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No Free Lunch

City in transition

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When I visited Iloilo City with my wife in June last year, it had been years since I had last been there, and I was pleasantly surprised at how much the place had changed. I have since returned several times, and I could tell that this is a city in rapid transition, with exciting things in store.

Iloilo hasn’t always been like this. Even then, there has always been a lot of wealth here. Just like nearby Bacolod across the Guimaras Strait, it is home to wealthy clans bearing familiar names that made their fortunes on vast landholdings, especially in sugar. Raw sugarcane in fact remains the top product shipped out of Iloilo’s port. The vast Ilonggo wealth is evident—but is mostly in the banks. In 2010, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas counted P54.7 billion in deposits held in 568,617 active accounts in the city’s 103 banks, or an average of P96,198 per account.

Our Ilonggo hosts consistently describe themselves as frugal, calling themselves the “Ilocanos of the Visayas.” Most keep simple lifestyles, and contrast themselves with their Bacolod counterparts who have a reputation as big spenders. Interestingly, official data from the government’s Family Income and Expenditures Survey had Western Visayas showing the lowest saving rate across the country in 2003-2009. There need not be any inconsistency here if the thrifty stereotype applies mainly to Iloilo’s moneyed class, even as the region’s general population may indeed be the lowest savers nationwide. This thriftiness of the Iloilo wealthy apparently comes with aversion to risk, seen in reluctance to reinvest their wealth in job-creating ventures that could otherwise enliven the local economy. It is for this reason, I’m told, that the Iloilo economy—and the city landscape—had changed little over time.

Well, not anymore, it seems. Things have changed, and new developments are rapidly taking place. New business centers, buildings, hotels, enterprises, industries and amenities are sprouting, changing the economic landscape at a pace not seen before. Seemingly changing as well are the Ilonggos’ lifestyles and attitudes. A couple of Iloilo old-timer friends attest that they now find themselves eating out much more than they used to. There’s now an abundance of choices of good dining places, they told us, well beyond Tatoy’s, the seaside favorite that had been the city’s traditional not-to-be-missed restaurant. There is a growing nightlife where none existed before. Domestic and international tourism are up, thanks in large part to the new Iloilo International Airport, now the fourth busiest airport in the country.

It seems that it has taken outside investors, rather than homegrown Ilonggo investors themselves, to trigger Iloilo’s newfound dynamism. The initial push came from the fast-growing business process outsourcing (BPO) industry. Hosting eight universities and over a dozen colleges producing 17,000-18,000 graduates yearly, the city has an abundance of the human resources the industry needs. The Business Processing Association of the Philippines tags Iloilo City as one of its “next wave cities,” based on ample availability of talent and relevant infrastructure. This has been a magnet not only for BPO firms, but for outside investors in general. A prominent entrant has been Ayala Land, whose Ayala TechnoHub in the bustling Smallville Business Park has set the tone for further major developers. Megaworld, which acquired the 54-hectare site of the old Mandurriao airport in 2007, is now building a Richmonde Park Hotel and two new BPO office buildings, further unfolding dramatic new changes in the city landscape. Meanwhile, construction of a riverside esplanade has given city residents and tourists another outdoor attraction that could spur yet other businesses.

But Iloilo’s promise lies well beyond BPO. There is some limited industrial activity within the city in the form of power generation, flour milling, ice plants, and various small-scale manufacturing activities. There could be much more. Hosting the island’s premier seaport, the city is the key link between Panay’s primary production areas (for farm crops, livestock, poultry, and minerals, mainly coal from Semirara) and external markets elsewhere in the country and overseas. Its economic development is thus closely intertwined with that of its surrounding areas in Iloilo province, Panay island and Western Visayas. The upcoming multibillion-peso Jalaur River Multipurpose Dam project also promises to unleash great new economic potentials in the region.

Most prominently, Iloilo City is a key services hub: a center for finance; wholesale and retail trade; tourism; medical, health and wellness services; and education. Wellness tourism is a new industry emerging on its own, attests city planner Butch Peñalosa, with new specialized spa/clinic hotels now attracting clients from Metro Manila and elsewhere. And with the city’s abundance of educational institutions, higher education does not only respond to the needs of industry; for the city, it is a major industry in itself. On a recent visit to South Korea, Mayor Jed Patrick Mabilog supposedly got unsolicited advice from the new prime minister: it is not Iloilo’s century-old churches he should promote, she said, but the universities and colleges which have in fact already attracted numerous Korean students.

Iloilo’s political and business leaders, such as Sen. Frank Drilon, former Tourism Secretary Narz Lim, Mayor Jed and businessman Felix Tiu, all excitedly tell me that “you ain’t seen nothing yet,” as much more is yet to come. From what I have seen and heard, I have every reason to believe them.

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E-mail: cielito.habito@gmail.com


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