Bernardo M. Villegas
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Palawan As A Mini Thailand

           Today, Thailand may have lost some of its economic lustre because of political and demographic problems.  It has reverted to military rule and is already facing, very early in its development process, a demographic crisis.  These challenges, however, do not take anything away from its outstanding success in tourism and agribusiness.  More than twenty years ago, Thailand surpassed the Philippines in per capita income because of the way its leaders focused on building first class infrastructures for its countryside and agricultural sector.  Already in the 1980s, there was not a single small farm in the remotest parts of Thailand that was not within one kilometer from a good road.  The admirable focus on farm-to-market roads, irrigation systems, post-harvest facilities and other rural infrastructures (including regional airports) killed two birds with one stone.  It made the small farmers rich by helping them improve productivity and transport their produce to the markets cost effectively.  At the same time, it opened up its tourism destinations to millions of tourists who used the same roads and other rural infrastructures as the farmers did. Furthermore, the rich farmers led to a boom in the domestic market for cars and other manufactured goods, enabling Thailand to develop its industries ahead of the Philippines.

          Among the provinces of the Philippines, Palawan can become a mini Thailand under the leadership of its present Governor, Jose Ch. Alvarez.  This was in my mind as I listened to the Governor present his long-term vision for his province in a recent investment forum.  It was music to my ear to hear that his local government is fast-tracking the completion of airports that can accommodate direct flights to Palawan.  In contrast with the very slow implementation of infrastructure projects at the national level, three major airport development projects are already underway (not Power Point Presentations!).   They are:  1) The Puerto International Airport worth Php 4.5 billion; 2) The San Vicente airport which will be operational soon with the completion of its Terminal Building; and 3) The Busuanga Airport worth Php 4 billion.  To complement these major airports, the provincial government is developing twenty-two (22) smaller municipal landing strips that will comprise the network of “mosquito” airports where small planes can operate to facilitate the faster movement and transport of people to tourist destination sites.  These mini airports can also facilitate the transport of high-value agricultural and aquacultural products, among them seaweeds in which Palawan is becoming the biggest producer. 

          The program for road construction is equally impressive.  Over the last three years, a total of Php 4.5 billion has been invested for the construction of more than 300 kilometers of national and local roads in support of tourism under the tourism Road Infrastructure Convergence Program of the Department of Public Works and Highways and the Department of Tourism.   These new roads are over and above the existing 1,000 kilometers of roads.  In addition, local roads leading to airports and seaports are being built with a budget of more than Php 1.2 billion.   As of August 2015, a total of 600 kilometers of road projects have been initiated and/or completed.    I have personally experienced the dramatic improvement of the road network in Palawan.  More than twenty years ago, I had to take a helicopter to go to the famous underground river of Puerto Princesa because it would have taken more than three hours in bad roads to get there.  Today, it takes only an hour to reach this same destination from Puerto Princesa on beautifully paved road.

          Maritime transport is also experiencing major improvements.   The provincial government of Palawan is partnering with the Philippine Ports Authority for the development of ports in Coron in the north (to connect Palawan to Mindoro, another island with very attractive tourism destinations) and Buliluyan in the south (to connect the province with Kudat, Sabah as part of the ASEAN roll-on/roll-off or RORO Shipping Network).   This will facilitate land and sea travel to the “equator” covering a total stretch of 1,500 kilometers.  The local government of Kudat is investing roughly 8.5 million Ringgit for the development of the RORO port in Kudat.   Archipelago Shipping, whose owners were among those who attended the investment forum, has just acquired RORO ships costing Php 500 million that will be deployed in these north and south RORO routes.   Investors are becoming more bullish about Palawan because of the many infrastructures projects that they see are being aggressively pushed by the provincial government.  For example, Kennemer Foods, Inc. will develop 6,000 hectares of cacao plantation in six southern municipalities of Palawan.  The next phase calls for the development of another 6,000 hectares.  All these will generate 6,000 jobs.  Del Monte Fresh Produce, Inc. is investing about $250 million for the development of a 6,000 hectare banana plantation under a 25-year lease program.  This venture is expected to generate 8,000 jobs.  DOLE, the other big producer of bananas and pineapples, is now also seriously considering investing in Palawan, which is fast becoming an alternative to Mindanao for large agribusiness investments.

          In addition to farm-to-market roads and other rural infrastructures directed to the small farmers, another very critical factor for reducing poverty and attaining inclusive growth is potable water.  When Governor Alvarez was elected for the first time two years ago, 39 percent of the 366 Barangays had no access to safe and potable water.  Literally hitting the ground running, newly elected Governor launched the Php 3.6 billion Water Infrastructure Program consisting of 183 levels 2 and 3 water projects using the gravity-driven water system and solar-powered water systems in upland areas.  As a support to the tourism industry, DPWH through its Tourism Water Program (or TouWA) is rolling out water projects in the municipalities of Roxas and El Nido, with budget allocation of Php 89 million and Php 80 million, respectively.

          Eradicating poverty is the most important goal of the province of Palawan.  Thailand was able to bring down its poverty incidence from more than 50 percent in the 1980s to less than 10 percent today by doing exactly what Governor Alvarez outlined for his province for the next six years or so, the remaining years when he can still be Governor.  Because Palawan consciously or unconsciously is following the footsteps of Thailand, I am sure that the next six years will see a dramatic decline in poverty, thanks to the growth of tourism and agribusiness.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.