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.

Friday, May 18, 2018


By Roger Pe
Business Mirror
May 19, 2018 issue

She started as a tourism inspector in local government. Her job: Make sure accommodation facilities are up to the standards. When political winds changed directions, she had nowhere to go. Her last recourse was go on her own.

Her husband whose business was also faltering, decided it was time to venture independently. Left with a seemingly unsure future, he sold a property in Cubao. Now faced with a new challenge, the two joined forces and built a modest house on a property far from the business hub of the city. 

Not earning an income, the two held on tight to the only liquid asset they had. Starting from ground zero, the long hard climb to build a family business began even. It meant tightening their belts and doing away with the unnecessary.

The year was 2011. On a P900-per square meter lot in Libis, San Pedro, Puerto Princesa City, Meriden Pagayona-Wakefield and her husband built their future. Inch by inch, slowly but surely, they started a new life, looked the other way around and moved forward. “Para makalipat lang, nagri-rent lang kasi kami,” (so we can start anew, we were just renting). 

She plunged into tourist hospitality business even if she wasn’t sure how she’d compete with established pension houses and small hotels in Puerto Princesa. 

“When we moved in and developed the place along almost deserted Lanzanas Road, we only had one room. But we persevered and a took a leap of faith and began accepting guests. 

“My first guest was a friend,” she relates. Two years after, her baby would grow to three rooms by renovating parts of her house on the ground floor. By year end, it would grow further. An annex of eight rooms sprouted on the eastern wing of her garden, ready for occupancy the following year. 

It was tough at first but she was beginning to see the fruits of her labor. Encouraged by what was happening, she officially rejoined the city’s tourism industry, this time, as an entrepreneur.

How did she start marketing her new venture? “I didn’t overtly announced it. For one, we are in a secluded place of the city, the road leading to it was abominable. I refused to join booking websites because I hated our road. “Nakakahiya” (embarassing).”

Den, as friends call her, started inviting her relatives and circle of friends. She, too, relied on referrals and word-of-mouth helped her get talk-value. When the road infront of Eillei’s Place (her tourist inn’s name) was finally paved, she joined, the only site she is associated with today. 

She began to get accommodation bookings from all over the country. Her happy guests were her best endorsers actually. As awareness level for her tourist inn increased, her brand of hospitality was gaining talk-value, fanned by people who had a pleasant stay at Ellei’s Place. “I guarantee you, when people’s experience are pleasant, they will return. If not, you can be sure as sunset, “hindi na sila babalik (they won’t come back).

Den operated Ellei’s Place with her charming personal touch. During her struggling years, it was solely a family business with no employees. Everyone helped - children, relatives and her community of friends. A daughter, including two boys used to be her all-around ‘employees’. Now that she’s pretty stable, they are building their own careers. One works with the office of the President of Palawan State University, one boy is with her sister in Naga.

“Sila yung mga katulong ko dito. Lahat kami gumagawa naglilinis, nagluluto, nag-aayos (they all helped in putting up this business, they cleaned, acted as chefs in operating my business). When there are too many guests, I bring my other relatives and sister in,” she says.

Through the years she was able to acquire vans for airport transfers and city-tour rentals. When her husband is not available, she herself drives and fetches her guests to and from the airport, a job that she enjoys doing so much.

She recalls that 2016 was her best year, a time when the city was bursting to the seams and having conventions left and right. At its peak, she had a good share of the tourist arrival market pie. “There was no off-season dito, dire-rerecho ang visitor bookings,” she recalls.

She hopes to see the city maintain its record as a preferrred convention city to spur the local economy. “Ang laki ng binabalik nito sa tao, ultimo tricycle kumikita (the return of investment to the community is immeasureable, even tricycle drivers earn from it). The more visitors come, the more tourist inns will be built and more people will benefit,” she says.

Ellei’s Place is among a thousand family-owned tourist accommodation businesses in Puerto Princesa. Located in once a no-man’s land, it is now part of burgeoning growth area in barangay San Jose. 

Den makes extra effort in making her guests feel like you’ve never left home. She’s the last person to sleep at night and the first to wake up in the morning to make sure her guests are well taken cared of. The layout of her tourist inn lobby resembles like a wide living room, bright and colorful, airy and refreshing. A happy place, Ellei’s Place is your residence in Puerto Princesa as she fondly calls it.

How does she check out competition? “I visit them myself. I see the good and bad. I benchmark with the good, improve on what is new and enhance what I think I can do better,” she says. Today, her place looks like an Italian Villa with an invigorating garden that makes you feel like you are in a mind-soothing forest. 

Occasionally, guests would see birds of different kinds on her yard, by the fountain or hopping from one tree to another around the compound. Pied Fantails, Coucals, Hummingbirds, Parrots, Robins, among others, playfully visit her backyard and delight guests. You can spot squirrels, too.

