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Mine the expat market

More foreigners visiting and living permanently in the country means more potential business for entrepreneurs
By Jimbo Owen B. Gulle |

It used to be that foreigners came to the Philippines simply to take in the sights, to sample the culture, and to unwind basically. Now they come for completely different reasons: to work, to study, to stay and even to retire among us.

With economies sagging and the cost of living rising to all-time highs worldwide, Americans, Koreans, Japanese, Chinese and other foreign nationals are finding it more practical to stay permanently in the Philippines. This presents a big opportunity for Filipino entrepreneurs to find and develop niches in the growing market for expatriates.


While it’s easy to track the number of tourists coming into the country, it’s much harder to count those who actually stay and become expats. The most authoritative statistic comes from a United Nations population survey in 2006, which says that 374,000 migrants—those not born in the country or are citizens of other countries—were in the Philippines, making up 0.5 percent of the total population.


Assuming this percentage still holds true, there should be at least half a million migrants among our total population of 92 million today. Koreans would make up half of that total; indeed, according to a 2007 survey by a local phone company, the country now has the largest Korean community in Southeast Asia at over 92,000. Longtime Korean residents even say their current numbers could actually be five times bigger than that. That wouldn’t be surprising, since Koreans now make up 20 percent of all tourists coming here. Underscoring this fact is the sizable Korean presence in Boracay, the country’s top beach attraction for tourists.


Intermarriage with Filipinos, the generally low cost of living, and the country’s warmer climate are three major reasons why foreigners come to the Philippines to stay for good. Beyond these, however, there’s one particular reason many Koreans have come and stayed since World War II—they get more value for their money by sending their families to live, work, and study here.



Usually, the Korean father stays behind in Seoul to work, while his wife and children live in Manila. The kids enroll in the schools and universities here to learn English, earn degrees, and do apprentice work here; meanwhile, their mother takes care of them or tends a small business of her own, usually a food or grocery store. When the dad reaches retirement age, he comes over to join his family and enjoy his life savings, handle his own business, or simply hit the golf courses regularly.


One other motivation for foreigners to stay here is the relative ease of entering the country. Says Andrew, 38, an Australian selling ebooks online who has lived with his fiancée in Lipa, Batangas, these past two years: “The Philippines probably offers the most generous visa conditions. Foreigners can stay in the country for up to 18 months before they have to leave the country, and they can come straight back. This means they can effectively stay as long as they want.” He made these observations in one of the numerous expat-in-RP blogs.



With the increasing efforts by both government and the private sectors to entice foreigners and retirees to live here, Filipino entrepreneurs have many opportunities to service this growing and cash-rich community of foreign nationals. Some of the ventures that enterprising Pinoys can explore are spas and health clubs aside from the usual tour services and travel agencies, food and grocery stores, remittance centers, language schools, and hotels and lodging.


In the end, it’s all about meeting an expat’s need—and sometimes it’s not even a material
need like food or clothing. Says Don Herrington, an American who owns a website on living in the Philippines and who has been here since 1989: “The Filipino people make you feel needed and wanted here. When I lived in the States as a retiree, I felt lost in my own country. But here I feel wanted and appreciated, not yet put out to pasture.” Herrington has lived in Cebu since 1996, and calls it “the Paris of the Philippines.”



He says about his life in the Philippines: “I can be a provider of help and information, and an asset to this developing country. I’m not just a barnacle on the bottom of the ship of the United States. Other foreigners living and retired here share this feeling with me.”

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