Safety is relative:Visiting the Philippines

February 08, 2017

MANILA, Philippines -- Beyond what is implied by its catchy campaign slogan, "It's More Fun in the Philippines," this 7,107-island nation promises an experience that is much more, and enticingly different than any of its neighbors in the South China Sea region.

Its stunning beaches and posterworthy waters are hard to beat. But visitors will also find a scenario that sets the Philippines apart: It is the only Asian nation colonized by the Spanish, is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic as a result and is populated by a warm and friendly people whose high rate of English fluency (it is the third-largest English-speaking country in the world) is the result of the country's special relationship as one of America's oldest Asian partners.

This combination, one that especially appeals to its nearby Southeast Asian visitors looking for cultural diversity, helps explain why South Korea (Seoul is a four-hour flight away) is the country's top source of visitors and its top-spending market. Asia in general accounts for 61% of its international visitors.

But the U.S. comes in an impressive second, which is somewhat surprising considering the difference in travel time. But my October experience with Philippines Airlines from New York JFK airport exemplified supreme business-class comfort, given the 19-hour haul that included a layover in Vancouver (an order of Airbus 350s will soon introduce nonstop, 16.5-hour flights from New York; nonstop flights from Los Angeles and San Francisco already exist).

I was a guest of the Philippine Department of Tourism and Tourism Promotions Board, which hosted October's Travel Blog Exchange Asia Pacific conference where I was the keynote speaker.

"This mix of Western head, Latino heart and Asian soul is simply unfindable elsewhere," I was told by Arnold Gonzales, the officer in charge of media relations and communications for the Tourism Promotions Board. "It is our own unique identity."

Despite the first impressions of traffic congestion and inescapable neighborhoods of great poverty, Manila is a good place to spend a few days to acclimate and explore the heart and the political and economic center of the country.

Located on the island of Luzon (the largest in the archipelago and also the name given to one of the three main island groups), Manila is crazy, chaotic and vast. It is the world's fifth largest city, with a population of 12.9 million residents, something that translates to round-the-clock traffic jams (you can help pass the time by counting the graffiti-splashed jeepneys, Manila's most popular means of public transportation). Big-city lovers will find Manila a multilayered showcase of the Philippines' history with its melding of Spanish, Chinese and American cultures with early Malay ancestry.

Technically, 16 cities and one municipality make up what is officially known as Metro Manila. But the good news is that for the most part, the main attractions are generally found within Manila proper.

San Agustin, a Unesco World Heritage church.
San Agustin, a Unesco World Heritage church. Photo Credit: Erwin Lim

Ferdinand Magellan planted a cross for Spain on the nearby island of Cebu in 1521, but it was Spanish conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi who defeated the native rulers of Manila in 1571. Spanish Augustinian missionaries began work on the Church of San Agustin and the adjacent monastery almost immediately. A baroque gem that houses the tomb of Legazpi, it survived the city's widespread destruction in World War II and is the country's oldest and most important stone church and one of four Unesco World Heritage churches in the Philippines.

It eclipses the nearby and much larger Manila Cathedral that was begun in the same period but has been rebuilt numerous times. The one that stands today is a 1958 replica of the original. Both are highlights of Intramuros ("within the walls"), a fortress city within a city, now an overgrown and atmospheric relic of the country's Spanish colonial past that ended in 1898 with the arrival of the Americans, who in turn were ousted by a brief Japanese occupation in 1946.

You can walk your way through another chapter of the capital's history in busy Binondo, the world's oldest Chinatown, in the company of the amiable Ivan Man Dy of Old Manila Walks, himself of Chinese heritage. While listening to stories of the country's Chinese citizens, who today account for 5% of the population, our small group sampled delicious Asian specialties in small, family-owned restaurants and impossible-to-find eateries down unmarked lanes and up narrow flights of stairs.


A cuisine worthy of exploration

Some 4 million people of Philippine ancestry live in the U.S., constituting the second-largest group of Asian Pacific Islanders in the country. Yet restaurants featuring its ethnic cuisine until recently struggled to find a foothold in the States. Filipino food's complex identity, a result of the country's location at the center of intercontinental trade routes for millennia, never found the same popularity in the American gastronomic scene as did the cuisine of Thailand, Korea or Japan.

