Getting on the travel radar

  • Asia & Oceania
  • Friday, 06 Dec 2013

Tourism is the best way to help the country bounce back after Typhoon Haiyan. Most resorts and attractions are open and fully functional. Where do we start? A local writer recommends 10 places to visit.

FOR a country with thousands of idyllic islands, plus world-class surfing and diving, the Philippines is a relatively undiscovered travel destination. Tourism is crucial to the country’s economy, accounting for 8% of its GDP, but compare the British visitor numbers – 120,000 in 2012 – to those of Thailand (800,000 per year) and you get some idea of just how far off the radar this vast archipelago is.

Last month, of course, the country was firmly in the world’s sights when Typhoon Haiyan caused widespread destruction across the provinces of Leyte and eastern Samar on the mid-eastern side of the Philippines and some parts of Palawan and Cebu on the mid-western side. The storm caused havoc on six of the country’s 7,107 islands.

However, while the areas in the path of the typhoon were devastated, much of the country was not damaged. Most resorts and tourist attractions are open and fully functional, and those that were hit are quickly getting back on their feet in the run-up to December and January, two of their busiest months of the year.

Idyllic: The rolling hills of Batanes, a Unesco World Heritage Site. — Photos from Wikimedia Commons

The tourist board and tour operators are reassuring visitors that the country is safe, and in need of a vital boost to the economy via tourism. Those who go will receive a very warm welcome.

So, how do you choose which of those 7,000-plus islands to visit? Here’s our guide to 10 islands, each offering something different.

Chill out in El Nido, Palawan

This jungle beach town on the northern tip of Palawan hasn’t changed much since before Spanish colonisation and has been cited as Alex Garland’s travel novel The Beach.

Explore the many islets of the nearby Bacuit archipelago on a boat-hopping tour, where the water is so clear that you can see the fish darting in between coral at 15m deep. Prices range from around £17-£20 (RM90- RM106) per day for a tour and that usually includes lunch. There is grilled seafood in abundance across the island.

Palawan was one of the islands in the path of Typhoon Haiyan, however, it was only the city of Coron and the nearby island communities that were hit. El Nido has not suffered any damage and the surrounding coral reefs are intact, with only very shallow ones sustaining damage.

Shake your tail feather in Boracay

With endless beaches of powdery-white sand, long happy hours, abundance of restaurants and hotels to suit all budgets, and plenty of watersports, Boracay is the party island.

It has 12 beaches, the most popular being White beach and Bulabog. The island is divided up into “boat stations”, which are used as reference points.

Station 1 in the north is known for its high-end resorts and tranquillity; Station 2 is the liveliest part; and Station 3 is where all the budget accommodation can be found. While many locals look back longingly at the good old days of the 1970s – before the hotels and restaurants started springing up – Boracay is still a “Phuket” in its infancy.

There was some storm damage to the island. Electricity still remains a problem for many parts of the island, but most hotels are up and running with generators.

Unesco World Heritage: Batanes

The Batanes Islands are found on the very northern tip of the Philippines archipelago, a land of gently sloping hills, thatched-roof houses and locals who wear traditional straw hats.

The 2,000-year-old rice terraces etched along plunging ravines in Banaue.

With weather reminiscent of drizzly British summers, locals visit the islands for some respite from the tropical heat, while tourists go there for a completely different island experience from the rest of the Philippines.

To get around, rent a bicycle or book a tour with a company, such as Batanes Travel and Tours , which charges £211 (RM1,113) for a three-day trip including accommodation, transport and guide.

Dive site: Banaue, North Luzon

North Luzon, the biggest island of the Philippines, is a land of misty mountains, where pines replace palm trees. Head to Banaue and Batad to admire the 2,000-year-old rice terraces etched along plunging ravines. The 20,000km Unesco-listed terraces still provide a livelihood for the various tribal groups that continue to live in relative isolation in the mountains.

Treks along the rice terraces to various villages and waterfalls can be organised through the Banaue Tourist Information Centre. Expect to pay around £10 (RM53) for a guide for a whole day.

Coral mounds of Bohol

Located just off Cebu, Bohol’s most famous attraction is the surreal Chocolate Hills: over 1,500 mounds formed by coral deposits sculpted by a millennia of erosion. Depending on the season, they will either be green or brown.

