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On the DOTr for Public Transport – Maritime Sector

Here’s a continuation of the set of guidelines issued by the Department of Transportation for transport operations for areas that are or will be under the General Community Quarantine (GCQ). Again, I try to refrain from making any critiques or comments, and post this for information and reference.

Aerial photo: Zamboanga City’s fish canning and bottling factories

As we approached Zamboanga City’s airport last week, my colleague and I surveyed the landscape trying to identify landmarks. He was quite good at this being a geographer/transport planner. We took a few photos from the plane and one is this shot of the fish port and factories in Barangay Recodo along the national highway.

Canning and bottling factories lined along the Zamboanga City coast with are mostly fishing vessels anchored off-shore.

There is still an abundance of aquatic resources in the Sulu Sea where these vessels go for fishing. These should be more than enough for domestic as well as typical international demand. Unfortunately, there are alleged foreign trawlers or vessels poaching our resources. These should be seriously looked into by our coast guard and navy.

Sabang Port – Puerto Princesa

The jump-off point for visitors to the St. Paul Subterranean River (Underground River) is the Sabang Port at the northwest part of Puerto Princesa. Following are photos taken at Sabang including some showing information on transport and procedures for visitors.

IMG09422-20140927-0829Map of the national park showing some of its features and the transport services to/from the port.

IMG09423-20140927-0829Information on the management of the national park

IMG09424-20140927-0829Greetings for visitors

IMG09425-20140927-0829Puerto Princesa limits the number of visitors to the Underground River and there are procedures for visitors and their accredited guides to follow.

IMG09426-20140927-0830I caught this scene of children playing football on the sands during low-tide.

IMG09427-20140927-0830While most boats seem to be for ferrying tourists to the Subterranean River, there are also many fishing boats at Sabang.

IMG09428-20140927-0830Fishermen fixing up their boat likely before going on a sortie. I could imagine Sabang was like other fishing villages in the Philippines until authorities started promoting attractions like the Underground River. The influx of tourists transformed what was probably a sleepy village into a tourist destination complete with commercial developments like resorts, restaurants and shops.

IMG09429-20140927-0831Outriggers dot the waters around Sabang Port, their boatmen waiting for their turn to ferry visitors to the Underground River.

IMG09430-20140927-0831The concrete pier provides a basic but better facility compared to other similar ports around the country. The dispatching of boats is organised and passengers queue in an orderly manner to board the boats assigned to them.

IMG09431-20140927-0832A boat (left) approaches as another (right) just left, bound for the Underground River.

IMG09432-20140927-0832Clean restrooms /toilets are a must for tourist destinations. Sayang Port has well-maintained toilets.

IMG09433-20140927-0832Tourism office at Sabang Port – note the basketball goal post in the photo? The area is also used for other purposes including sports activities. Also noticeable in the photo are street lamps powered by solar energy. We saw some solar-wind power lamps around Puerto Princesa and Sabang’s main road has these for night-time illumination.

IMG09434-20140927-0833A close-up of the small box showing schedule and cost of transport services to/from Sabang from/to Puerto Princesa city proper. Note that there are only 4 trips per day for public transport (bus or jeepney). 

IMG09435-20140927-0835Boatmen manoeuvre their vessels in the crowded waters of Sabang Port.

IMG09436-20140927-0836Another photo of boats lined up at the port.

IMG09437-20140927-0837Portable or collapsible sheds or tents at the port often bear the name of the company sponsoring or providing these for port users. Under one, there was a group facilitating the tour of a group of senior citizens from around Puerto Princesa. We got it from our guide that they are given free rides and visits to the Underground River as part of their benefits as senior citizens.

IMG09490-20140927-1030Visitors get-off from their boats as other vessels queue to unload their passengers. It takes some skill from boatmen to manoeuvre and make sure they don’t collide with other vessels.

IMG09492-20140927-1033People get off a boat via a makeshift floating jetty

IMG09493-20140927-1034Scene of the port and boats from the shop and eatery-lined road along the coast.

Advice to tourists: tip your boatmen generously. They serve as your lifeguards and do their best to maintain the boats and the equipment. They don’t get much from ferrying visitors to and from the Underground River and they do have families to feed. Make this tip your contribution to ensuring sustainable tourism in this heritage site that is also considered one of the top natural wonders of the world.

Sta. Lourdes Wharf – Puerto Princesa City

The jump-off point to island hopping in Honda Bay is Sta. Lourdes Wharf just north of Puerto Princesa City proper. I have seen this wharf evolve into the modern (compared to other Philippine wharves or ports) facility that it is now. I guess this is possible if both national and local government really put the necessary resources to improve such infrastructure that obviously benefits everyone and not just the tourists who happen to flock to this port for island-hopping trips.