How is her brand of hospitality? How does she make her guest feel at home? “After a long business day or an exhausting tour, nobody wants to spend the night in an unwelcoming room. I make it a point to stamp my mark in what I do – with a personalized service. “Kami mismo ang nag-aasikaso sa bisita. Kami mismo ang sumusundo sa kanila at hindi namin pinapabayaan na mag-tricycle ang bisita namin (we take care of our visitors ourselves, we don’t leave them out in the cold by letting them take tricycles on their own to go to our place),” she says.

She wants her guests to feel that they’re part of the family. “I establish a connection with them in a way others, especially busy big hotel chains, are not able to do. I make sure that we have something unique to sell. When there are too many competitors in your area, you need a differentiator,” Wakefield says.

Lodging occupancy rates began to recover in 2016 and 2017 in Puerto Princesa after the decline that was witnessed in previous years. Hotels are predicted to record a value constant at 2017 prices over the forecast period, driven by the luxury and mid-market segment. 

Room rates will continue to be competitive. Domestic travel is expected to sustain tourism, resulting in marginally faster growth of mid-market hotels than luxury. Local developers will reap the benefits of this growing industry and will likely continue being a price-sensitive market. How is she preparing for the fierce and sometimes rollercoaster state of tourism in Palawan?

Wakefield knows for the fact that majority of travelers are not loyal to any one hotel, and many hotels focus on creating personalized experiences from customer data to get traveler loyalty. 

“It’s a tough business but whether you are small or large, the issue is really about how to connect with your market in a meaningful way. I still do the old-fashioned route – caring for my guests in our trademark Ellei’s Place’s personalized service way,” she says.

“Competition is exploding on several different fronts, and only recently is the industry taking on board the very real threat of Airbnb and the sharing economy. Iba iba na ang standards ngayon. Dormitories for backpackers, bed and breakfast inns, pension houses, tourist inns, hotels, resorts. But in the end, a personalized, caring way always comes out the winner,” Waefield says.

According to Wakefield, there’s one area where the best succeeds, it’s in innovating the experience they offer to their most loyal guests. “Every guest is important and should be treated to an exceptional experience. That’s the reason why most hotels, knowing that repeat customers provide an inexpensive and reliable source of revenue, go all out when it comes to courting their continued loyalty,” she says.

Friday, May 11, 2018


By Roger Pe
Business Mirror
May 12, 2018 issue

A 20-kilometer sea trip of crazy winds and stormy waves is bad enough. What about a distance 50 times longer, in varying degrees of weather condition, and you are on your own in a wooden boat 50 times smaller than an ocean liner?

This is the story of the Filipino pride, the Balangay.
On May 3, 2018, another milestone in Philippine history was written. Three Philippine Balangay boats successfully reached Xiamen (formerly Amoy) China, retracing the route made by Filipino Sultan Paduka Batara in 1417.

What made it truly historic was that they were exact replicas of the ancient boats used by the Sultan and no sophisticated navigational equipment aided them to traverse the treacherous South China Sea.

We were supposed to meet the 33-man crew of the expedition at the Xiamen port terminal but a Chinese immigration glitch had prevented us from getting closer. But after a 24-hour quarantine policy had elapsed, we were able to give the proud Philippine team our most heartfelt joy and screams, “Mabuhay ang Pilipinas!”

The team was then ushered to a rousing welcome prepared by the Philippine and Xiamen Filipino-Chinese groups at the spanking lobby of Xiamen International Cruise Center. While the celebration was going on, the festive mood grabbed the attention of onlookers and Xiamen city folks gamely joined in the momentous occasion.

Edsa People Power Commissioner Pastor "Boy" Saycon, Princess Jacel Kiram (daughter of the late Sultan Jamalul Kiram III), Abraham Idjirani and wife Dayang Dayang Sitti Idjirani, Manila Councilor Bernie Ang, Gerry Sanchez, who represented Ambassador William Lima, businessman Paul Shi, Consul General Julius Flores, descendants An Lizhu and Wen Fang from Dezhou were among those who welcomed them.

The leader of the heroic crew was Arturo Valdez, former Department of Environment and Natural Resources undersecretary. Valdez is a veteran mountaineer, marathoner and former president of Mountaineering Federation of the Philippines. He was also former undersecretary of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC). In 2007, he successfully led a successful Mount Everest climb with two Filipino groups.

"This boat is not an all-weather boat, very vulnerable to weather and stormy sea," he said during a banquet given to him and his men. Though the boats were duplicates of the ones used way back before the Spaniards came, engines were installed on two of them to comply with Chinese maritime regulations (China prohibits wind-powered vessels from docking alone on the port, Valdez said.

“My greatest fear is to sail at night, because you can be run over by big ships,” said Valdez. Without advanced navigation equipment, the only way his team will spot oil tankers is with their eyes. “We cannot even be seen on their radar because we are made of wood.”
In an emotional speech, he said, the voyage demonstrated how the people of Southeast Asia crossed the high seas in the past to maintain contact with its neighboring countries. "These waters never divided us. They unified us," he said. "And this boat, as a replica of an ancient boat, is a symbol of that relationship."

