASEAN's commitment to protect western visitors from terrorism, the softening of visa restrictions for international travelers, and plans to promote tourism worldwide. Beyond the gathering of dignitaries, the ATF hosted a sea of press conferences with notable representatives from each country, networking events and the Travex convention. Travex presents several hundred ASEAN-based organizations under one roof. National and regional tourist boards, hotels, resorts, airlines and attractions get together and meet with tour operators from all over the world (49 countries to be exact), who put together tour packages that you and I eventually experience. It is the behind the scenes look at the travel industry.

As one of the few American travelers, I also learned some important tips about the region. Davao City is an ethnic melting pot and the capital of the Southern Mindanao Region and one of the world's largest cities in terms of area. Its confines embrace a sprawling 244,000 hectares of land. It is clean, friendly and feels more like a village than a lively metropolis, at times. I was surprised by the uncluttered skyline and lack of street lights. In fact, there are only 15 street lights to direct the 1.4 million people (and 50 trillion cars) of Davao through the city. While appearing chaotic to the eyes of a westerners, Davao's cars comfortably move together and intertwine like a nice plate of spaghetti. Davao is relatively smoke-free from heavy regulations and smoking is permissible only in a few designated areas. Visa and Master Card are readily accepted, American Express is less so. Davao also promotes itself as the safest city in the Philippines. This is probably true, but at a cost. Visitors can expect to see plenty of army, police and other security almost everywhere and can plan to have bags perused and their persons patted down when entering hotels and large markets. To Davao's credit, this process is fast and relatively innocuous unlike my lengthy experiences at U.S. airports.

Here a few random thoughts that may brighten a dim understanding of the ASEAN region.

Brunei, while frequently mistaken as being part of the Middle East, is surrounded by unspoiled rain forest and Malaysia as a part of Borneo. It is also one of the richest countries in the world with virtually no poverty.

"¢ Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia offer plenty of cultural and historical attractions that are poorly marketed and, sadly, frequently overlooked by travelers.

Thailand is celebrating their beloved Monarch's 80th Birthday in 2006 and has scheduled numerous events and openings to mark the occasion.

Vietnam has seven UNESCO sites worth visiting beyond the historical attractions of their long war.

"¢ The tiny country of Singapore receives nine million visitors a year.

"¢ The Philippines, while having a strict travel advisory from the U.S., may not deserve its present reputation "“ at least from my experience.

In between the press conferences and interviews, I did take a few moments to enjoy Davao. I recommend getting around by the most available mode of transport in the Philippines, the jeepney. The jeepney is very inexpensive, packed with locals and an opportunity to experience the Philippines' traffic spaghetti. I also found mysterious islands and friendly people. Our readers can expect to see a lot more in the future from the ASEAN community on In The Know Traveler.

This year's ATF was open from January 13-21, 2006. Next year's ATF, Singapore!

Written and photographed by Devin Galaudet

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