2014-09-26 07.45.55The local tourism office and amenities like toilets are housed in this building. What it used to be was a building made out of bamboo with nipa and a few iron sheets for roofing. Boats were moored just behind the building in what looked like a chaotic set-up for tourists and islanders. There was no concrete road 5 years ago and the dirt road was a muddy mess during the wet season.

2014-09-26 07.46.19Philippine Coast Guard station at the wharf

2014-09-26 07.46.36Outriggers carrying passengers; mostly tourists on the Honda Bay island hopping package

2014-09-26 07.46.46This larger boat is not necessarily for tourists but for ferrying passengers between the mainland and the smaller islands off Palawan. It is obviously of sturdier design and has a bigger passenger capacity.

2014-09-26 07.46.56Our outrigger waiting for us to board. The crew consisted of two boatmen – one handling the motor and driving the boat while another was in-charge of handling the line, anchor and maneuvering the boat from the port and towards the sea (with just a bamboo pole as a tool).

2014-09-26 07.47.02A snapshot of other boats docked along the wharf shows mostly outriggers. In the background at about right is a glimpse of a Philippine National Police fast craft. The PNP has a maritime unit complementing the Philippine Coast Guard and those stationed in Palawan have modern fast craft capable of giving chase to pouchers and pirates in their speedy boats. 

2014-09-26 07.59.41A Chinese boat moored at the PNP dock. This fishing boat was intercepted by Philippine authorities illegally fishing in Philippine waters. This was the subject of well-circulated news reports showing the Chinese were catching endangered species like sea turtles and were carrying live and dead pangolins and other wildlife they were smuggling out of Palawan (with the help of shady Filipinos, of course).

I think the Sta. Lourdes Wharf is a good example of adequate port facilities serving both passengers (including tourists) and goods. It provides for the basic needs of users though there is usually some congestion at the port due to increasing tourism activities. The wharf practically becomes a parking lot to tourist vehicles during certain times of the day and this becomes serious during the peak tourism months. This, however, is a minor concern for now. Access to the wharf is also excellent with good quality concrete roads from the city centre to the wharf; a combination of national and local roads being developed to a standard that makes them “all-weather” and comfortable for use by travellers using all types of vehicles. This is something that can and should be replicated for similar ports around the country not just for tourism areas but basically to address the needs of travellers and goods.

On logistics in the Philippines

I am not a logistics expert and will not pretend to be one. I have, however, been involved in several projects that included logistics as a major study component. These include a nationwide study on inter-regional passenger and freight flow and another for freight forwarders affected by vehicle restraint policies in Metro Manila.  A more recent engagement has allowed me to take a look at logistics in the country from other perspectives including that of national agencies seeking to improve goods movement in the country and development agencies that have committed to help the country to do just that. There are local issues and there are regional ones. The regional ones often involve the need for infrastructure such as maritime ports and airports, highways and bridges, and other facilities such as those for storage and refrigeration.

For an archipelago like the Philippines, logistics is a bit more challenging than in countries whose territories are not separated by bodies of water. There is no lack for good practices though as there are other archipelagos that could provide good examples for connecting the islands such as Japan and the United Kingdom. Nearby, we share similar challenges with Indonesia and to a certain extent Malaysia. Of course, availability of resources is always an issue and particularly for the prioritization of infrastructure to be constructed aside from those that need to be maintained. The DOTC along with its attached agencies like the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) and the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) are in the frontline when it comes to airports and ports planning, development, and maintenance are concerned. However, the DPWH plays a vital role for highways and bridges and the connections for these ports and airports including what is termed as “last-mile” connectivity that is often passed on as a responsibility of local governments. This is likely due to local roads often providing the connection between national roads (under the DPWH) and ports and airports. It is a good thing that the current DPWH has committed to a convergence program regarding national and local roads that has benefited a lot of sectors and industries like tourism and agriculture.

Rail transport is not mentioned here because there is practically none even for what remains of the once relatively extensive PNR main lines. The local issues are not simpler and can be a bit more complicated than the regional ones. The complications are usually due to more petty circumstances that may involve politics and local power plays. The basic ingredients though are related to traffic congestion and the damage to roads and bridges attributed to trucks.

