Saturday, August 09, 2003


By Igan D’bayan (STAR) We all know how crummy city life is. You could just imagine people trudging to work with heavy feet and empty eyes just like in the opening scene of Joe Versus the Volcano. There are a thousand cars during rush hour vying for one inch of road space, defying physics in the process. There are a thousand commuters inside an LRT coach designed for – what? – 30 people, defying physics yet again. There are floods that would make any person hearing Noah inside his head start whipping out hammer, nails and wood and fashioning an ark just to get to work or go home. There are a thousand hassles waiting for each inhabitant – muggers, mulcting cops, and other domestic monsters. It is hot as hell. It rains angels and devils (you never know who you’ll meet in sidestreets and alleyways). It is not a happy place to be in, what with garbage, mediocre movies and other malevolent assaults to the senses. The city has become an agoraphobic’s Fear Factor challenge. One’s best bet is to pack for the weekend and head somewhere that is the antithesis of the city.

Well, it’s hard to believe that all it takes is a two- to three-hour trip from Manila (depending on that bitch called traffic at the North Expressway) to reach a unique utopia in Olongapo. The Subic Bay Freeport Zone is a business-and-leisure utopia to one of its architects (Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority Chairman Felicito Payumo) and a person who believes in the man’s vision (Subic International Hotel president Alejandra Clemente). To both of them, Subic offers a good excuse to do a Nancy Sinatra or a Run-DMC/Aerosmith away from Metro Manila.

"People are looking for an excuse to get out of the city," says Payumo. "And we are offering a place for city folks that has everything."

According to the chairman, the Freeport Zone is a self-contained community with an orderly galaxy of business centers, hotels, restaurants, shopping centers and whatnots. Security is topnotch since there is a 911 emergency dialing system, which is networked to police, fire and medical teams. Also, nature made its own set of attractions by way of mangroves, beaches, coral reefs, and forests), while man-made ones include golf ranges, extreme sport centers, go-kart courses, auto racetracks, theme parks and bowling alleys. But wait – to steal a line from the infomercial lady – there’s more.

"You know, Subic is known for its eco-tourism – with attractions like jungle survival trips, bird-watching, and forest hiking," Payumo shares. "The Ocean Adventure, while offering visitors a glimpse of beautiful aquatic creatures, wants to impart the message of conservation."

The chairman is spearheading the establishment of an aviary, a butterfly garden, a zoo, and an insectarium – and Payumo is putting them up bayanihan style.

"I’ve talked to the Philippine Avian Society, and the members have agreed to put their pet birds on display, so that people will get to appreciate these exotic creatures," says the chairman. "Robert Yupangco has around 30 tigers spread out all over the country – in Kalatagan, Tagaytay and somewhere in Mindanao. I’m giving him a place where he can put his animals, and at the same time serve as an attraction to tourists."

For the butterfly garden, the chairman has approached Jun Simon and his French business partner. The same approach with the botanical garden – it is a "we’re-all-in-this-together" thing, so, as to attract more tourists. Payumo is confident that there will be an influx of tourists once these attractions are set in place, and once the Subic International Hotel Convention & Exhibition Center is completed. If You Build It, They Will Come

Payumo calls Subic International Hotel’s convention center the main component of its tourism program, adding that Subic has long been ripe for the M.I.C.E. market. Before you start picturing the Pied Piper dragging along a phalanx of field mice on the roads of Lubao or Guagua, rest assured that the chairman is talking about M.I.C.E., which stands for Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibits.

"The convention center will be good for the other hotels and establishments," the chairman says. "These things reinforce each other. Therefore, all the elements, all the ingredients will be in place for Subic to achieve a banner year in terms of tourism."

Subic International Hotel president Alejandra Clemente agrees.

"We want to complete this project by December," she says. "We’ll be eyeing four major markets – China, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan. We’re also looking at hosting Asia-Pacific regional conventions. And the convention center will be multi-purpose as well, pang-entertainment din siya. The chairman also wants us to bring in the Cirque du Soleil."

Clemente adds that she is inspired by the headway made by Chairman Payumo in making the Subic Bay Freeport Zone an accessible utopia. "We believe in his vision," she says. "There’s so much potential in the Subic Bay Free Port, considering all the infrastructures that are being put in place – like widening of the roads, and the construction of the highway connecting Clark and Subic. This is what you get when the public and private sector work hand in hand."

