Like It Is

Decisions must be made

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It’s more fun in the Philippines. Well, it is if you can get there and have a place to stay. The facilities for both are in a bit of short supply right now.

Naia is beyond its limit, and after 19 incredible years a decision still hasn’t been made about what to do about the premier international airport. I mean we all know about bureaucratic inertia, but this is absurd: 19 years to just make a decision, let alone actually do anything. Is it to be Clark? So far away, the reason it’s being considered is that it has a couple of excellent runways and lots of blank space.

But close is not what Clark is to Makati. It’s all very well to talk about a high-speed train, but that would be a decade or more in the making. If you don’t believe me, MRT7, a perfectly ordinary, low-speed train has been in gestation for 10 years now and still not started. The short, simple connection of LRT1 to MRT3 has been more than three years in the making and counting. So a high-tech, high-speed rail?

Clark was first suggested in 1994; 19 years later the government hasn’t yet decided yes, or no. What about alternatives? Put a second runway at Naia? You can just imagine the opposition to government’s acquisition of the necessary land, it would be tied up in litigation for years. Somewhere else, as Ramon Ang has suggested? Sure, but where can you reasonably readily acquire 2,000 hectares of land? It’s a Gordian knot of a problem, but one that must be solved soonest if tourism is to grow.

One short-term, easy solution to ease the problem is to move out all general aviation. That will reduce the flight congestion somewhat. Some planes can go to Sangley. While Naia’s capability can be upgraded with modern navigation systems, some physical restructuring and better operational systems. Also Naia and Clark can share the burden.

But probably the best solution is to have fully open skies, and encourage it. But outside of Cebu, Davao, Iloilo, Clark, Ilocos Norte and Zamboanga, no other airport has been opened to international jets. In fact, despite being listed as “open” for direct flights, these airports suffer from passenger congestion and inadequate facilities. An upgrade has been proposed for the Ilocos airport, but this has yet to be approved. Upgrades for the Mactan-Cebu International Airport have been given the green light but the project is still on the auction block. An upgrade of Clark Airport is still awaiting financing, while the privatization of the operations of the Iloilo and Davao airports is being studied. As for Zamboanga, there was a proposal to relocate the airport but this was rejected, so nothing has been done. Those places all need a modern terminal, an air safety navigation system and, in most cases, extended, strengthened runways.

But it can be done, even within the next five years or so—if action is taken now, if decisions are made now.

As it now stands, the country lags behind its neighbors in terms of transport infrastructure. In the World Economic Forum’s latest Travel and Tourism Report, the Philippines ranked 69th out of 140 countries in terms of air transport infrastructure. Singapore placed 14th, Thailand 21st, and Malaysia 26th. In terms of ground transport infra, the country ranked 89th, or at the bottom half of the total number of countries surveyed. Here Singapore placed second, Malaysia 36th. The government must be able to reverse this if it is to attract more tourists.

Yes, that’s a key prerequisite to attracting tourists: Getting there. I remember one summer when I was at university (that’s quite a longtime ago), we decided to go to exotic Bali at a time when Oz didn’t even know there was a world out there. We travelled to Denpasar, for seven hours, if memory serves. By sunset we were on the beach with beer in hand. The point of all this. You have to be able to get there, be on the beach, not twiddling your thumbs endlessly in airports or hitching jeepney rides to god knows where. Logistics, ease of access—they are essential.

As to finding a place to stay, at least some action is happening. At least 13 resorts and hotels providing an estimated 8,500 rooms are under construction, or planned for the immediate future. And the success of the “More Fun in the Philippines” campaign will encourage others to invest too. I’m not too worried about finding some place (other than Naia) to sleep. Weren’t you amused by the absurdity of ranking Naia-1 as the world’s worst airport—to sleep in. Who the

h_ _l goes to an airport terminal to sleep? I measure the success of a terminal by how quickly I can get through it. And the Manila International Airport Authority (with Gen. Jose Angel Honrado as its general manager) and the customs and immigration bureaus have all done a great job of easing passage. More gates, more people, clean toilets, what more could you ask? Well, for me, far, far, far better airline lounges. Naia has the world’s worst lounges, well at least of the couple of or three dozens I’ve been to. But Naia, for all its limitations is working for the passenger.

Tourism Secretary Mon Jimenez’s “IT’S MORE FUN IN THE PHILIPPINES” is a brilliant piece of marketing. It describes the Philippines exactly. Other places have beautiful beaches, but they don’t have the pure white sands of Boracay; they have great surfs, but they don’t have the “Cloud 9” wave of Siargao. Everyone has churches (some have the more exotic temples), but what the others don’t have is sheer friendliness. It is more fun in the Philippines. Indeed. So, it’s time for government to play its part and actually provide the essential support systems and infra, not just promise them.

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