Bernardo M. Villegas
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Ilocos Norte Leads in Poverty Reduction (Part 2)

  Laoag and the surrounding areas have been identified by the leaders in the IT-BPM in their most recent strategic planning exercise as one of the next-tier city to locate BPO enterprises in both the voice and non-voice sectors, thus giving rise to the growth of the real estate and construction industries.  Ilocos Norte was launched as one of the digital cities in the Philippines, handpicked by the IT and Business Processing Association of the Philippines, the Department of Information and Communication Technology (DICT) and leading property consultants Leechiu Property Consultants.  The IT-BPO services identified are customer care, technical support, travel services and telemarketing in the voice sector.  In non-voice, the existing or potential locators are in financial and accounting, analyst, transcriptionists, human resources, and business-to-business customer support. As an undersea telecom cable is expected to be built from the U.S. to the town of Pagudpud, Laoag can position itself to be one of the leading candidates for the location of data centers which can generate thousands of jobs for its annual supply of some 1,400 college graduates in a work force of 580,000 with a literacy rate of 98%.

 

A most exciting possibility for Ilocos Norte was presented by Mr. Alex Aquino, a top executive of a communications technology company based in Singapore, about how it can position itself to be one of the leading sites for data centers in the Southeast Asian region.  There are now 11 in-service international submarine cable systems connecting the Philippines, and another 5 transpacific subsea cables under construction, including ADC, Apricot, Bifrost, Cap-1, SEA-H2X.  A newly announced Asia Link Cable (ALC) has two landing stations in the Philippines and a still unannounced system expected to be in service by the end of 2025 has potentially 4 landing points in the Philippines.  Recent geopolitical developments and resource constraints in other countries have made the Philippines the new International Submarine Cable Hub in the Asia Pacific region.  Fortunately for Ilocos Norte, one of these submarine cables, owned by Amazon and META will be landing in Pagudpud, the famous beach resort in Ilocos Norte.  The powerful internet connections that will be made possible by these cables will surely attract data centers to locate in Laoag and surrounding areas.  Already there are three possible sites prepared to receive these data centers, i.e. Fort Ilocandia Tourism Economic Zone, VENVI IT Hub and the VYV IT Hub. I am sure that some of the large real estate developers like Megaworld, Ayala Land, Federal Land, and many others can be motivated to build their own IT-centered communities in Laoag.   Additionally, Mariano Marcos State University (MMSU) is the first Special Economic Zone Institute (SEZI) in the entire Philippines.  This high-quality state university can be expected to significantly increase its graduates of IT professionals that will be needed by the data centers.

As is true of the entire nation in which services account for some 70 % of GDP, Ilocos Norte has high potentials in consumer services, health care services, educational institutions at all levels, hospitals and other health care institutions, and research institutes.  Already there are 3 international BPO enterprises; 3 telecommunications companies; 2 national real estate developers; 8 energy and utilities companies; 5 national and 2 transnational cargo and courier companies; 3 transnational power generators; 1 national, 6 provincial, and 11 private health care facilities; 1 state and 1 private universities; 3 national and   local private  colleges; 111 hotels and resorts and 222 alternative lodging facilities; over 322 restaurants and food establishments; over 36 financial institutions; and over 40 national and 30 transnational consumer services.  There are opportunities for investments in higher learning institutions, health care services; research institutes in biotechnology , life sciences and pharmacy ,and additional investments in retail, food & beverage, and transportation  services.

The greatest potentials, however, in the  services sector for Ilocos Norte is in  hospitality  or tourism.  In a presentation made by Dr. Maria Cherry Lyn Rodolfo, the leading tourism economist in the country, during the investment forum cited above, the following data illustrate the potential for both domestic and foreign tourism as the economy recovers from the pandemic:  In 2019, there were over 3.8 million tourist arrivals, 90 % local and 10 foreign % in Ilocos Norte.  Total tourism receipts were Php 14.8 billion.  The region contains some 4,104 rooms for tourist, having experienced an 8.5% annual growth in tourism capacity.  From 2012 to 2019, there was a total increase of tourism traffic of 1,394%.

The province has the following tourism assets:  155.37 kilometers of coastline in nine coastal towns.  Among the 25 Most Beautiful Beaches of the World listed by the World Travel and Leisure in 2021 was the Saud Beach in Pagudpud.  In 2018, Ilocos Norte was ranked by Best Tourism-Oriented Province in the Philippines.  There exist very well organized tourism industry associations in the province. As regards, the human resources pool, some 15% of college graduates in the province specialized in tourism and hospitality management in 2019 while some 30% of tech-voc graduates were in hospitality-related courses.

Ilocos Norte has a very diversified portfolio.  Although the beaches are the main attractions, especially for the tourists coming from Northeast Asia, the product portfolio consists of cruise and nautical tourism, sun and beach, cultural, nature and adventure, bike tours, gastronomy, birdwatching (Paoay Lake National Park, Mt. Kalbario-Patapat National Park and Adams).  Viewed from another angle, Ilocos Norte has a polycentric resource-based development framework.  Tourism zones can be based on “golden sun tourism” which comprises the northern tourism district, coastal tours and energy areas; or on aquapolis, i.e.  port tour, logistics, marine tourism and coastal tourism or ecopolis, i.e., nature tourism, ecotourism park, protection and production and mineral clusters; and acropolis, i.e. mountain tourism and agritourism.

As regards geography, the greatest advantage is that it is the gateway to the Philippines for the rich tourists from such Northeast Asian countries as South Korea, China, Japan and Taiwan.  In 2019, the top five markets of the Philippines for foreign tourists were South Korea, China, USA, Japan and Taiwan.  Arrivals for foreign tourists were 98 % by air.  The Laoag International Airport has certain advantages in attracting the tourists from the Northeast Asian countries.  It can accommodate the Airbus 320/321 and Boeing 737-800 planes, open to both charter and commercial planes.  There are clusters of rooms within close proximity which is critical in value chain of charter operations. Ilocos Norte offers diverse portfolio of gastronomy, nature-based and adventure, marine/coastal, cultural/heritage and rural and farm tourism.  It would be logical that efforts to attract foreign tourists to Ilocos Norte should focus on the Taiwanese, Chinese, South Korean and Japanese travelers.    In many ways, Ilocos Norte should be for these rich “tiger” economies what Spain is to the Northern European countries.  Its beaches like those in Pagudpud should be swarming with Northeast Asian tourists in the same way that the Costa Brava and Costa del Sol of Spain attract millions of Germans and Scandanavians yearly. Since tourism is one of the most powerful engines of employing people, especially in the countryside where the tourist attractions usually are located, I can already be certain that before the end of the Marcos Jr. Administration, the poverty incidence of Ilocos Norte will be zero.   For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.