Wednesday, June 13, 2018


By Roger Pe
Business Mirror
June 14 2014 issue
Had Robert Hitchcock seen this island, it could have been the location of his famous movie, “The Birds”. The only difference is, they are not menacing crows and do not violently attack humans. Instead, they give you expressions of wonder and awe.

For those who do not know, Ursula is a one-of-a-kind bird sanctuary, the country’s best-kept secret for a lot of reasons. It is located in an island off Rio Tuba, Bataraza town, Palawan, far remote from civilization. It is actually an islet off-the beaten track that looks like it has been spit out from Palawan mainland twenty kilometers away.

The virgin landscape is carpeted with the purest and whitest sand you’d ever seen, and most likely, you’d pick your jaw on the beach floor once you step into its realm.

Ursula probably got its name from a British folktale about a virgin martyr. It makes sense because British James Brooke, the self-proclaimed white King of Sarawak and Borneo traveled to southern Palawan in the 1860s, and one town, Brooke’s Point (where Bataraza used to belong), was named after him. The island’s martyrdom as a bird refuge best explains this theory.

The fringes of Ursula thrive with wild “Pandan” foliage, abundant with pineapple-looking fruits that also resemble like Japanese lamps scattered around the whole topography. When they are ripe, they explode with red-orange hues, and the way they display their iridescent presence validates the saying – Nature is the best art director.

It has been promoted in the past as an eco-tourism destination but failed to get a sizable amount of visitors because of inaccessibility, lack of safe mode of transportation, and the continuing debate: Should it remain a bird sanctuary or open it to the public for tourism purposes.

Ursula Island is notable for a large concentration of Pied Imperial and Grey pigeons that roost for the night in the island’s pristine territory. Along with that, flocks of White-Collared Kingfisher, Macklot’s Sunbird, Pygmy Flowerpecker, Chinese Egret, Scops Owls, Megapode (“Tabon”), Eagles and the Nico Bar (“Siete Colores”) make the island as their permanent address.

Only three people live in the island - the forest rangers from DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) who alternately guard it from poachers of varying degrees. The rest of the inhabitants are birds, birds, and more birds, including giant sea turtles. 

A huge Palawan Eagle perches on top of a tree about 100-feet high by the island’s seafront entrance. He has sequestered the tallest tree in the island as his own dominion. Depending on his mood, you may catch him swooping down on schools of fish, or he may just be gallivanting at different directions, playfully wanting to catch your attention.

When it is summer, the weather in Ursula is torridly hot you’d feel you’re directly astride the planet’s equator. That being said, you may need to seek shelter underneath trees or wild bushes to escape its punishing heat. 

There are no resorts in Ursula either.No fancy Caribbean-like amenities. Not even primitive cottages. You literally lie, sit and sleep on the beach, on a rock or piece of a tree trunk washed ashore if you’re lucky to spot one.

There are no maids to ask if you’ve had breakfast. You don’t see ambulant vendors selling whatnot to tide you over. No fruitshakes or bottled water you can buy to quench your thirst. No ceramic bowls to sit on when nature calls. You had been forewarned that this is an expedition and you ordinary mortals, must live here in a manner castaway Robinson Crusoe did in “Mas a Tierra” island.

To admire Ursula’s lonesome winsomeness, you have to shed off your urban lifestyle. At night, the sky is your rooftop, the balmy winds, your blanket, and the stars, your shimmering bright lampshade. The thought of being surrounded by thousands and thousands of birds competing with a symphony of crickets is your Spotify music.

The waters in Ursula gradate from emerald green to sparkling turquoise blue. While you wait for the ‘Grand Spectacle’ everyone is looking forward to, what to do? 

Swim, dive and snorkel to your heart’s content. Cavort with manta rays and countless varieties of fish species -all resplendent in vivid colors the way National Geographic would describe them. Explore the island and circle it by foot. In just about half an hour, you’ll be done.

Be astonished with an abundance of marine wonders along the way. Sit with seagulls on the rocks. You may chance upon Megapode (“Tabon”) birds and turtles laying eggs (at nighttime) on a secluded shore. Go wild taking photos of the islet’s avian inhabitants. Penetrate the inner sanctum of the forest (ask permission and go with resident guides). Or just thank God you made it to the island.

A cloud of birds

Wait, those are just appetizers. The visual entrée or ultimate reveal, we are referring to, is the sight of birds returning to the island just before sunset. When it is thirty minutes past five, it is to your best interest not to blink. The main beach facing west will give you a ringside view of what is going to unfold.

All set? Now look up. Get ready for a sight you’ll probably never ever see again.Behold, from initial groups of tens and twelves, the birds will be in batches of twenties, thirties, and then fifties, and by the hundreds. As they come home from the mainland and neighboring islands, they will start to blacken the sky. 

The interval will soon be in faster, hairraising succession. Before the sun finally disappears, their number will grow by the thousands. Wheeling like some kind of a hypnotic cloud, they would become one of nature’s most mesmerizing sights. Like starlings roosting for the night, cooing and making myriads of nocturnal sounds. 

