|SBMA CHAIRMAN-ADMINISTRATOR Roberto Garcia (holding an enlarged check) presents financial grant to native Aytas of the Subic forest with PR Director Armie Llamas Carvajal (center on squat). Subic Bay and Freeport, the former naval base of the Spaniards, Philippines and US is shining bright under Chairman Garcia’s leadership of the agency.
By CLAIRE MORALES TRUE
Undoubtedly, Subic Bay in Zambales, some 100 miles north of Manila, is a boom place for trade and commerce and a haven for investors and multinationals. With its free port status, fine harbour and strategic location, it is poised and emerging as the next Hong Kong in the region. Others are projecting it as the next Guam in the Asia Pacific basin, the world’s fastest growing economy.
Already, over 1,500 businesses are based here. This includes the Hanjin Shipyard, one of the world’s biggest shipbuilders. Most of the firms in the freeport are foreign-operated and managed mostly by Americans, Japanese, South Koreans and Taiwanese who have under their employ more than 90,000 active workers, according to Chairman and Administrator Roberto V. Garcia of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA), the government agency that oversees the vast area known officially as the Subic Freeport Zone. Chairman Garcia took the helm of the SBMA when appointed to the twin posts by President Benigno S. Aquino III on November 21, 2011. In only his fourth year in office, Chairman Garcia chalked up an impressive record, completely turning around the agency from loss of P1.2 billion in 2010. After only about a year in office, the loss turned to net profit of P824 million by December 31, 2012, immediately earning for him the trust and confidence of the agency’s officials and employees. The net profit soared further to P1.079 billion by 2013. A seasoned private sector executive before SBMA, Chairman Garcia pushed the SBMA to its highest ever gross revenues in the 25-year history of the agency of P2.44 billion in 2014, giving the agency a net income of P1.56 billion, at least P185 million of which has been remitted to the National Treasury.
Never resting on his laurels, Chairman Garcia continues his “miracle” work for the Freeport by exerting more efforts to entice investors to do business in the Freeport. The campaign resulted to 31 percent growth in cumulative committed investments from $7.167 billion in 2010 to $8.69 billion when he started in the agency in 2011, increasing to $8.77 billion in 2012 and by 2013, some $9.41 billion in investments were secured. With the investments at SBMA, employment generation improved from 88,450 in 2010 to 89,584 in 2013. By 2015, this could have surpassed the 90,000 mark. The businesses inside the Freeport which enjoy certain preferences with their eye at exports contributed P17.1 billion in taxes to the Bureau of Customs and the Bureau of Internal Revenue in 2014 alone, an indication of what Chairman Garcia describes as the unprecedented growth of the Freeport. The SBMA has also been supporting the local governments within its confines such as Subic, Olongapo City and Morong and Hermosa in Bataan to the tune of some P200 million a year. Not only that – the SBMA has also turned over P14.8 million to the Pastolan Aytas as land rental, the first time in the country’s history that an indigenous people’s group receives a share of payment for the use by investors of their ancestral land. With its achievements, the SBMA has been awarded the ISO 9001:2008 Certification affirming the agency as a truly world-class quality organization.
As it grows by leaps and bounds, Subic Bay has also emerged as the top tourist destination in Central Luzon and one of the best tourist attractions in the Philippines. It is said that tourist arrivals here reached 1,156,775 in 2011 to 1,263,223 by 2013 and, perhaps, now in the neighbourhood of 1.5 million. Local and foreign tourists who used to travel to the Freeport in droves mainly for its duty free shops now drive, fly or come in by ships even in bigger numbers for various reasons and purposes – local, regional and international meetings, trainings, congresses and conferences; events, shows, festivals and exhibits; health, fitness and other services; cultural exchanges and educational tours; marathon, walkathon, triathlon, cycling, sailing, fishing, diving and other competitions. Over the years, it has thus hosted annual International Marathon, International Triathlon, National Duathlon Competitions and even the Subic Bay to Boracay Yacht Race, making the Subic Bay agreeably the Sports Tourism Capital of the Philippines. Many go to Subic simply to rest and for recreations, commune with nature, watch variety of native birds, its friendly monkeys and the millions of fruit bats perched on its old and tall trees. Of late, Subic Bay, with the support of the Department of Tourism, has also attracted many Japanese, Taiwanese and South Koreans, joining the Americans who have made what used to be the quarters and residences of servicemen of the United States Navy here as their retirement homes. Consistent with Subic Bay’s image as a popular drive-in destination for tourists, the Freeport becomes the selected venue for the Asia-Pacific Drive Tourism Conference, Auto and Travel Shows.
