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The Philippines

How Philippine resort strip went from sin city to family destination for local and foreign tourists 

Subic Bay’s hostess bar strip sprang up to serve servicemen at the nearby  US naval base, but in the 25 years since they left a different crowd has been drawn to its beaches and dive spots

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 September, 2018, 8:47am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 October, 2018, 12:04pm

Along a ramshackle coastal highway northwest of Manila, the neon of hostess bars illuminates signage advertising hotel stays of just a few hours. The Barrio Barretto strip along Subic Bay has operated that way for decades.

But it can be tough now to find a hostess in some of those bars, and roadside hotels are as dusty as the roadside itself as their customers slowly disappear. This strip along the deep-water bay where the US Navy ran a port from 1945 to 1992 is morphing instead into a higher-end resort district that brings families of tourists from Manila as well as from the colder regions of Europe.

So many people make the drive from Manila on the weekends that traffic crawls along the two-lane highway as if in an urban rush hour.

“The roads are jammed to the point of non-stop traffic Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” says Steve Hicky, sports manager at the beachside bar Harleys. “It’s the first place you come to with a beach. A lot more are travelling up from Manila and going up further north.”

Tourists from Australia and northern Europe pick Subic Bay for its calm beaches and shipwreck diving spots in the bay. Their interest has prompted hotels to offer jet-skiing, banana boat outings and diving excursions.

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“I ask foreigners why they come here, and they want to swim,” says Ylaiza Rodenas, desk clerk at the 41-room, four-year-old Mangrove Resort Hotel along Subic Bay. “What’s interesting? The view of the ocean. In other countries they’re far from the beach.”

As many as 60 bars once operated in Barrio Barretto, a highway strip paralleling the east-west coastline, when the US Navy’s largest overseas base operated just a few kilometres away.

I like (Subic) because of its beaches. The lifestyle is high standard. I like that it’s very pleasant – what you see
Ray Francisco, 56, businessman

The Philippines ordered the base closed in 1992 partly because American servicemen had got in trouble with Filipino women in the clubs. Some of the Americans who retired from the military and stuck around have died of old age.

A decade ago 225,000 Filipinos visited Subic and surrounding Zambales province along with about 80,000 foreigners, according to Philippine Department of Tourism statistics. Last year 1.65 million Filipinos and just 32,000 foreigners visited, the figures show.

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Middle-class Metro Manila families with private cars make up most of Subic’s tourism today, people on the strip say. Some rent a Filipino-style nipa beach hut for 2,000 pesos (HK$295) per day and use it to sing karaoke. They visit most often from April to June, when temperatures are highest in Manila.

“I like (Subic) because of its beaches. The lifestyle is high standard,” says Ray Francisco, 56, a businessman who lives two hours away and has driven in for a company retreat. “I like that it’s very pleasant – what you see,” he says, gesturing toward the beach as a colleague barbecues fish on a hotel grill facing the bay.

More Filipino weekenders can afford to travel now as the Philippine capital’s economy booms on call centre jobs and remittances from relatives overseas.

“They are people coming to spend the day,” says Patrick Gilmore, owner of the Offshore Inn hotel and six-room long-stay guest house. “They go in and out again. We call them excursionists.”

Subic Bay is just a four-hour drive from Metro Manila, while other premier Philippine beaches require a flight or day-long ferry ride. The central government closed Boracay, the country’s premier beach island, from April until October this year for a clean-up.

Other tourists who come regularly tend to be from Australia, Germany, Russia, Sweden, South Korea and the United Kingdom, say those who live around Subic.

Today 10 hotels are accredited in the Subic area, the Department of Tourism says, and four more are applying for accreditation.

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A couple dozen seedier ones still operate, too, but the construction sites of new resorts compete with them now for space in the barrio. The most visually outstanding site along the bay will turn become a roughly 200-room hotel by year’s end, local people say.

Among today’s landmark hotels are the iCove Subic Hotel & Beach Resort, which features conference space, and the Palm Tree Resort, which includes a poolside bar and a beachside seafood restaurant. A night’s stay at the formal hotels ranges from 2,300 pesos to around 5,000 pesos.

The Australian-owned Arizona International Resort comes with a bar that floats 90 metres offshore. It takes some visitors to an “open water marine park” where clear waters allow views of coral, dolphins and sea lions. A less open alternative: staying in a capsule at the Subic Bay Hostel & Dormitory.

“If you live in a big city, you need to get away,” says Wali John, 37, from Manila as he awaits his dinner order at a beachside steakhouse. He has visited Subic six times by private car. “It’s easy to find and easy to go to. It’s a quiet place and I like having fresh air.”

The former military base, called the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, today has its own set of hotels, an American-style shopping centre and the Zoobic Safari, a 25-hectare amusement park with wild animals as well as the chance to feed tigers and crocodiles.

Back along the highway, the number of hostess bars now roughly equals the number of family-style restaurant bars, Hicky says, estimating the total of each around 25.

Another attraction is the lure of further-flung beaches. From Olongapo, it takes another two hours to reach Iba, a 50,000-population South China Sea beach town with its own cluster of resorts.

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Foreign tourists usually start their journeys from Manila, which is five hours from Subic by bus, or from the airport at Clark that is one or two hours away. Buses run hourly from central Olongapo city near Subic to Clark. Hotels do private car pickups from Manila for 4,000 pesos to 5,000 pesos per person.

The more adventurous, and more moneyed, also step onto an Air Juan seaplane that makes 25-minute flights between Subic Bay, literally, and Manila Bay.