Three traditional Philippine boats known as Balangay sailed from Manila to China last April 28, 2018 and arrived five days later in the port of Xiamen. A gem of a boat similar to those constructed by Filipinos in the olden days, the Balangay had none of the trappings of a modern maritime vessel. No nails. No nuts and bolts. No steel. It was solely made of Filipino ingenuity that braved through foreign waters and reached unprecedented distance, 1,000-kilometers to the eastern city of Xiamen on May 2, 2018.

“If there was no wind we had to paddle our way. There was no communication, we had mobile phones, and we did not stay too far from the coastline,” he said. “We asked fishermen which is the best way to go. It was just to prove that in my DNA I am a seafarer.” The 18-meter boats were replicas of a Balangay, a type of vessel used in the region as far back as 320 AD.

The Sultan

Sultan Paduka Batara sailed to China in 1417 to pay tribute to the Emperor of China and engaged in trade. He fell ill and died while in Shendong province. His two children were left behind in China and eventually inter-married with the locals.

Made from a Philippine hardwood, the planks of the Balangay were fastened together by hardwood pins, measuring some 19 centimeters long and were driven into holes on the edge of each plank. They sew the boat together.

Its hull (about 15 meters long and 4 meters wide) was ordinarily semicircular in cross section and with no marked keel. Provided with huge outriggers, the boat was propelled either by a sail or paddles.

The Balangay was declared the National Boat of the Philippines on November 2015, chosen so that the "future generations of Filipinos will recognize the invaluable contribution of their forefathers in shaping the country’s maritime tradition.

Back in 2009, the “Kaya ng Pinoy” movement that conquered the summit of Mount Everest in 2006 announced plans to re-construct the Balangay boat, with the help of Badjao and other tribal members. Its aim: trace the routes of our Filipino ancestors around Southeast Asia and the Pacific.The team hired Badjao master boat builders, whose predecessors actually built such boats, and used traditional tools during the construction. They were constructed near the Cultural Center of the Philippines complex.

When finished the Balangays, named “Diwata ng Lahi”, “Masawa Hong Butuan”, and “Sama Tawi-Tawi”] navigated to the southern tip of Sulu stopping off at numerous Philippine cities along the way to promote the project.

The journey around the Philippine islands covered a distance of 2,108 nautical miles or 3,908 kilometers.
On its second leg saw the Balangay sailed throughout Southeast Asia in 2010, then Micronesia and Madagascar the following year. It ventured across the Pacific to the Atlantic and all the way around the world, returning to the Philippines in 2012 to 2013.

Valdez’ talent as a leader and manager caught the eye of then president Fidel Ramos, who appointed him undersecretary at the Department of Transportation and Communication in 1996. He stayed with the DOTC until 2004. In 2007, he was deployed to the Middle East as a special envoy, staying there for a year.

He is currently still in government as undersecretary for field operations at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. He is also a director at the Lopez-owned Energy Development Corp., the country’s pioneer in geothermal energy generation.
That wasn’t the end of his engagement with Everest. In 2008, Valdez himself ran the 42-K Everest Marathon, finishing in 10 hours, five minutes and 46 seconds. It was only after the marathon that he began thinking of what he was going to do next.

Tough voyage

Valdez and his men were held by naval authorities when they reached Malaysia, Cambodia and Indonesia.

But all these difficulties were made up for by the beauty they encountered on their voyage. Dolphins swam alongside the boats. Spirits were lifted by the welcome they received when they landed. Hunger and fatigue would disappear when they saw the enthusiasm of school children wanting to learn more about the country’s maritime heritage.

By December 2010, the voyage of the balangay was about to come to an end. Valdez invited all former and current presidents to join them on the final leg of the journey from Cavite to the CCP. The message he wanted to send was that despite our leaders’ differences, they must never at any point endanger the country itself, but rather learn to work together and safely guide the country to the right port at the destination.

Former president Ramos agreed to join the final leg of the journey. Then newly elected President Benigno Aquino III sent executive secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. as his representative. On Dec. 13, the three vessels sailed into the breakwater behind the Manila Yacht Club and were greeted by a grand homecoming ceremony. The trip was supposed to coincide with President Duterte’s China visit last May.

But because of inclement weather, as well as repair and maintenance issues, the trip has been tentatively postponed to April next year.
Valdez continues to spread his message, a call for national unity and to develop our maritime domain. “This year, 2017, happens to be exactly the 600th anniversary of that voyage, so what better way to commemorate this historic undertaking than to retrace that journey,” Valdez explained.

The crew was fortunate that politics had not got in the way of their plans, he added. “We don’t get involved in politics,” he said. “It is a cultural voyage. These waters in Southeast Asia unified all the peoples. And I think, in a way, that’s the message of this entire voyage.”