Subic Bay, once one of the biggest American naval bases overseas, thus, has become known by different names and tags. It is the tourism capital of Central Luzon, the premier convention center outside Metro Manila, a choice investment site, a top MICE destination, sports and adventure place, the sailing and triathlon capital of the Philippines, film location shoots venue, the country’s first and largest Freeport, home of one of the world’s largest shipbuilders, the foreign retirees’ haven, ideal for living for seniors, paradise for divers, Southeast Asia’s major seaport, an alternative or extension of the Port of Manila, and lately, the Global Free Zone in Asia and South and Southeast Asia based on a survey conducted by the fDi Magazine, a publication of the Financial Times Ltd. of London. Lately, with its varied tourist attractions and world class facilities, the Subic Freeport has become a promising destination of cruise ships bringing in foreign tourists from Asia and all over the world. It has also become a viable alternative port for the congested Ports of Manila and Batangas. The China-based SITC Container Lines (Phils.), Inc., for one, has opened a direct route from Xiamen, China, to Subic and the Japan-based Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK) Line, one of the largest shipping companies in the world, makes its first direct Kaohshuing-Subic call, joining other major shippers that use the Subic Port.
While thousands are drawn, especially during weekends and summer vacation, to Subic Bay by its good beaches and superb diving spots, its attractions has diversified over the years with the opening of several attractions like a zoo called Zoobic Zafari and Tiger Amusement Park, perhaps the biggest of such kind in the country as it occupies 25 hectares deep in the forest. Zoobic boasts of 40 or so Siberian tigers which one can see at close range while riding an enclosed and well-protected vehicle as if in a real zafari in the African jungle. Zoobic also has lions and various animals, reptiles, exotic birds and fowls like ostrich, peafowls and pheasants, which are endemic in various parts of the world. Of course, there are animals and fowls which are native of the Philippines. Zoobic Safari provides a once-in-a-lifetime experience for individuals, groups and families as they can enjoy or even touch and coo some of the exotic animals while roaming and frolicking in their natural habitat and surroundings. At its special petting zoo and animal observation area, one can meander through and Interact with, pet and enjoy displays of a diverse array of animals from many regions of the world. Many of these animals have become acclimated and friendly to human beings and are free and roaming amidst the visitors. These include deers, ostriches, albino caribou, a bear, monkeys, an eagle, ducks, bearcats, guinea pigs, ferrets, and much more. Zoobic also has some 200 crocodiles, snakes from around the world such as pythons and boa constrictors. There are also lizards, iguanas, monitor lizards, turtles, and other cold-blooded creatures here. And do you have a desire to fly? Zoobic’s latest attraction is its 200-meter zipline called the Sky Safa Up in The Sky adventure where one will surely be in for an adrenalin rush. Here, individuals, students, couples and the family can zip through the air, soar over trees and fly like a super hero in a tropical jungle setting.
Another attraction is an open-air marine park called the Ocean Adventure which features trained dolphins, whales, sea lions, forest animals and other sea creatures on their wild settings. An exciting option offers visitors the chance to swim and interact with the dolphins. Besides the Ocean Adventure is its sister, the first-class Camayan Hotel and Beach Resort which features a classy hotel and a well combed beach where tourists swim, do kayaking, dive and frolic with the fish around, play beach volleyball while kids can test their creativity with the sand. The resort also has bamboo cottages, a beach-side fine restaurant and a regular cultural presentation and entertainment featuring native talents.
A team of Farmbook Magazine, the PitGames Media Inc., the weekly Philippines Today, the biggest and only circulation-audited newspaper for the Filipino American community in San Francisco and Northern California and Northern Nevada, and the news agency Phil-Am Press which services US and Canada groups motored to the Subic Freeport recently to get first-hand view and experience of its gems of attractions, the popular destinations and those newly discovered, and were promptly assisted by Ms. Armie Llamas Carvajal, the comely and ever smiling and accommodating SBMA Public Relations Director, and her staff.
