Philippine dreams of becoming Asia's next "economic miracle" have been labeled premature by local businessmen.

Private organizations polled by Reuters saw a long, hard road ahead for the Philippines and say Manila has only just started the journey.But optimistic officials from President Corazon Aquino down say conditions for Philippine progress are nearly all in place.

"The chances now are better than any other time in the past. But let us be pragmatic. It cannot be done immediately," said businessman Raul Concepcion.

Trade Secretary Jose Concepcion, twin brother of the skeptical Raul, has pinned hopes on manufactured exports, which rose to $1.01 billion in January-February from $765 million a year earlier.

He said the Philippine economy was heading in the right direction to turn the impoverished nation into Asia's latest Newly-Industrialized Country, known as NICs.

The Philippine economy grew by 5.7 percent last year and is forecast to grow by between 6 and 6.5 percent in 1988. Growth in 1986 was 1.9 percent after a combined 10 percent drop in 1985 and 1984.

Asian Development Bank figures show the Philippines has a long way to go to realize its goal.

The Manila-based bank in its annual report on Wednesday said the Philippines in 1986 recorded a per capita gross national product (GNP) of $570.

Singapore and South Korea, two of Asia's most prosperous NICs, recorded $7,410 and $2,370 respectively.

Two other countries that aspire to NIC status were also ahead of the Philippines: Malaysia, with per capita GNP at $1,860 and Thailand at $810.

The 2-year-old Aquino government has made economic progress a priority, but is handicapped by a 19-year-old communist insurgency and the threat of instability from rightwing forces.

"The Philippines certainly has potential to become another NIC in the not too distant future. But at this stage it is a little bit premature to talk about it happening at the end of the century," said Christian Roehr, secretary-general of the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines.

Restrictions on foreign ownership and an over-regulated Board of Investments were keys for reform before the Philippines could hope to join the NICs or repeat their successes, he added.

Victor Lim, president of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said turning the country into an NIC required a national effort with the government taking the lead.

"We in business are optimistic. Becoming the next economic miracle in Asia is possible but that requires a lot of hard work," he said.

Bill Luz, executive director of the influential Makati Business Club, said he was optimistic about prospects for the Philippines.

"What they (the government) are setting is the vision. Certainly there are still short-term problems which need to be looked at, although there have been indications of a turnaround," he said.