Boasting more than just the much-loved lechon (an entire spit-roasted pig that chef Anthony Bourdain, on a visit to Cebu, declared "the best pig ever"), adobo (braised pork or chicken) and the mind-boggling balut (boiled duck embryo eaten from the shell -- don't ask), the cuisine also includes the islands' abundance of fresh fish and seafood, coconut and tropical fruits.

The Pinoys' love for long, abundant and frequent meals shared with family and friends accounts for how its moment in the spotlight might now be arriving. In 2016, Bon Appetit magazine named the Filipino restaurant Bad Saint in Washington the second-best new restaurant in the U.S., while Conde Nast Traveler focused attention on Manila's Your Local among their Best Restaurants in the World for 2016. Bloomberg predicted that Filipino cuisine will dominate the food scene in 2017.

Visitors to Manila now have a plethora of choices with the arrival of restaurants ranging from large and elegant to small and atmospheric. A similar new wave of hotel properties, particularly a raft of architectural stunners, is helping to reshape and redefine the cityscape. Raffles and Fairmont both opened to much fanfare in 2013, the first time in years that luxury hotels rose in the heart of the thrumming Makati business district.

An invasion of high-end hoteliers

The surge continued with arrivals such as the six-star Maxims Hotel, an Asian brand and the first all-suite luxury hotel in the Philippines, and Shangri-La at the Fort, a mixed-use development with 576 larger-than-standard hotel guestrooms and suites; it is the newest of three properties in Manila from the Hong Kong-based chain.

Enjoying water views of Manila Bay is the striking Conrad, part of Hilton Worldwide's luxury brand and the first of the chain in the country. Prominently situated in the heart of the massive SM Mall of Asia complex, it sits above one of the city's many high-end retail nirvanas to entertain visitors as well as the country's growing middle class. It is attached to the Arena, which opened in 2012 with a sold-out Lady Gaga concert and was the site of last month's Miss Universe beauty pageant.

The Conrad overlooks Manila Bay and is in the SM Mall of Asia complex.
The Conrad overlooks Manila Bay and is in the SM Mall of Asia complex. Photo Credit: Adam Bruzzone

The much-awaited Grand Hyatt is scheduled to open later this year in the heart of Manila's most vibrant commercial and entertainment center, Bonifacio Global City. It will be housed in the top 25 floors of the MetroBank Financial Center, the tallest building in the Philippines at a height of 1,043 feet.

Other high-end hotels, including Hiltons, Sheratons and a Six Senses, are all on the drawing boards.

Known for its nightlife, Manila might also be vying with Singapore and Macau to become the region's gambling hub. More than 20 casinos can be found in Metro Manila, most located near the Manila Bay area and the Ninoy Aquino Airport. The latter is the location for Resorts World Manila, the country's first gaming-integrated resort.

Elsewhere, the most recent casino hotel, the $2.4 billion Japanese-owned Okada Manila, is the dazzling anchor of the Las Vegas-like Bayfront enclave known as Entertainment City, not far from the SM Mall of Asia. Okada's sprawling, 108-acre property will include an indoor white-sand beach and dancing fountains not unlike those of Dubai's Burj Khalifa. It follows the opening of Solaire and City of Dreams, the first and second integrated resorts within Entertainment City.

That's a lot of investment in a destination whose recently elected president, Rodrigo Duterte, has vented his dissatisfaction with the longtime American presence in the country while announcing new partnerships with China. Duterte's rants about the U.S. were triggered in part by the Obama administration's criticism of human rights violations, especially the extrajudicial killings of thousands in the Filipino president's campaign against drugs.

Pair Duterte's swaggering belligerence with the equally unpredictable actions of U.S. president Donald Trump and future ties could rest in the balance. The officer in charge of the Philippine Department of Tourism in New York, Zeny Pallugna, assured me that she was not concerned about any possible impact on tourism.

"In spite of what the media may portray as potential volatility, there has been no pushback from travel agents or investors," Pallugna told me, citing an unprecedented increase of visitors of close to 12% in the months since Duterte assumed office in June 2016 compared with 2015. "Although the final numbers are not yet in for 2016, we are anticipating 800,000 American visitors for the year," she told me, attributing much of it to marketing initiatives and increased airlift by Philippine Airlines, Eva, Qatar and Emirates.