By five in the morning, you would witness “The Flight Redux”, a repeat of what happened last night. The same avalanche, the same sequence, only outward bound. Starting with the same number of batches, the reverse would be replicated. This will be your morning breakfast. The birds will now hie off to the mainland and hunt for food. The cycle of life goes on.

Wild expedition leader

Our world is full of wonders. Amazing places are discovered every day. Different geographical locations and natural wonders sometimes are hard to believe they actually exist. Business Mirror catches up with Rommel Cruz, passionate nature lover and organizer of this once-a-year trip to give you insights on a number of wild expeditions he has organized for Filipinos who love extreme adventure.

“I love outdoor life,” he opens with excitement. Raised in Palawan, Cruz wants people to explore nature in its rawest form just like the way he does. 

Cruz was already hunting birds when he was a kid. He sees expedition trips as a venue for people to experience wildlife, nature, local village life, and the feeling of isolation in an island. “For me, this is the real essence of an expedition  inviting people who are tired of resort life and wanting them to experience a new kind of adventure,” he says.

Before Cruz ventured into organizing wildlife trips, he worked for Katala Foundation, a group protecting the diminishing number of Palawan Cockatoo, for seven years. He was initially assigned assisting filmmakers and bird photographers in scouring the jungles of southern Palawan. Part of his job was to comply with a number of protocols in protecting the area. Identifying birds was part of them.

He eventually went on his own  and loosely put up ‘Wild Expedition Palawan’ with one thing in mind: Wildlife and use the word expedition in his campaigns. 

 A small team helps Cruz put trips together. A camp manager, assistant tour leader, and a cook. As in the Ursula episode, he required that a tour leader must be a birdwatcher.

“We have a herpetologist for mountain trips, an ornithologist for birdwatching tours and other experts depending on the kind of exhibition he is mounting.

Each trip being different from the other and weather-dependent, has given Cruz many challenges along the way. “We are not your typical resort trip vendors and we know that not everyone is interested in extreme tours,” he explains.

So enamoured with the word expedition, Cruz treats every destination as something to be explored and be pioneering in an unconquered territory. Having built a different kind of traveler database (adventurers on a different level) he is proud of what he has started.

When we bid Ursula goodbye, Cruz and his team brought back bags and sacks of trash to the mainland. He intimated that throughout our stay, his team used organic and biodegradable stuff – from detergents, food, coffee, etc. As for me, I gave my bulky jacket to one of the Forest Rangers in the island whose seven-year old son Javier was my constant companion in roaming the island.

As we boarded our boat back to Rio Tuba, Cruz says he is glad that outdoor tourism is growing. “It was hard to invite people before,even just for camping, trekking or climbing. Now, they voluntarily list up,” he says. 80% of those who join Cruz’ expedition tours are foreigners while wildlife photography trips lure 30%. The rest of the 70% are domestic enthusiasts.

Looking back

When I was small and Palawan was the country’s Last Frontier in the real sense, a ‘barrio’ just five kilometers away seemed so distant. What about a village more than two hundred kilometers away? It was like going to planet Pluto.

I was born in Palawan and grew up in Puerto Princesa but I have never ever been to Ursula our teachers in grade school gloriously told us about. Not even after attending college and pursuing an advertising career in Makati’s Wall Street for almost 40 years. Ursula remained just a fantasy.

March 3, 2018. Ursula was beginning to slip away. I came back and forth countless times to my hometown but Ursula never crossed my mind. Had I not logged on the Internet on this once hot summer day, it would’ve escaped my mind for the umpteenth time. 

April 5, 2018.It’s now or never. After two weeks of indecision, I dropped everything and made arrangements for the trip. I got hold of my itinerary three days before I flew. Prone to backing out at the last minute, I was mentally prepared this time. At 6 in the morning, my plane was hovering above Puerto Princesa from Manila. In 15 minutes, we were set to land. 

April 7, 2018.I was in a vanpacked with people whom I didn’t know from Adam. I only came to know about them almost halfway through our trip. Because we were not introduced to each other at the onset, I had little time to socialize and my mind was focused on how to craft my travelogue. 

I would later learn that they were a Dutchman and his Filipina partner, a flawlessly Tagalog-speaking American and his girlfriend, both of whom are based in Davao, a Coron resort owner in Coron and his son, and a local lawyer. In another van rode the expedition’s crew.

 By 8 in the morning, we were on a long and winding highway to Rio Tuba, 236 freaking kilometers away. “This must be fun,” I said. The 6-hour trip would take us to a place I have long been wanting to see, the oldest operating mining community in the province, with a name as exotic as Ursula’s.

We made a stopover in Narra town for lunch. After one hour, we cranked up the heat and pushed southward, passing through hectares and tiring hectares of palm oil plantation in Espanola town. All throughout, the road network was surprisingly well paved, far from the mud-and-sludge days of yore when I first traveled to this no man’s land ten years ago.

