Is the Philippines a safe place to cruise?

Cruising around the Philippines has been a fabulous experience – it really is a cruising paradise with 7,107 islands to explore.

The country offers a huge diversity of amazing landscapes, from ancient rice terraces and formidable rugged rainforest mountains to exotic palm-fringed, white sand islands and bustling cities. Previous Spanish influences are evident in forts, bridges and churches dating from the seventeenth century, as well as in the food. There are numerous opportunities to dive or snorkel with fascinating marine creatures like the majestic whale sharks and manta rays or to see well-preserved wrecks from World War 2.

 

The local people are so friendly, helpful and welcoming. The weather is predictable and generally very pleasant, and good anchorages abound in every region. Economically, our dollars buy so much more here. We have had several long visits to the Philippines over the past five years and have not had a problem.

But is it now safe enough to recommend it to other cruising folk?

In 2015 we had some concerns about travelling from northern Borneo to Palawan again. A German couple had been kidnapped from their yacht in the Rio Tuba/Balabac area in April 2014. We had actually followed their same route three weeks later and had no problems, but while in Borneo afterwards heard that a Muslim fundamentalist group was asking a huge ransom for their release.

 

Several months later we also heard of another yacht that had been reportedly chased by a suspicious vessel at night in the Balabac Strait. By May 2015 there had been no more incidents and we were reassured that the Philippines Government were now very conscious of security for travellers in this area and had significantly increased their Coast Guard operations, so we decided to venture north again.

However, during our eleven months here in the Philippines, there have been several devastating acts of violence. Four people – two Canadians, a Norwegian and a Filipina – were kidnapped from the supposedly secure Oceanview Marina in Davao in September 2015. When ransom demands were not met seven months later, one of the Canadians, John Ridsdel, was beheaded.

 

In November, a Malaysian businessman was kidnapped from Sandakan in Borneo and transported to a jungle camp in the Sulu Archipeligo. He was later killed when ransom demands were not met. There have been two attacks on commercial tugs in the Sulu Sea, resulting in the kidnapping of fourteen Indonesian and Malaysian crew.

 

Eighteen soldiers were killed and over fifty wounded in April during an attempted storming of a fundamentalist “kidnap-for-ransom” group on Basilian Island. There have also been numerous smaller attacks against local Filipinos in southern Mindanao, involving bombings, extortion, theft, violence and forced eviction from their homes.

 

Blame for these atrocities has been levelled at the Abu Sayaff Group (ASG). The ASG, who split from the Moro National Liberation Front in 1991, proclaim their mandate is to establish an Islamic state in the Southern Philippines. Their activities are centred in southern Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago, an area with widespread poverty, long-running Muslim/Communist insurgencies and lawlessness. It has also been speculated that these acts were carried out by a loose group of about 400 profiteering criminals under the banner of the ASG.

 

The Philippines Government has been trying hard to deal with the problem. Their military, with advice and logistical support from the US, has been very active in southern Mindanao and southern Palawan. In the past year the national Coast Guard has been given a significant increase in resources and staff. In early May this year, representatives from the Indonesian, Malaysian and Philippine governments met to develop joint regional maritime patrols.

 

The Philippines Government maintains a “no ransom paid” policy, as do many other countries including Australia. Rumours indicate that ransoms have been paid by certain countries and their captured countrymen freed – an action that may well encourage the continuation of this profitable business.

 

The Philippines federal elections were held on 9th May and the new president Rodrigo Duterte led his campaign with promises of zero-tolerance to crime and drugs, and to fight corruption and terrorism. He won with a huge majority, indicating most Filipinos abhor the recent violence and want to live in peace and safety.

 

The potential danger areas for cruising yachts seems to be cruising around southern Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago, crossing the Sulu Sea and the area between central Palawan and North Borneo. These areas are fairly remote, until recently quite unprotected by military forces and are close to the ASG’s strongholds on Jolo and Basilan Islands.

 

It is time for us to leave the Philippines. We have greatly enjoyed the country but we are now keen to venture further west and visit new countries. We are now sitting in Puerto Princessa on Palawan Island, planning our passage south to northern Borneo. There are some options regarding the exact route we will take, and we are contemplating strategies to minimise any possible threats.

 

The general feeling amongst yachtees here in PP is that there is some minimal danger, and to delay our departure until things settle down from the election. There has been no ASG activity involving yachts in the Palawan region for nearly two years, and many cruising folk have travelled from Borneo to Palawan and vice versa in that time with no problems. Lots of advice is forthcoming from the resident yachtees here, and we are taking it all on board.

 

So again, would we recommend the Philippines to others?

 

Unfortunately there can be no easy answer. The Philippines has much to recommend it, and many folk are happily and safely cruising through or living here permanently. The majority of the Philippines’ regions are perfectly safe to visit. The government here, and those of neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia, are attempting to solve the problems of maritime safety and security.

 

Since Duterte’s election there is promise of a quick resolution to the violent behaviour of those fundamentalist groups involved. However, there is no denying the potential for kidnapping is there, and cruising folk need to accept this if travelling through those areas in question.

 

Sue Woods

 

Sue and her husband John left Darwin 4 years ago in their 47ft flybridge motor cruiser Solita and have been travelling through Indonesian, Borneo and Philippines waters since leaving Australia. They have written several sets of cruising notes, posted on www.noonsite.com, and consider South East Asia their home for the present.

 

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