Subic Bay is not just one of the most modern and major ports in the Philippines and Asia, it is not just about commerce and trade, manufacturing and exports and investment, it is not just fun in its beaches and resorts and enjoying the cool breeze, it is not just simple and peaceful living in retirees and expats’ homes, it is not just relaxing in its modest and classy hotels, it is not hopping in its bars and specialty restaurants, it is most of all a commune with nature because a trip there would surely amaze the urbanites who are used to the hustle and bustle of the city with its thousands of hectares of verdant forest protected over the years most especially by the American forces who had made it their home for over a century. And the vast canopy of the forest is a playground of native and migratory birds, of the big nocturnal fruit bats, of the friendly and sometimes fiery monkeys and teeming with wildlife, and the rivers and brooks underneath hold surprises at times with fishes and crabs while the coastal areas are rich with marine life. It’s all 670 square kilometres or 11,000 hectares of botanical garden of centuries-old and young trees of various species like the sturdy narra and molave, fruit trees like mango and santol, the pliant bamboo, flowers, ferns and orchids, some of them could only be seen here.
And amidst the vast rainforest thrive the native Aetas who call it their home. In fact, big part of the territory is considered as their ancestral land and the government not only pay tribute to them but also pay rentals for the use of their land by businesses. It is no surprising, therefore, that among the big attractions of the Freeport are the Aetas themselves. These Aetas lead tourists in trekking the rugged terrain and trails on foot or on top of horses to their village. Once there, the tourists are shown their native homes and treated to the demonstration of how to start fire without the use of match or gas and go on with their own kind of cooking on bamboo shoots. Afterwards, the Aetas and the tourists feast on what they cooked with bare hands with banana leaves for their plates. The native Aetas will also treat their visitors to a very entertaining tribal show that includes the butterfly and war dance. Marvel at the amazing athletic gymnastic ability of these dancers as they perform the monkey dance and catapult up a tree. In one of the Aetas’ domain called the Pamulaklakin Nature Park in the Binictican area, one can swim or simply touch and appreciate the pristine water of the rivulet and brook strewn with big boulders and brown stones. It is also ideal for camping and family gathering and picnic.
For the adventurous, the Apaliin Forest Trails are also favourite for jungle trekking. Here one can experience a trekking adventure in the jungle where wild plants and animals can be found. Visiting soldiers, Filipinos and Americans, do this trekking as part of their training during joint military exercise. But there’s one popular area where one need not enter the treacherous forest to be able to get similar experience and training. It is called the Jungle Environmental Survival Training or JEST Camp. Here, one can get tips on coping up with challenging times, like being lost in the jungle. Demonstrations are also done regularly on how to survive in the jungle. The Aetas themselves undertake the skills demonstrations and training. They are the same indigenous people who taught the U.S. troopers during the Vietnam War. These survival trainings are truly educational yet fun. Lately, the operations and management of the JEST Camp was placed on a private concessionaire who, in turn, provided more attractions. Thus, the camp now boasts of a wide array of exotic birds and fowls, many of which are trained to fly or walk upon sgnal towards guests during performances at a stadium, aside from its ostriches and rainbow-colored butterflies in an enclosed garden. While most of the birds are kept in cages, there is one big dome cage in the camp where one can interact with the different kinds of birds. The camp also has an elevated pathwalk where one can appreciate fully the tall trees and the birds in the camp. Other attractions are a museum, a souvenir shop and a deck on the mountain side offering a full view of the bay. After a long walk appreciating the camp, one can go to an area where one can savor rice on bamboo shoots and native food on banana leaves.
Subic Bay also boasts of the Extreme Adventure Park, a Teambuilding Military Style Park where you’ll get to experience the exercises done by the elite military groups. The activities are the hanging bridge, the wall, the trust fall, the high ladder, the low “v” and high “v”, the highway, the pole jump, catwalk and multiline traverse to name a few. Still for the adventurous, try the Mangrove Trail and engage in an ecological tour where the visitors can learn the importance of mangrove trees that have mushroomed in the Triboa Bay area of the Subic Freeport. These pristine saplings play a major role of nursing, breeding and serves as a spawning ground for diverse species of aquatic and terrestrial animals. Due to storm surges and tsunami, the mangroves have become more important in saving lives along the seashores and riverbanks. It can be recalled that one species of mangrove, called the Nilad, were found abundant in the riverbanks of what we know now as Pasig River. This led to baptizing the country’s prime city as Manila by the early inhabitants and settlers, including the Spanish conquistadores.