Brooke’s Point, a quaint, lovely town soon beckoned. On the right side of the van, I could see Mt. Maruyog’s strange summit formation with a peak plunging 45-degrees vertically and inching close to Mt. Mantalinggahan, Palawan’s highest mountain.

You know you’ve reached Bataraza when the soil begins to turn orangey. “Presence of nickel,” I muttered. At the province’s southernmost town on the mainland, you begin to inhale the scent of nickel ore.

It rained hard as we approached Rio Tuba, a grand welcome, I reckoned. No swirling dusts to inhale for some of us who had no sleep at all the previous night. It then stopped abruptly as we rolled down the mining village. The first thing that I noticed: Practically all rooftops were covered with the color of nickel and you know what color that is. 

We were checked-in at Pring Pension House near the market. Now getting closer to the eastern border of Sabah, we were virtually isolated. No signal for our phones and nothing to do, except stroll around the village (but within safe distance of each other). I strayed in the wet market and got a handful of videos.

Boat to bird sanctuary

April 8, 2018.We woke up at 5 in the morning all ready to take the Ursula plunge. When we got to the jump-off point, it looked like it was going to be a well-planned trip as the speedboat we were to take was already waiting for us. No waiting and it sped away in seconds.

Prior to this trip, DENR-Brookes Point, the local government of Bataraza through its Tourism Officer Jun Dawili, Mayor Abe Ibba and PNP-Maritime Special Boat Unit PSUPT Greg Togonon, SPO2 Rodriguez and Rey Togonon of PCG had made arrangements to assist us.

The marine coast guards on our boat all looked glum, poker-faced and seldom talked, making my fertile mind percolate with some things better left unsaid. Fearing that they would distract me from enjoying the trip, I immediately shut them off my mind.
I jumped into the boat and positioned myself at the rear end so that when I take photos, no one would photobomb what I was recording from behind. Wrong. Bad decision.The tumultuous loud slamming of waves, aggravated by bad weather, drenched me all over. 

It was also the worst spot for a senior citizen to unknowingly choose. My companions who were safely seated near the boat’s steering area were of no help either. Only my presence of mind, and a grip as tight as hell, saved me from flipping over. If my previous Tawi-Tawi trip was a breeze, this was like facing a gale head on. 

 We reached Ursula in less than one hour (the smallerboat carrying the expedition crew arrived a full hour later). When the island’s majestic view loomed right infront of us, there was another lull: We couldn’t get ashore. 

We learned that the crewmen were extra careful in choosing a spot for us to land, so as not to crush the corals underneath. Had it lasted for a few more minutes I would have thrown up due to the boat’s non-stop swaying.

Tourists or no tourist?

I may have found my fountain of youth in Ursula. But deeper questions had to be asked. Should it be opened to the public? We asked people from all walks of life. Here are some of their thoughts: 

“Bird and animal sanctuaries provide an area for wildlife to live their lives as nature intended to. History has shown that man’s influence on their environment has been to modify and make the environment adapt to his needs. These needs are often, if not always, in conflict with nature’s needs. As such, sanctuaries should be protected, and tourists be regulated. When tourists come in droves, they surely start to make the environment adjust to their convenience. We need tourism that is less invasive,” Jackie Gamboa, Sports Entrepreneur.

 “It is better that it should be off-limits to tourists as it will disturb the island’s fragile ecosystem equilibrium,” says a UP marine expert the moment I posted photos of the island on social media. “It is a sanctuary, and therefore, must be closed to irresponsible tourists,” says a Palawan-based environmentalist who has been to many far-flung islands in the country.

“A bird sanctuary that lacks protection will not serve its purpose. We are noted for nature and our wildlife. If we can’t hold on to what makes us stand out on global stage, so what’s new?,” says InigoAcuna, Digital artist and stage actor.

Enrico Chee, a Malaysian millennial who has been to the Philippines as a youth sport ambassador says: “Without this uniqueness, there won’t be any demand for tourism in the future.”

“Wildlife and their ecosystems are vital parts of our country’s cultural identity. We already suffer from lack of a clear identity. We should protect them, not destroy them,” says Fil-British Adrian Williams, a digital entrepreneur.

 Medy Beroy, a Filipina journalist based in the US says: “As long as Ursula is protected, local and migratory birds can live in peace and multiply abundantly in a sustainable way. Tourists will only destroy it.”

People have noticed that the number of birds in Ursula have diminished in the last ten years due to human encroachment on their habitat. Opening the place for tourism purposes will aggravate the matter, according to them.

Lastly, this is the best argument why Ursula Island should remain a bird sanctuary, excellently verbalized by Lauren Finnessey in her published scholarly article, actually her thesis that was submitted to Johnson and Wales University, Rhode Island, USA:

“Tourism is one of the largest industries worldwide, and travelers commonly visit national parks and protected areas because of the peaceful scenery they offer. While tourists love to see these natural environments in their undisturbed states, they often times add to the degradation of these parks.

Tourists can harm the environment in many ways, and may be unaware of what they are doing. Many visitors are there to see the beauty in nature and are focusing on enjoying themselves and not what they are leaving behind. Actions such as trampling on vegetation add to the destruction of the land.

