Bohol, a popular tourist destination, has recently been declared a rebel-free zone. // © 2017 Michelle Rae Uy
Feature image (above): Many advisors believe El Nido, a popular resort town in the Philippines, remains unaffected by the Marawi crisis. // © 2017 Michelle Rae Uy
In March 2014, Islamic separatist group Moro Islamic Liberation Front signed a peace treaty with the Philippine government. The agreement, which called for the end to an armed rebellion in exchange for more political autonomy in the Philippines’ southern Mindanao region, was a promising development in one of the longest and deadliest conflicts in Asia.
Progress, however, is a long and arduous process. The archipelago of more than 7,000 islands has seen some setbacks since the treaty, including the ongoing Marawi crisis and various kidnappings and bombings. These have prompted several countries, including the U.S., to issue a travel warning on the Philippines and, specifically, to the Sulu Archipelago, throughout the southern Sulu Sea and the island of Mindanao.
Despite this, the Philippine Department of Tourism reports that May 2017 saw a total of 532,757 visitors to the destination — a considerable improvement from 445,449 visitors in May 2016 — with the U.S. still ranking as the country’s second-biggest market.
Richmond Patrick L. Jimenez, Philippine tourism attache and director of the Philippine Department of Tourism Office in Los Angeles, says that “the concern is far from where the tourist destinations are and is very isolated.”
“There are safety issues anywhere you go,” he said. “Look at London, and even Los Angeles. It’s the same in the Philippines. But it’s still a very safe destination.”
But can Western travelers take his word for it? We sat down with several Philippines travel specialists to get their take on the country’s current tourism landscape.
Gennady Podolsky, managing partner of Chicago-based Vega International Travel, says that he has not seen a considerable effect on travel to the Philippines, pointing out that “such travel warnings are not new.”
“Mindanao has been a ‘no-go zone’ for Western travelers for decades due to local insurgencies and kidnappings of Western visitors,” Podolsky said.
Ethan Bachman, a travel consultant for Long Beach, Calif.-based Worldwide Traveler, agrees, noting that even “the travel warnings that have been issued by several countries haven't changed the number of tourists traveling to the Philippines.”
He goes on to say that popular resort areas such as Boracay, Cebu and El Nido haven't been directly affected by the issues in Marawi.
“People who are globetrotters understand that if an area of the country is in unrest, that doesn't mean the rest of the country is off limits,” Bachman said.
In fact, Debbie Montellano-Juario of Ocala, Fla.-based Bree Travel recently returned from a trip to both Amanpulo and El Nido, both of which are located on the Sulu Sea.
“Locals and foreigners alike were there as if there was no travel warning, enjoying two of the best places in the Philippines,” she said. “Tourists were still everywhere. There were no curfews.”
She also recently sent some U.S.-based clients to El Nido. The travelers had some concerns, she says, “but were reassured when they found out that the resorts have security measures in place and that the Coast Guard is in the area.”
Toronto-based Steve Perkins, senior Asia specialist for Goway Travel, says that he, too, would still recommend the destination to his clients.
Of the ongoing safety concerns, he says that it’s simply a matter of exercising enough caution and common sense.
“Travelers must be vigilant wherever they are traveling in the world,” he said.
Frederic Soupart, an expat living in the Philippines and the owner of Bohol-based SUP Tours Philippines, blames negative media reports for any increase in traveler concerns.
“Of course, there is a part of you that gets affected by what the media keeps reporting,” he said. “But if you let it get to you, you cannot live safely anywhere these days.”