The ultimate adventure for those who dive is the waters of the bay which is teeming with colourful varieties of fish and corals. One of the finest dive spots in the country, the Subic waters is also full of history for here one can dive and see the shipwrecks of several warships like the USS New York, the Seian Maru, the San Quintin, El Capitan, USS Majaba, Oryuko Maru, USS Lanikai, and LSTs and patrol boats of the Americans and the Japanese forces.
According to our host Armie Llamas, citing the Portal, an SBMA handbook which she handed to our team, in Subic, visitors can, swim, dive, kayak, jet ski, sailboat, wind-surf, parasail, yacht, fish, hike, horseback ride, target practice, go nature trekking, marvel at centuries-old trees, bird-watch, bat-gaze, butterfly hunt, watch/learn auto racing, race go-carts, enjoy casino action, play tennis, golf, bike, bowl, play pool, see movies, shop at its duty free shops and the new Ayala mall aptly called Harbor Point, or enjoy all there is in its amusement or specialty parks. After all the strenuous activities, one need to satisfy craving for food and drinks. And Subic has all these specialty food, international cuisine and facilities for fine dining like the classy Subic Bay Yacht Club scattered all over, including in its Grande Island, now a resort island, at the mouth of Subic Bay. For those who prefer a more relaxed lifestyle, Ms. Armie says visitors can hop into interesting bars and night-spots along the romantic Waikiki (Honolulu)-like boardwalk, now well manicured and dotted coconut trees and decorative plants with classy hotels like the Lighthouse Marina Resort and the nearby Vista Marina Hotel, featuring quality entertainment and live bands like the Pier One Moonbay Marina or test your vocal chords at local karaoke spots, or simply go to a local concert hall or cinema to catch the latest flick or better still, enjoy complete relaxation in the aesthetic or wellness centers and spas like the Segara Spa and the Brooke’s Aesthetic and Wellness Center. Tired after the endless adventures, visitors have a wide choice of hotels and inns, expensive or cheap, or a house or housing unit which were once occupied by the American military officers and men and have been converted into hotels or are being rented out on a daily, weekly or monthly basis like the Forest View Leisure Residences in Binictican. Unlike in the early days when only a handful of hotels like the Subic International Hotel were there to accommodate visitors staying overnight, Subic now boasts of dozens or so hotels and inns, some of which are located deep in the forest like Crown Peak and Mountain Woods. If you visit with a big family or group, one can also stay at the newly opened The Villas at Moonbay Marina. Near the villas is the biggest private hospital in the region, the Baypointe Hospital and Medical Center built to attract foreigners under the medical tourism program.
One should not leave Subic Bay without peeping at the Spanish Naval Gate which is the only remnant of the Spanish Naval Station in the bay. It was originally the entrance to the Spanish colonial fortress which was built in the 1880s. The American took over it and all the entire port facilities and took control for several years, establishing the biggest US Naval Station outside the US mainland. There is also the San Roque Church which was built in 1880s for the Spanish sailors and Filipinos who were converted into Christians. Infront of the SBMA headquarters is a 96 feet tall flagpole which symbolizes the years of US military presence in the Philippines. The biggest Filipino flag was unfurled and hoisted here during the turnover ceremony of the former US naval base to the Philippines on November 24, 1992. Today, from the flagpole one can gaze at giant US warships and missile destroyers which still do port calls for rest and recreation from time to time.
Yes, Subic Bay is a wonder of wonders. It is the sports and adventure arena, theme park capital, a virgin forest and green destination, premier convention capital of Central Luzon, home of the villas of leaders of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) who attended its summit in 1996 under then Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos, a lifestyle destination, an emerging medical tourism destination. Call it by any other name but whatever one would call Subic Bay and Freeport, it is the place to visit, live in and enjoy. (PHLTODAYUSA/Farmbook/PhilAmPress)