Many cities and municipalities have implemented truck bans along their major roads. These are usually one or two routes in the smaller cities and towns, usually passing through the “bayan,” “poblacion” or central business district (CBD). These roads are usually national roads (e.g., McArthur Highway and the Pan Philippine Highway pass through many towns). As such, there are cases where bypass roads are constructed to alleviate congestion along these roads as well as to try to preserve the pavements in the town proper. Such traffic schemes targeting heavy vehicles are not new and are also a way to address the issue on overloading that is common in trucking in the Philippines. The bypass roads, however, generally invite development and unplanned development have often made these alternate routes more congested than the original ones.

Manila did a “power play” recently by implementing a more aggressive truck ban. This led to more severe congestion around the Port of Manila and a lot of delays that have cost a lot of money in part due to the limited alternative routes in the city and most roads are already constricted. The costs have repercussions on the economy in general as the movement of goods are affected by the impasse in Manila. Whether this was for more political or practical reasons is difficult to say because the mayor and vice mayor have invoked the very common issues of traffic congestion, road safety and pavement maintenance that got the attention, sentiment and agreement of a lot of people. Many of these people though do not understand the impacts of inefficient goods movement and likely are concerned only about passenger transportation.

More recently, a lot of containers were shipped from the Port of Manila to Subic. These are supposedly “overstaying” shipments or those that have not been claimed for a long time or have some issues regarding their release. This should ease congestion somehow but there remain the problems of shipping or logistics companies regarding freight transport in general that needs to be addressed. Both Subic and Batangas ports have been mentioned in many formal studies over the past few years including a more recent one supported by JICA. Still, there is a lot of hesitation if not confusion or uncertainty on how to go about with shifting goods movement to these ports, which are regarded to be underutilized. There are good roads connecting these ports with cities and towns but these might not be enough in the long run.

Perhaps there is a need to reconsider regional rail transport again especially for the islands of Luzon and Mindanao where long distance rail may have a tremendous impact for transporting goods over long distances. Of course, there are also issues pertaining to other ports and airports in the country including those in Mindanao (e.g., Davao, Cagayan de Oro, Phividec, Gen. Santos, etc.) and Visayas (e.g., Cebu, Iloilo, Tacloban, etc.). The RORO ports are among those that need attention as they are directly involve road transport aside from the ferries that carry them over the waters. These nautical highways are vital for goods movement around the country and require both national agencies and local governments cooperating for these facilities and services to function efficiently.

SuperCat trip from Calapan to Batangas

We were glad that we were able to get on either the SuperCat or FastCat for our return trip to Batangas after a meeting in Calapan. For one, this meant that our travel will only be an hour, 1.5 hours less than a trip on a regular RORO ferry.  The RORO ferry schedule also didn’t favor an early arrival in Batangas considering we also had to travel back to Metro Manila. The SuperCat staff earlier didn’t sell us tickets because they were not sure there would be SuperCat trip in the afternoon given the conditions at sea.

IMG06789-20130919-1647SuperCat staff had to assist passengers as they boarded the vessel due to the rough waters that frequently lifted the vessel and make one lose his/her balance.

IMG06790-20130919-1647Another photo showing staff assisting boarding passengers. Each passenger had to go one at a time and at intervals due to the movements of the docked vessel.

IMG06791-20130919-1649Inside the craft, it was obvious that this was a much better vessel than the regular RORO ferries plying the same Calapan-Batangas route. The seats were more comfy and the interior was clean and obviously well-maintained, and that includes the toilets on the vessel. There was airconditioning and staff were more professional and attentive to passengers (probably taking after airline flight attendants). There were few passengers so some people had entire rows to themselves.

IMG06792-20130919-1710Passengers may place their bags or things under their seats or in front of them as there were no overhead compartments or space for stowing luggage and other items. Passengers with no one beside them put their bags on the empty seats instead.

IMG06793-20130919-1716The crew served us some simple snack comprising of peanuts, a cupcake and a fruit drink. There were items like sandwiches, junk food and other drinks available at the bar inside the SuperCat but choices were limited and I learned their stocks were already depleted as this was the last trip for the day for the SuperCat. There were no night time fast craft trips.

2013-09-19 17.01.53I tried to get photo of what was showing on the television screen but the choppy waters combined with the dim lighting didn’t favor my BlackBerry’s camera. There was only one screen and it’s size is obviously not suitable for passengers seated farther from the front. It didn’t really matter because it was only a 1-hour trip between Calapan and Batangas when using the SuperCat.

2013-09-19 18.12.03Dim lights as passengers disembark from the fast craft. Outside, crewmen assisted passengers who might lose their balance due to the instability of the vessel due to the rough waters.

It was already drizzling when we got out of the terminal and rain was pouring as we drove out of Batangas and unto the STAR tollway.