The negative impact of tourism on national parks is a global problem. Parks in all countries and continents struggle with these issues and are looking for ways to minimize their affects. Other countries like England, Canada and some Asian countries are trying to reverse the impacts that tourists have on their natural preserved areas. 

State parks have also been threatened due to their cost for rangers and upkeep. In New York, many state parks were shut down for a period of time due to budget costs and understand that they should reduce the negative impacts that people have on the parks in order to keep them around for generations to come. 

Tourism in national parks is a growing trend due to the economic standing of the country and the increase in interest of “ecotourism”. Travelers want to spend time in natural and peaceful areas, but with growing numbers of tourists comes an increase in problems.”

Saturday, June 2, 2018


By Roger Pe
Business Mirror
June 3, 2018 issue

She came from a middle class family. Her father was a jeepney driver and her mother, a government employee. They could barely make ends meet, but her parents were able to send her and all of her siblings to finish college. 
When she started working in the corporate world, she was still am not making enough for simple luxuries. “I asked my brother then, who just left the country as a seafarer to buy me a cellphone. He was not paid much then, so he told me: “Why not apply for the ship job as well?”
Abigail Romero felt a light pop in her head, and that led to a different direction in her career. As a Food Technology graduate of UP Los Banos, the cruise line’s crewing agency offered her a Chef Secretary position, and that where it all begun. In 2006, she left her company and joined a ship with trepidation in her heart.

It was a strange job for a woman, why did she take it? “Applying for the ship is indeed interesting with very few women trying it out. During our SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea) training, the ship required training certificate (now called BT or Basic Training) for female applicants. They have to prove that they can take on the training alongside male trainees,” she narrated.
In her training class of 30, only 3 were women. It was not hard to miss them from the bunch of men she said. “The instructors usually chose women to take on the hardest role in the actual exam, like being the nozzleman in the firefighting training or the leader in smoke diving drill. 
Romero took it as a challenge that women could work on the ship, too, and prove that they are as competent and qualified as the so-called “seamen”.
Eventually taken in as a full-pledge seafarer, Romero met many hardships, challenges and difficulties on board the cruise ship. The most pressing challenge she had to deal with, which she realized as early as on first day, was as soon as the ship started sailing.

She got seasick - while doing a handover with her relief when she was all green from puking her guts out. The next hardest thing was homesickness. “Working a thousand miles away from your family and all the familiar things we’re used to for our entire life, we all have to deal with it,” Romero said matter-of-factly.
The main reason why she took the job was to travel the world while getting paid. “You get to prove yourself as a woman seafarer, climbing the hierarchy, from a simple Chef Secretary to an officer ranking Personnel Manager. 
When she was in the HR department, helping her crewmembers became her passion and fulfillment. As the elder child of the family, she was always the leader and the natural nurturer, and it has helped her a lot on her role as a Personnel Manager.
According to Romero, being onboard the ship is like going to a completely different world. “You can feel that you are indeed far away from home, and costly to call home often once loneliness creeps in,” she said.
Workwise, it’s the same office job that she got used to doing. Her bosses were very kind and they taught her everything she needed to know. Soon enough, she adjusted well to ship life. “I can say that our bosses have high respect for Filipino seafarers in the cruising industry. Although we cannot discount that discrimination still happens due to the color of our skin,” she explained.
Fun part
Working onboard the ship had its perks, too, according to Romero. While the ship is on port and they have time off from their work schedules, they would go and enjoy the city of call. Like taking photos of places and taking home souvenir items. For her, it was amazing seeing different places she only got to read back home. 
As a seawoman, Romero had visited many European countries, the Caribbean, South America and the US. “I’ve been to the end of the world, the southernmost island inhabited by people, Ushuia in Argentina. 
Onboard the ship, she, too get to indulge in a lot of recreation activities. Like crew shows, parties, gym, spa, table games, and other fun activities, away from the eyes of passengers. When she became an officer, she got to experience all the amenities of the ship exclusive to passengers, a very luxurious life onboard as an officer, indeed.  
Positive things 
While working as a Personnel Manager, Romero learned to be compassionate, diligent and make sure that the ship’s crewmembers were assisted well in administrative matters. 
This included ensuring that they have complete travel documents, visas and other requirements needed for their employment. “I learned that you can make a difference in touching a persons’ life in any small way you can,” she said.

