THE SUBIC BAY Freeport Zone sprawls over 67,452 hectares in Zambales and Bataan in an area larger than Singapore "but with less income," as a tour guide quipped. It is as much an ecotourist destination as an investors' zone that employs thousands of workers.
The forest, most of it in Bataan, covers 18,000 hectares and is home to snakes, monitor lizards (bayawak), wildcats (musang), wild boars (baboy damo), monkeys and bats.
On a given day, as long as it is not too hot, you can see the monkeys emerge from the forest and cross the highway, tails intertwined. You are not supposed to feed them as this will change their diet (which are fruits from the many trees), and shorten their life span. Feeding the monkeys will also make them lazy and dependent on humans for their lunch.
As for the bats, there's a Bat Kingdom lorded over by a spoiled king bat with a slew of concubines. This winged stud is said to have a veritable harem. His subjects "are fruit bats, not blood suckers," said Derrick Manuel of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority.
The Freeport produces 33,000 cubic meters of potable water a day. Its stored fuel can support the Philippines for two weeks without interruption. Subic is also a secure place due to the Global Positioning System (GPS). In case of an emergency -- you're lost in the forest, for instance, or there is a fire-just dial 911 and, it is claimed, responding officers will be with you in five minutes.
Subic lies 120 km northwest of Manila, adjoining Olongapo City, two hours or so by bus from the metropolis. There are many buses along EDSA which go to Olongapo. Traffic has improved on the reconstructed North Expressway but motorists, bus lines and commuters now feel the increased rates.
Freeport-bound motorists no longer pass through Olongapo but take the short cut via Tipo Expressway which leads right to the Zone. A quicker option is the ferry boat from the CCP (Cultural Center of the Philippines) to Orion, Bataan, a one-hour trip.
There are lots of things to do in Subic, and there are many amenities. You can go shopping in the duty-free stores, or try swimming, sailing, parasailing, diving, trekking, dining out, target-shooting, fishing, bowling, testing your mettle in the jungle survival camp, hiking towards the hidden falls (there are seven of them), visiting the museum, arts center and zoo, or going on a Tiger Safari.
A recent familiarization tour hosted by Legend International Resorts Ltd. served as a refresher course (and sometimes an eye-opener) for selected media members. Legend Resorts has three properties in Subic: the elegant Legenda (CQ) Hotel, which has a casino; the cozy Four Seasons Hotel; and the family-oriented Legenda Suites.
Legend Resorts' CEO-executive director is Khoo Boo Boon, a Malaysian who has a Filipina wife and a degree from the Asian Institute of Management: "I'm proud to say that I was educated here and not in England." He finds the Filipinos "warm, but if you go to Hong Kong..." Mercifully he leaves the rest of the sentence unsaid. He adds, "The Filipinos are literate (in English). But if you go to Korea and Japan you get lost."
Khoo's Legend Resorts often initiates what he calls "activities relevant to the cause," such as raising funds for Haribon Foundation, Tabang Mindanao, the Aytas, forest protection, sending children to school, the Opthalmological Foundation of the Philippines (to prevent blindness among the poor), and for charity golf tournaments.
He is gung-ho about Philippine tourism in general (he has seen much of the country) and the Subic Freezone in particular: "There's a cathedral of forest here, it's very beautiful. And there's a golf course in front of a rainforest -- where in the Philippines can you see that? The potential here for tourism is great."
One tree in the forest is so huge that 20 people cannot encircle it.
The tour by SBMA's Manuel and Legend Resorts PRO Argee Gomez brought the media team to or near selected areas, like the Old Spanish Gate circa 1885, the bayside Boardwalk, international airport, a kayaking area being developed, the Legend properties, Crown Peak, Miracle Beach (so called because it was constructed in one to two days for the Aspac Summit Conference), yacht club (since taken over by the Land Bank and opened to new members), the Bicentennial Park and its lagoon with swans, and a 310-hectare industrial park which employs 3,000 workers.
A short walk through a mangrove park brought us to a viewing station which looked out over Triboa Bay, mountains at the other end, the forested area by the sea and, in the distance, close to the shore, the wreck of a sunken Spanish vessel which emerges at low tide.
"This must be my first time to see an antique Spanish vessel," someone observed.
"Me too," a colleague chimed in.
The Freeport's zoo is known as Zoobic Safari, where disarming signs and double-entendres announce the species of the animals, like "Give Me a Bear Hug" and (for ostriches) "Are You Taller Than Me?"
Nicolas the bear, who was awaiting his mate from northern China, apparently felt itchy and regally scratched his back on a tree trunk for the delectation of the media team. And there was a runaway potbellied piglet, pursued by his keeper, who insisted on going to where there were children gawking at another animal.
The highlight of the tour was supposed to be the Tiger Safari, the main attraction of Zoobic. Here, guests ride in special jeepneys with bars as tigers roam around. It is the humans who are behind bars, so to speak, and not the other way round, and it is the wild animals who approach the people or perhaps even run after the moving vehicles.
Alas, we tarried too long at the zoo, for some reason. Because of time constraints, the Tiger Safari was called off. And the sponsor just treated us to a hot pot lunch at Four Seasons Hotel. This made up (somewhat) for the Subic Safari that never was