The island’s famous resident is the camera-shy tarsier, the world’s smallest monkey. Visit them in their protected enclosure at the Philippines Tarsier Foundation.

Don’t visit them in the cages kept along the river; they are mistreated and don’t live long there. Either hire a motorbike or book a tour from a local company, such as Bohol Travel Tours, for around £35 (RM185) with car, guide and lunch.

In October this year, the island suffered from a 7.2-magnitude earthquake that destroyed many houses. Two weeks after that, Bohol was back on its feet, drawing in the tourists as normal. The island was also hit by Typhoon Haiyan, but sustained little damage to its infrastructure.

Tour operators and hotels remain fully open. The main issue being tackled by the island’s authority is limited power supply, which is slowly but surely getting fixed.

Surf’s up in Siargao

Facing the Pacific Ocean, just north of the island of Mindanao, is Siargao, one of the Philippines’ surf sites. The town sees a steady stream of dedicated surfers who arrive to challenge themselves on the island’s famous Cloud 9 reef break.

The small beachside town hosts a number of international surfing competitions every year, which make it a busy place during surf season, but completely dead when the waves are down. Novices can hire trainers, who you can find on the beach, for around £7 (RM37) per hour, or you can book a package from a surf hotel, such as Kermit Surf Resort, which has a deal for £394 (RM2,080) per person per week, including accommodation, transfers and one-to-one surf lessons.

A beach in the North of Mindoro, close to Sabang.

Off the beaten track: Camiguin Island

This pear-shaped volcanic island, just off the northern tip of Mindanao, is often bypassed because of various Islamist uprisings that have been reported on Mindanao. However, Camiguin itself has never had any incidents and those who make the effort to travel there are rewarded with an island barely touched by tourism.

For such a small landmass, this tiny island packs quite a punch, its 29,187ha including seven volcanoes. It also offers good diving through an eerie sunken cemetery, waterfalls, a lagoon, and hot and cold springs. All of these can be reached easily by foot, or you can hire a motorbike (£11/RM58 a day with a driver, £7/RM37 without).

Tradition in Siguijor

The magical Siquijor is both feared and revered by locals. It’s the place to go, if you’re looking for a boroboro, or witch doctor. The Provincial Tourism Department has a list of “official healers”, or just ask any local and they’ll be able to point you in the right direction. You’ll need to rent a tricycle (a local motor taxi) for around £14 (RM74) for half a day, as most of the healers live high up in the mountains.

These witch doctors or healers welcome paying visitors – but be polite and respectful as it is an age-old tradition that is widely believed by locals. Away from all the magic, it’s also a beautiful island for relaxing, snorkelling and diving.

Scuba-diving in Mindoro

Good diving spots are a dime a dozen in the Philippines, but the best scuba-diving spots can be a bit harder to reach. Apo Reef is one of them. A mostly sunken atoll, two hours off the west coast of Mindoro, the 40sqkm reef is famous among the diving community for its abundance of larger creatures, such as sharks, rays and sea turtles.

Most divers stay on Pandan Island (a 20-minute boat ride from Mindoro) and, from there, access the reef via a three-hour boat ride. Apo Reef Club is one of the dive operators closest to the reef. A package of five dives, including two night’s accommodation and transfers, costs £212 (RM1,120).

Go hiking in Davao, Mindanao

Davao is the biggest city on the island of Mindanao, an area that is scarce of tourists due to the aforementioned Islamist insurgencies. Davao City is widely regarded as a safe haven on the island and has been ranked as one of the best places to live in the country. This is where the durian originates from. It is also home to the rare Philippine eagle (pay a visit to the Philippine Eagle Centre for an educational tour).

The island’s crown jewel, however, is the country’s tallest peak and semi-active volcano, Mount Apo. A 2,956m climb to the top will take you through the full spectrum of Filipino biodiversity, from steamy jungle to pine forests, and belching sulphuric vents.

Join a group tour with Climb Mt Apo for £56 (RM296) per person. If you go independently you will need a permit from the city hall in Santa Cruz, an hour south of Davao (contact Julius Paner, +63 2 441 1467). The permit costs £4 (RM21) per person. You can then hire a freelance guide and/or porter at a rate of £4 (RM21) per day for the porter and £7 (RM37) per day for the guide.

The permit office will be able to put you in touch with a certified porter and guide.

— Guardian News & Media

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