Romero stayed eleven long years in her job with maternity leave for 20 months in between. Recently, she said goodbye to a career that helped her grow tremendously and started a new life as a Travel Agency owner.
Traveling almost around the world for a decade and seen the most beautiful places that were simply magazine-picture perfect, she now wants people to experience the same. “I wished for our fellow countrymen to be able to see these places, too. When I resigned from the lucrative job as a seafarer, our family decided to embark on a new journey. The travel business,” she related excitedly.  
Being new to the tourism industry is a bit challenging for Romero. She needed to ensure that the business is properly registered with the government. She and her Mom painstakingly did the legwork of securing their DTI, Barangay, Mayor’s and BIR permits. 
Being a travel agent now, Romero has to deal with the unfamiliar, strangers who contact her asking for assistance for their dream travel destination. That takes a lot of hardwork, patience, rapport and establishing trust in making transactions, according to her.
She also reiterated that it is not easy to be solely on an online platform, as trust is the biggest hurdle she and people in the industry have to overcome in booking clients.
What are her goals and how would she like to see her business in the next few years? 
“The tourism business is massive. It has strings of well- established travel agency and thousands of aspiring ones. As a newbie in this business, we aim to establish our niche in this industry by offering one of kind tourist destinations, local and abroad, in all forms, by land, sea and air.  There are a lot of untapped natural beauty hiding in the country that we can offer to our locals and foreign tourists. Our country is rich with potential, and with our fresh eyes, we get to see it from another perspective and offer these unique destinations,” she explained.
On being asked why she put up a travel and booking business, Romero said that travel and booking business seemed like an easy transition from her previous overseas job since she mostly dealt with documentation and travel needs of her employees. “As we’ve decided to settle home for good, it was hopefully a wise decision for our family,” she said. Her husband is the company’s financier and her mother, the Operations Manager.
Does she think she has what it takes to succeed in travel business? Romero said that she might not have the right educational background when she jumped into the tourism industry, but she sure have the perseverance to do what it takes to make a difference.

“We take it one client at a time, and eventually at the end of their trips, we had become friends. And that itself is a fulfillment when we have our satisfied clients making their travel memories,” she said.
Romero said that she believed that “we are all part of the whole and each one can make a difference in putting our imprints in the general welfare of the tourism industry. With the right leadership as we have now, the goal is achievable. Our government is doing its best in protecting our tourist spots, environmentally speaking, that would benefit us in the long run. In protecting the environment, we are ensuring the future of our country in terms of tourism,” she said.
To be able to achieve ourcountry’s 7-million tourist target, Romero said ensuring our world-class tourist destination should be not just only for this year, but in the future as well. 
“In that way we can ensure exponential increase of tourists coming to visit. Safety should also be a priority. Tourists will come if they know that they are going to a safe and beautiful place,” she said. 
Best of the country
Places she recommends to clients? Top on Romero’s list are Boracay, Palawan, Davao and Ilocos. “Anywhere where you can commune with nature is always the best. Savoring the majestic beauty of God’s creation is one of the few luxuries that we are abundant with. There are a lot of unexplored pristine nooks hiding like gems in the outskirts of the country, which are yet to be discovered,” she said.
“Every inch of our country has its own beauty. Each one has its unique beauty to offer and with proper conservation, these unique places will shine in the eyes of our much-coveted tourists,” she emphasized.
With the country’s vibrant tourism industry, travel agents are a dime-a-dozen. What is a good travel agent to her? 
Romero said, a good travel agent for should have the genuine desire to help clients achieve the best vacation offers. “We should be able to provide the best value for money that they are willing to spend in exchange for those wonderful memories that traveling can create. Whenever we travel, it is the memories we count, not the pennies we spent,” she said.
Dreamer, believer
Romero said the Philippines’ potential for growth is huge. “We have a lot of competitive platforms to use in terms of making our offerings to the clients unique yet comprehensive packages. We make hassle free all-in packages to compete with each other. It is just a matter of who can offer the best value for money.
Born and raised in Quezon City, Romero went to high school in Diliman Preparatory School and finished college in UP Los Baños. She plans to take up graduate courses soon, either in Business administration or Industrial Relations.
She met her husband, also a seafarer onboard the same ship ten years ago. They were married for 6 years now and blessed with a 3-year old boy. When she was young, she always wanted to be a businesswoman, not even knowing what it meant to be one. Now, she is one. 

The newbie entrepreneur relies on social media to show her newest promotions and latest updates and by word-of-mouth from her family and friends who promote her small business. 
“Our clients that have good experience from our bookings are also promoting our services and have become repeat customers. When we established the agency, we ensure that we are affiliated with experienced agencies and tour operators that can provide us with competitive rates with tried and tested quality services. In doing so, our packages are not the cheapest in the market. We have invested in ensuring that what we offer is of utmost quality and yet still affordable,” she said.
Social Media had been good to her by covering all types of demographic market that she targets. With a wide variety of audience and potential clients, it has given her a good chunk of clients. However, “it can also have a lot of untrustworthy sources that also affect the general question of legitimacy of travel agencies,” she lamented.
The woman who can dream big and prove to the world that she, too, can do what men can do is on her way to building a business for her family. 
Parting words to those who may want to follow her footsteps? “Never be afraid to follow your dreams. It might be scary trying out the unfamiliar in putting yourself out there. Be genuine, be kind, be smart, be your own unique you.And when life gets rough, travel. Find your peace,” she said.