The convention center is one of the latest projects of the Subic International Hotel, which is reportedly pouring in P300 million for infrastructure initiatives. The Subic International Hotel is one the most popular hotels in the area. Three buildings – Alpha, Delta and Bravo – house 300 deluxe rooms and suites. Also, a slew of restaurants and bars – Seafront Restaurant, Café Subic, Subic Fiesta, Captain’s Lounge, The Terrace Café and the Golden Tea House – offer guests gustatory delights. Putting up a convention center, for Clemente, is key in attracting more tourists.

"This is to attract international markets more," she explains. "There has been tremendous interest for sentimental visits to Subic Bay."

Chairman Payumo nods in agreement. "This is one of the reasons we put up the Subic Naval Museum, which houses memorabilia and mementos of what Subic was before, during and after the American period. Subic has a very rich history. Since the convention center will be a stone’s throw away from the naval museum, the art center, as well the recreational centers, it will be a significant aspect of the Subic community."

The chairman adds that there has been a steady increase of tourists in Subic. "After 9/11 and the SARS epidemic, we have started promoting domestic tourism, which are buoying up our tourism industry. It is important to provide for them an alternative place to visit. Last year we had 7.9 million tourists. When I came here in ’98, we had 2.3 million."

Clemente attests to this. "The potential is here. The developments are in place. I believe that tourism in Subic will flourish even more."

Friday, August 08, 2003

Pinatubo evacuees return home

SAN FERNANDO, Pampanga - Like the "exiled" Jews who have returned to their homeland, Israel, thousands of Pampanga Pinatubo victims have also started returning home to their native Bacolor town.

Bacolor was the hardest hit by lahar flows among all the towns in Pampanga, Tarlac, and Zambales, with all almost of its villages buried by tons of volcanic debris that flowed through the Pasig-Potrero River system from the slopes of Mt. Pinatubo which erupted in 1991.

Many of the evacuees have opted to return to their lahar-laden barangays due to lack of resettlement sites where they are supposed to be permanently relocated. For years these evacuees have been living in the evacuation centers provided for them by the Mt. Pinatubo Commission (MPC) and other government institutions.

Headed by Art Sampang as its executive director, the MPC was created in 1992 by Congress to alleviate the socio-economic well-being of the tens of thousands victims of Pinatubo-related calamities.

However, not only the evacuees have returned home.

Hundreds of Bacolor families that were already resettled have also been returning home, this time due to the lack of means of livelihood supposed to be provided by them also by the MPC.

MPC report said it has already established at least 23 resettlement sites for the victims of Pinatubo-related disasters in Pampanga, Tarlac, and Zambales.

Livelihood projects were also put up in some of these resettlement sites. But these were found not enough to accomodate thousands of jobless Pinatubo victims.

Sampang, who acknowledge the fact that there indeed thousands of Bacolor evacuees have come back to their town, said, "Those returning home to their still lahar-buried villages are still hoping they would be able to get housing which we are now constructing for them."

To date, Sampang said there are still about 8,000 families living in the evacuation centers, mostly in Pampanga.

The additional housing projects were initiated by President Estrada when he launched ERAPS 2000 in Malacanang last August. ERAPS means Encouraging Renewed Assistance from Private Sector.

Shortly after the launching, some private individuals or groups immediately pledged to donate either cash or housing units for the evacuees.

At Clark Field, several locators at the Clark Special Economic Zone likewise responded to the appeal of Clark Development Corp. (CDC) president Rufo Colayco for help. Cash pledges from them have already reached P4 million even as others promised construction materials and housing units.

Earlier, Rep. Zenaida Ducut, (Lamp, 2nd District, Pampanga), said the Mt. Pinatubo evacuees who wish to return to their villages would be provided with financial help and construction materials.

Ducut said the assistance is being provided to the evacuees under the "Balik Barangay" program of the government.

The cash assistance will reportedly come from shares of their barangays from the quarry fees allocated by the Natural Resources Devleopment Corp. (NRDC). A government-owned corporation, NDRC has taken over from the Pampanga provincial government the collection of quarry fees from sand truckers.

The takeover of the collection by the NRDC was prompted by reports of alleged irregularities committed by some provincial officials, led by Gov. Lito Lapid, in the quarry operations.

Meanwhile, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) said that it is also granting about P2,000 to every family displaced by the Pinatubo calamities who have returned to their villages. Flor Villar, DSWD regional director, however, said that the victims could only get the cash assistance after they secured certificates from the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) that their barangays are now safe from future lahar flows.

The DSWD is extending the cash assistance also under "Balik-Barangay Program," Villar said