PRESIDENT Duterte’s conscious effort to boost local tourism at this time when the outbreak of COVID-19 virus in China has become a big problem for Philippine tourism is commendable, to say the least. Any president is expected to do that, considering that many localities in the country depend on tourism for jobs and livelihood, such as Bohol, Cebu, Palawan, Boracay, and Baler. Duterte even said, “Join me in going around the country.”
As this developed, the Department of Tourism (DOT) under Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat has reported that the country stands to lose some P42.9 billion in foregone revenues because of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, which was expectedly followed by the nation’s policy of travel ban to China, Hong Kong and Macau. It’s good that the national government finally came to the realization that Taiwan should not be included in the travel ban.
In pursuance of the presidential request, airlines and hotels have announced that they are cutting rates to further induce Filipinos to visit known tourist spots in the Philippines. But being an archipelago of more than 7,100 islands, the nation depends mostly on water transportation to connect these island destinations, their residents and guests. The status and problems of the local shipping industry should therefore be paramount in the list of priorities of Malacanang.
There are, in the country, beautiful places with pristine beaches and friendly, hospitable people which may be developed as new tourist destinations if the services of local passenger ships are available. One such place is Burias Island in Masbate. In Burias Island is the poor and sleepy fishing town of San Pascual, and residents have time and again petitioned the local government to open a regular shipping route to connect it to mainland Bicol so that progress, through tourism, agriculture and trade, could reach them. No shipping firm dared to invest in this route, called a “missionary route” because it will not make money during the first years of operation as there will be few passengers.
Until Mrs. Merian Reyes, owner of M/V Virgen de Penafrancia took the challenge and applied for a missionary route linking San Pascual, Masbate with Pasacao, Camarines Sur. The ship is a roll-on, roll-off (RORO) and had been servicing the Philippine Maritime Highway (launched by President Joseph Estrada and completed by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo) for several years now.
Mrs. Reyes saw the opportunity of developing the market for the Pasacao, Camarines Sur-San Pascual, Masbate route even if she stands to lose money in the first years of operation.
After all, shipping is an industry that is tightly tied to public service. Instead of getting help from the local government unit of San Pascual, several “men of the mayor” went to the office of Star Horse Shipping Lines in Lucena City demanding that the ship owner pay a monthly “protection money” to them. It was reported that even the passenger bus that patronizes the RORO also received such demand. When Mrs. Reyes declined to pay up, her ship, M/V Virgen de Penafrancia VI was blasted on Feb. 11 with an improvised explosive device (IED) or dynamite which damaged its life rings and the air-conditioning system. The police department in San Pascual just made a cursory effort to investigate the incident and pursue the perpetrators.
Here is a case of countryside development really being stymied by corruption of elected local officials. It is not only Masbate that suffers from this political malaise. Actually, every province can have a case of a mayor or two, a governor or provincial board member, or congressman, who puts hurdles to real progress of his or her province because of personal vested interests.
Burias Island in Masbate, where the town of San Pascual is located, is the home of many beautiful and pristine beaches that can be developed by private investors only if there would be a safe, reliable and comfortable water transportation for visitors and residents alike. Here is a chance for the residents to progress, to be connected with the mainland Bicol Peninsula through a shipping route, yet their own local officials are themselves the hurdles.
Too bad President Duterte is calling, “Join me in visiting beautiful places in the country, our very own tourist spots,” when the real problem is how to get there. Duterte must visit Masbate, particularly Burias Island, and see for himself how the services of a safe and modern, reliable ship are needed to improve the economy of that province and at the same time help the islanders in their daily commute.