Friday, May 25, 2018


by Roger Pe 
Business Mirror
May 24, 2018 issue

It is one of the fastest growing cities in the Philippines because of its vibrant tourism industry. As one of the Philippines’ major tourist drivers, it is in a class by itself. A world heritage site and countless other new and undiscovered wonders of nature can be found here.
The city has never been hit by a major earthquake in the last 500 years so that will give you something that money can’t buy: Peace of mind. Seldom visited by typhoons, it is shielded by eastern Philippine islands from the Pacific side.
Puerto Princesa is the next big thing in real estate development after Clark, Cebu and Davao. To begin with it, has a spanking new international airport that can accommodate advanced-technology jetliners. 
Prior to Boracay’s temporary closure, domestic airlines fly in and out of the city 125 times a week or 18 times a day from major cities like Manila, Cebu, Davao, Iloilo and Clark, including chartered flights from China, Korea and Taiwan. With 28 to 34 flights a day today, it is easily the busiest provincial city airport in the Philippines.
Right now, it is also the cruise ship capital of the Philippines and its port continues to undergo modernization and upgrade.
Diverse mineral and other natural resources abound in Palawan’s only city. Perhaps the only city in the country with a large forest cover still intact, the many treasures you will find in Puerto Princesa comes in the form of affordable real estate. 
The burgeoning city expands north to south. Primed for growth, these areas are all poised to experience an economic boom from 2020 and beyond. 
Inventory of move-in-ready properties that are suitable for retirement and investment purposes are on the upswing, and they are also relatively inexpensive.
Puerto Princesa originally failed to command the attention of big stakeholders but the reverse is happening now. In recent years, the city’s real estate market is beginning to throb and it is getting an eyeful from those who are thinking about the future.
Why not? The city is the center for communication, education and public administration for Palawan. It is a carbon-neutral city, has good and stable peace and order, warm and committed people, diverse and skilled manpower.
Investment haven
After Camella Homes, Brighton Homes of Robinsons Land Corporation, Regatta Bay of Cabanilla Marketing and Development Corporation, Imperial Palace of Phil De Meer Corporation, Shojin Herbal and Wellness Eco-Resort of Ai World Corporation and Harbor Springs of Santa Lucia Land are just some of the big names that have invested in the city. To date, the city’s investment portfolio has amounted to Php3.380 Billion pesos.

According to City Tourism Officer Aileen Amurao, two of them are brand names known worldwide and the rest have good reputation in the Philippines. Imperial Palace Hotel, she says, is a 9-hectare hotel and resort development in Honda Bay, with a 4-hectare floor area, and a total of 162-guest rooms majority of which are composed of villas.
She said, another big investor in the city is Ai World, a mountain resort nestled in a vast highland in Bacungan. The resort-and-park-in-one is under the development of Neogreen and being operated by World Ai Corporation. It opened publicly last March 4, 2107 and has continuously drawn influx of tourists everyday since.
Santa Lucia and Century Properties have also ventured in Puerto Princesa. John Eric D. Escanillas, VP for national sales and marketing at Santa Lucia, explained that they are investing in the city to further expand the company’s footprint.

In a related story, Santa Lucia president Exequiel Robles said his company’s entry to Palawan is brought about by the demand it got from its offices abroad.
“There is a strong clamor from overseas Filipino workers for national developers to come to Puerto Princesa and provide them with better home choices. Robles said. Most OFWs prefer to invest in their place of origin. But when they have extra money, they consider investing in other areas and one of those is Puerto Princesa and Palawan province,” he added.
Sitel Group Philippines has also established a countryside expansion program in the city. Its latest addition to Sitel’s Philippine operations opened 1,000 new jobs for the people of Puerto Princesa and Palawan province. 
A group of Chinese businessmen, led by Zhang Yuxiang, chief manager of the China State Construction Engineering Corporation (CSCEC) visited the city last year to explore possible investment ventures related to trade and tourism. He was quoted as saying: “China wants to bring more Chinese tourists to the city through tourism infrastructure investments in the province. 

Another group arrived a week later to check the possibility of investing in aquaculture, particularly in the rearing of high-value export commodity fish. “The businessmen checked on five marine aquaculture parks in the city for the possibility of establishing hatcheries for high-value species of groupers,” Roberto Abrera of the Regional Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) said. 
The proposed sites are located in barangays Santa Lucia and Binduyan. The reciprocal visit was upon the orders and guidance of President Rodrigo Duterte to look for mutual economic support opportunities in fisheries development.
Last year, retail, banking, and real estate giant SM opened its 64th mall in Puerto Princesa. 
Because of the many exciting things that are happening in the city, Business Mirror interviews the equally dynamic Lucilo Bayron, mayor of Puerto Princesa to let us know what is happening to the Philippines’ next most prosperous city.
Business Mirror: Mayor, let’s start by getting to know you better.

Bayron: My father used to work with the Bureau of Prisons under the Department of Justice. He started as a prison guard. I was born in Muntinlupa, inside the New Bilibid Prison Hospital because my father was an employee. He was then transferred to Iwahig Penal Colony and that’s where I grew up. 