Pallunga's confidence and is not something I have any reason to question after a delightful two-week stay in her country. It reflects the general upbeat and life-embracing attitude I encountered in everyone I met, from the tour guide to the beachside T-shirt vendor. Those I questioned about their new president all answered with the same charitable shrug you might reserve for an unruly family member you want to believe deserves your support.

Manila is foreigner friendly, and those who are not new to visiting large Asian cities and in possession of some street sense and a few precautions will enjoy the ride. Frequently being in the company of my Filipino hosts shielded me from the reality of independent traveling, but I feel it's safe to say that if you leave your baubles at home, avoid dicey-looking neighborhoods and have your hotel call you a cab, you'll avoid the pitfalls.

In total, the Philippines saw 5.5 million international visitors in 2016. Thailand saw six times that amount.


Beyond the capital

Manila might ensure that the Philippines is more than just a beach holiday, but there is no doubt that the proximity and diversity of its islands, most a brief air hop away, are the key reason behind the tourism growth. The archipelago is blessed with spectacular natural beauty and diversity, including volcanoes and pristine waters rich with marine life, promising snorkeling and diving opportunities.

For decades a backpacker's and adventure seeker's dream destination, the tourism organization began courting the baby-boomer market with the arrival of the country's first deluxe properties more than 10 years ago.

The trail-blazing Amanpulo resort opened in 1993, part of the Aman collection of 31 resorts that originated in Thailand in 1988 and quickly spread abroad. Pampered Amanpulo guests reach the small, private island of Pamalican via a one-flight hop from Manila by private charter.

While upscale resorts continue to open in choice locations, areas no less beautiful but lacking five-and-less-star properties are natural draws for the more budget-sensitive millennial market. They flock to the famous Banaue Rice Terraces of Ifugao and the Cordillera Mountains, often called the Eighth Wonder of the World and recognized by Unesco in 1995.

Mud-and-stone-walled terraces were introduced to the Ifugao people some 2,000 years ago by the Chinese, and the mountainous area is still home to much of the tribal Ifugao culture, with a man-sculpted landscape that resembles "earth art" laced by breathtaking hiking trails.

The surfing capital of Siargao Island (one of the world's top 10 surf spots according to continues to grow more popular, and for much more than its waves: Lush landscapes widen its appeal.

The heart of Filipino biodiversity

As a first-time guest, I was most interested in the Visayas, the central island group of the Philippines. They are the heart of the country's biodiversity and a natural draw for much of its tourism, beginning with the island of Bohol and its peculiar Chocolate Hills, more than 1,000 unusual geological formations rolling over more than 19 square miles (50 square kilometers) that turns Hershey brown when the rainy season ends. Cebu has a major international airport, lots of historical and cultural sites and popular fiestas, beautiful beaches and a growing infrastructure that all serve to attract visitors. The Visaya islands is also where you'll find the most hyped beach destination of them all -- the uberpopular Boracay, a serious contender as Southeast Asia's party island and home of the much-photographed White Beach.

In the last many years, magazines such as Travel & Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler have regularly ranked Boracay and Cebu and neighboring Palawan as the trifecta of dream islands. In fact, on multiple lists of the world's finest, Boracay and Palawan regularly jostle for first and second place. Like so many of the islands in the Philippine constellation, Boracay and Palawan each offers a very different experience.

After an hour's flight from Manila to the Caticlan airport on Panay, followed by a brief boat transfer, I arrived in Boracay impressed by the abundance of island beauty jammed into less than four square miles of land. I followed the legions drawn to its coast and the aptly named White Beach, witnessing what young bloggers disparage as overloved and underwhelming.

A walk along its powdery shore to revel in one of the island's famous sunsets illustrates why it is so easy to love. But it is also easy enough to leave the crowds and thriving nightlife behind (although I admit I enjoyed the ad hoc volleyball games and strolling families taking in the magnificent salmon-and-purple-colored sky) if you are staying at the beachfront Lind Hotel, where all the hubbub feels a light-year away. A glorious oasis tucked away at the end of the fabled strand, it is still central but peaceful.