My mother is a Palawena, born in Coron and belonged to a big family - the Rodriguez, Fernandez, and Ponce De Leon clan. There were five of us, I am the only boy among 4 girls, and second to the eldest. We came to Iwahig when I was 6 years old. I started Grade 1 and finished my elementary education here. 
My father became the Superintendent of Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm before he retired. My mother was a teacher who later became the Principal of Iwahig Elementary School. 
I took up high school in Letran College but transferred to Siliman University where I graduated. Then I attended  college at Siliman University but transferred to University of the East where I finished BSBA major in Marketing. 

What were the most important things you learned from your parents? 

My mother was a strict disciplinarian. My father was a little tolerant, a combination that was really perfect for us, I think. My father was a practical guy whom I learned many things. I learned a lot in Iwahig because it was like a communist camp where nobody owned anything and everybody worked. I learned how salt was made, how fish ponds were being developed, how to harvest a bangus, as well as coconuts and process them into copra.

Your first job after graduating from college?

I started at the Provincial Capitol. While waiting for a pharmaceutical company in Manila, my father asked me to come home. He talked to the late Governor Salvador Socrates and I was taken in as a casual employee earning 8 pesos a day. My heart was not exactly into it as I seldom came to the office, indignant that it was not commensurate to what my father had spent for me in college. But I persevered upon my father’s proddings. 

One time, the governor met with all fresh graduates from different Manila universities. In that meeting, he gave us an assignment from which I was able to come up with a better and faster output than the rest did. The governor said: “This guy is worth developing.” They then sent me to several trainings conducted by USAID and that’s how I learned about local government unit operations. 

How did you become involved in local government?

Hagedorn asked me to join him in government when he won against Oliveros (my uncle) in 1992. He appointed me as City Administrator (his wife was under me when I was working at the capitol). I was reluctant at first because my business was doing good. But then, his relatives came to me, and pleaded to work with him. 

We agreed that I will work only for one year. I wanted to leave after his first term and told him: “I’m leaving because there are no more mountains to climb. I told him, “You’re doing good, there is no need for me to stay.” So I left.

When he ran for re-election in 1995, I was his City Administrator and he wanted me to be his campaign manager at the same time. I told him: “I can do only one job. You choose, either you retain me as the City Administrator or you get as campaign manager. No problem with me, but only one.”

I joined him and I became his campaign manager. After elections, when all votes were counted and he was declared winner, I told him: “I’m leaving.”

He could not say anything because he knew that I was serious. I was out of the city for one and a half years and went back to my business which suffered tremendously while I was working with the city government.

The mayor again asked my friends if he could talk to me. I then got an unexpected call. He was on the other line. To make the story short, I accepted to join him again in the government and I got stuck.”

What’s your job as a city administrator like? 

I was his alter ego. I functioned like the mayor. Pag sinabi kong meeting, meeting talaga (when I say that we need to meet, it was serious). I was always on time. I was in-charge of all problems in the city hall. From 1992 to 1995, I organized city events, announcements, down to the nitty-gritties.

Hagedorn launched “Bantay Puerto”, “Bantay Gubat”, “Bantay Dagat”. I conceptualized “Oplan Linis” and the city’s Housing Program. We focused on the coastal areas because people were polluting the bay. We found out that there were more than 8,000 families in the coastal area from Bagong Sikat to Abaniko, San Pedro. 

We made an inventory (previously not ever done) of the coastal areas and a comprehensive census, how many families lived in those areas and where they worked. We prepared a map and turned it over to the barangays to avoid non-stop relocations.

With Oplan Linis, you were able to launch “Clean and Green” movement? 

No. “Clean and Green” was the result of Oplan Linis. We were much, much more ahead then. We were already doing “clean and green” because of our Oplan Linis, which I was recognized as the author.
I saw to it that it will click. When it did, we won awards after awards each year. Until we became a Hall of Famer.

The accomplishments you’re most proud of during your first term?

I attended to the city’s financial problems when I got elected. We had to tighten our belts and did away with unnecessary expenditures. We cut down on free convention dinners. Why should the city government spend for convention goers - engineers, lawyers, businessmen? They can easily afford a 500-peso plate. I would rather spend them for the poor. They would be happy with 200-peso worth of food. 

In one and half years, we were able to turn around the city’s financial problem. We even got a recognition for our fiscal management. The DILG awarded us the Good Financial Housekeeping plaque three times. We twice won a Seal of Good Governance and the Ombudsman awarded us the Blue Certification Award (ease of doing business in the city by reducing the number of steps in getting a Mayor’s Permit).

How is Puerto Princesa’s financial status and tax collection?

Doing good. Unlike before when the city owed a lot of money. Do you have collectibles from the city? How much? Php50M? You’ll get paid. Not on staggered basis. We have funds stashed away in the bank. Our local budget for Infra is Php400M. That’s money we earned. 

Then we stopped contracting road projects. The administration does it now. It is more efficient, cost wise. We’ve eliminated the contractor’s profit margin and VAT, so we saved at least 25%.

Your future plans about Puerto Princesa tourism?