The lounge in the lobby and the walkway of the Lind Hotel on Boracay, an oasis tucked at the end of White Beach.
The lounge in the lobby and the walkway of the Lind Hotel on Boracay, an oasis tucked at the end of White Beach.

Opened in late 2015, the bright, contemporary and chic five-star Lind is a 119-room magnet for international, mostly Asian, guests who love the faultless attention to color and design. An infinity pool overlooks the beachside lounges below, and three restaurants and an exquisite spa encourage one to escape the water activities the island is known for and the nightlife that follows.

Shangri-La's Boracay Spa & Resort is even farther removed from the island buzz, built into a sheltered hillside that leads down to a quiet cove and two separate sandy beaches. There is something of Bali here, with indigenous design flourishes in the public area and villas, rich local woods, open, breezy architecture and pinch-me luxury (not unlike what Shangri-La buffs will find in a sister property on Cebu).

When it opened in 2009, it helped set a standard of island accommodation not only for Boracay, but for the island scene in general. New five-star neighbors of the Shangri-La sharing this exclusive corner of Boracay include the Crimson Resort & Spa and Movenpick Resort & Spa.

The magic of Palawan

A long sliver of an island that stretches for 270 miles all the way to the tip of Borneo, Palawan offers an entirely different vibe. It is sparsely populated, widely agricultural, home to various indigenous groups and prides itself on being the country's cleanest province.

Puerto Princesa, its provincial capital town and site of one of two island airports, feels far smaller than its burgeoning population. The area is interesting for its small museums, waterfront restaurants and its Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, a World Heritage site and one of the world's longest navigable underground rivers and proudly promoted as one of the New Seven Natural Wonders of Nature.

Experienced divers board liveaboards that head to the world-class Tubbataha Reefs, held by many (including to be among the world's finest dives.

Many take the one-hour flight from Manila to Palawan's northern tip, but we took a five- to six-hour private transfer from Puerto Princesa north on good but curvy roads through timeless landscapes of family-owned farms framed by volcanic mountains.

Our destination was the scrappy but burgeoning town of El Nido at the northern tip, and Palawan's showpiece that lies just offshore: the craggy, dramatic limestone outcroppings and breathtaking waters of the Bacuit Archipelago. Narrow, traditional outrigger boats called bangkas slip into hidden lagoons and empty, palm-lined beaches, reminiscent of (but less crowded than) Thailand's Krabi coast or Vietnam's Ha Long Bay. It is understandably one of Asia's great locations for island-hopping.

Development is visibly happening in and around El Nido town, but for the time being the trio of El Nido Resorts on three Bacuit islands a boat transfer away know no rivals.

Each idyllic, ecosensitive property boasts a pristine location and unique experience. Price categories, ambience and accommodation amenities vary, and each attracts different categories of guests, ranging from honeymoon couples to three-generation families, with budgets that range from moderate to blowout.

El Nido's Miniloc was the first to open some 30 years ago. It was purchased in 2012 and reimagined by El Nido Resorts, owned by the Ayala Corp., a family-run real estate firm based in Manila. Lively and located on its own sandy beach with snorkeling two steps from your lounge chair and minutes by kayak from gorgeous lagoons, it is the most attractively priced resort and the site where Americans are most visible, accounting for some 30% of its guests.

Lagen Resort is the middle-tiered sibling, a little more serene (albeit with TVs in every room) and marginally more expensive.

At the top tier is the exquisite Pangulasian, what I imagine to be Amanpulo's only true contender in the Philippines, though a good deal less expensive. It oozes easy barefoot luxury in a modern indoor/outdoor design, surrounded by an expanse of dazzling white sands and a palette of blue and turquoise that is almost too much to take in.

It is hard to reconcile this panoply of islands of immense natural beauty, populated by a smiling and friendly people, as part of the same country that prompted the U.S. State Department to issue a travel advisory in 2016. The specific location of concern cited is in the Sulu Archipelago, in the southern half of the Mindanao islands. From an empty palm-fringed beach in Palawan, it can feel like the other side of the world. The troubles and concerns seemed to be on no one's minds or lips.

With the notion of "safety" these days being such a relative term, I must say I don't recall ever having felt more carefree and secure than in the genuine welcoming embrace of the Pinoy people.