We plan to put up a Biodiversity Museum that will house Palawan birds, animals, marine life, insects, and plants similar to the Natural Museum in Washington DC. We will also build a 12,000 to 15,000 capacity convention center with adjacent hotels near the Puerto Princesa Bay area, patterned after Sydney’s. 

We would like to increase our hotel occupancy to 10,000. For once, we will be ambitious and build the tallest tower in the Philippines - a modern structure with a dancing fountain and synchronized lighting technology.

“Balayong” Park will be a big attraction. When the Palawan Cherry Blossoms trees fully grow and bloom in the city’s 1,000-hectare park, it will be a spectacular sight. When it happens, we will beat Zamboanga, known as “ciudad del flores”. It’s just a matter of time and it will come.

The USAID is helping us attract investments. At the moment, we have incentives for tourism related businesses. We give priority to tourism, agriculture, and renewable energy.

We are developing our own “Tourism Mile” along Rizal Avenue, from the provincial capitol to Abrea Road, close to the old airport. We give investors a tax holiday for 5 years. 

We will push for our “night time economy” but at the same provide peace and order to make visitors enjoy their stay in Puerto Princesa as they always do.

Do you have earthshaking plans to make the Underground River even more attractive?

Because of Puerto Princesa Underground River’s limited carrying capacity, our expansion plans are tied down. But we do not stop finding creative solutions on how to further develop the area. For example, increasing the entrance fee to the world heritage site so as not to lose opportunities to earn. 

“How much is 500 pesos to dollars? $10.How much do you spend when you go to a destination in the US or in other parts of the world? That’s hundreds of dollars. But here, you are only charged a pittance. I think, we can generate Ph210M a year from the present 70M per annum. 

We can use the money to protect the World Heritage Site by taking care of people who take care of the park. By increasing the number of forest rangers they will be more effective.

“Ang tao hihintayin na tumalikod ka bago putulin ang kahoy (when you are not around, people cut trees). We need to change that mindset - the desire to cut down trees because they earn from them. Let’s give it back to them in whatever form. When people see that it is being plowed back to them, they will protect nature for the next generation. I believe we should also come up with more manmade destinations. 

What are you doing about the Paleco problem?

In May last year, the city government proposed filing a class suit against Paleco officials. Our meeting produced a resolution of mounting a signature campaign demanding the resignation of Paleco officials should they fail to end the power problem in 15 days.

“The problem with Paleco is it good at passing the buck and giving reasons for its line and distribution failures. They say that its plant capability is 81MW and requirement is only 43MW but brownout still happens.”

Recently, DOE Secretary Alfonso Cusi and I signed a contract for the country’s first Waste-to-Energy Project, a breath of fresh air in a city faced with rising costs, unreliable, and 100%-fossil-fuel-dependent electricity. 

As population, tourism and development grow at a rapid pace, we decided to pursue a novel and sustainable solid waste management system that converts waste to energy, thereby, hitting two birds in one stone.

Doing away with the need to construct another expensive sanitary landfill and earning unexpected income of up to P20M a year as its share from project revenue, the city will save P40M annually which is its budget allocation for solid waste collection since Austworks will do the actual waste collection themselves.”

What’s your governance style?  
As a Vice Mayor for 9 years and before I was elected mayor, I made sure that I was visible and more accessible. I am the person people see in city hall. I decide fast. I tell people straight that if it is not possible, it is not possible. I plan where the city government is headed. I steer the ship to its direction. I do my own strategizing.
How do you intend to make a mark as a mayor?
Currently, we are a first class city. Highly urbanized but our facilities belie the fact. But I am working on it. People have seen many changes through our many projects that are all visible. On my Day One as mayor, we began with a health program by combing all barangays. We told them, we did not come here because of politics. We are here to serve the people.

I brought all councilors with me with our sincere "Mapagkalingap Program", a caring city service for the neglected, poor, teachers, students and senior citizens. 

We looked at education as the great equalizer in life. I, for one, believe that being poor is not an excuse to achieve knowledge. “Kahit anak ka ng mahirap, kung nag-aaral kang mabuti, baka malagpasan mo pa yong mayaman na bulakbol (even if you are poor, your chances of getting ahead are much better than a rich kid who doesn’t take his studies seriously).

What do you think is your greatest strength? 

When I say something, I do it. Word of honor is important to me. I am a working mayor who is always on time. Dependable. I have good work ethics and not an absentee. I lead by example. As a family man, people call me "Dad". I have become the father figure to the city by that name.

How do you see Puerto in the next 10 years? 

I think you will not recognize Puerto Princesa during that time. The way I see it, the city is like an airplane, it has taken off and destined to fly higher and farther. It's a fast growing city. Rapidly urbanizing. The population is equally increasing because of migration from other parts of the country. We have become the country’s melting pot.

Cuyono, once our local language, is not anymore. We’ve become a ‘Tagalog’ speaking city. People from all over the country have settled here. Rapid urbanization, equals worsening traffic, equals worsening garbage problem, equals more services and facilities. We never fear the daunting task. We are here to find an out-of-the-box solution for the challenges in the present and ahead of us.