Backpacking in the Philippines
The Philippines, with its spectacular scenic spots, diverse cultures and rich biodiversity, has considerable potential to become a major backpacking destination in Asia. Being the world’s second largest archipelago after Indonesia, the Philippines has over 7,100 islands, only 450 of which are inhabited permanently.
The total length of the country’s coastlines, stretching 36,289 kilometers, is said to be the third longest in the world and is nearly twice that of the United States. The country is sandwiched by two great bodies of water: on the east by Pacific Ocean, the world’s largest ocean and on the west by South China Sea, the world’s second largest sea.
Luzon, its largest island, has a total land area of 104,688 square kilometers and is the world’s 17th largest island (excluding continental masses of lands). Metro Manila, Luzon’s political and commercial center and which is home to over 12 million people, comprises only 0.2 percent of the country’s total land area.
Altogether, the country has 41,960 barangays or villages grouped into 114 cities and 1,496 municipalities. Municipalities and cities belong to 79 provinces, which in turn are grouped into 16 regions.
The Philippines has 78 language groupings and over 500 dialects that are often associated with the Malay-Polynesian group. What makes this country stand out from other Asia Pacific countries is its long exposure to western culture.
The country was a colony of the Spanish empire for 333 years from 1565 to 1898. As a result of the Spanish-American war in 1898, the Philippines became the United States’ only colony outside the Americas until World War II. Filipinos only achieved full sovereignty on July 4, 1946.
As a consequence, while this country is undoubtedly Asian (its people are predominantly of Malay stock intermingled with Chinese and European blood) in its value system and culture, there is much about it that makes westerners feel comfortable when visiting the Philippines. Most people speak at least some English and foreigners (provided they speak slowly) are readily understood; there is a rich cultural tradition derived from the Spanish that embraces not only the influence of the Spanish friars but is also embedded in the fiestas and feasts that permeate life in the countryside. Filipinos smile a lot and are accepting of foreigners.
This Country Has a Lot to Offer
Filipinos' history and culture can be gleaned most readily from century-old Spanish churches, ancient forts, historical landmarks, plazas, parks, museums, theaters, entertainment centers, lively marketplaces ranging from giant shopping malls to bargain shops and high-rise buildings. The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has included a Spanish town and four Catholic churches in the Philippines in its elite roster of world heritage sites.
But it is worth remembering that this is an ancient culture and beneath the Christian veneer there is both the world of Islam as well as the more ancient traditions of the peoples to explore – especially as one moves further from Manila. And yes, despite what is read about in the press, for the most part Christians and Muslims do get along together.
The Philippines teems with geological wonders, being the site of 200 volcanoes, 22 of which are believed to be active. About 40,000 square kilometers of coral reefs are found in its waters. The country boasts of the most perfect coned volcano, the smallest volcano, second deepest spot underwater, longest natural cave, longest underground river, finest island beach resort and richest marine park in the world. Included also in UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites are two natural parks and rice terraces carved out of a mountain.
In terms of bio-diversity, the Philippines is on top of the list. The country’s surrounding waters are home to about 2,100 fish species and 500 coral reef species, earning the reputation of having the highest level of biodiversity in the world. The country’s land territory is home to about 9,000 species of flowering plants, a third of which is said to be endemic to the country. It hosts 121 mammals and 215 reptiles and amphibians that are endemic to the archipelago. The Philippines also has the highest concentration of birds and butterflies in the world, with 86 species of birds and 895 species of butterflies found in the country.
Among the animals endemic to the Philippines are the world’s second largest eagle, the world’s smallest monkey, the world’s largest and smallest bats, the world’s smallest hoofed mammal, the world’s most endangered deer, the world’s rarest water buffalo, and flying lemur. In its waters are found the world’s largest and smallest fish, the world’s largest and smallest shells, whales, dolphins, sea turtles, sea cows, and seahorses.
The list could go on. It is impressive.
While the Department of Tourism (DOT) endorses a list of tourist spots in a few provinces, the possibility of sightseeing in other areas is boundless. The Philippines is blessed with unsullied beaches, spectacular sunsets, luxuriant pastoral lands, relaxing mountain resorts, and virgin islands.
At present, the DOT promotes three anchor destinations supported by modern transportation links and convenient accommodation facilities. These destinations include Metro Manila in Luzon, Cebu City in the Visayas, and Davao City in Mindanao. From these destinations, visitors can embark on trips to the countryside and to smaller islands where more impressive sceneries await them.
In order to generate revenues for the government, the DOT mainly targets regular visitors who stay at hotels for at least two nights. Tourist destinations have been promoted in a way that travelers will go there via DOT-endorsed flights, check in at DOT-endorsed hotels, eat at DOT-endorsed restaurants and deal with DOT-endorsed tourist guides. To many visitors therefore, the opportunity for sight-seeing, is limited by travel packages endorsed by the DOT.
For the more adventurous, there are other options.
Backpacking – A New Experience
A more rewarding experience awaits tourists who push deeper into the countryside, although there are risks involved. There are few well-equipped hospitals in rural areas, so health and safety cannot be always guaranteed. Security concerns include the threats posed by communist guerillas in Luzon and Visayas and Muslim extremists in Mindanao. Kidnap-for-ransom gangs also target foreigners. But measured against the total population of foreigners, the 100 or more foreign victims of violence in the country in 2001 was just a very tiny fraction of one percent.
More adventurous foreign travelers have experienced the full splendor of nature in remote coastal towns where local residents are the most friendly. The Tourist Information Center of the DOT admitted that backpackers have discovered amazing places that have not been on the DOT map before. Of the archipelago’s 7,100 islands, only 2,500 actually have names, proof enough that many islands remain unexplored.
Among the newly discovered places are the beaches of Glan in Saranggani province (southern Mindanao) and the Siargao Island in the southeastern tip of Mindanao. Groups of Australian surfers can now be often seen at the Siargao Island while a small community of European tourists thrives near the Saranggani Bay.
Backpacking originated from the term “backpack”, which means putting the pack or baggage on the back while traveling. It now refers more generally to that segment of international tourism involving mostly young travelers who jump with their backpacks from one location to another by public transportation and stay at affordable pension houses, inns or hostels. If there are available facilities, they camp at parks or visitor-friendly areas. The most important term among backpackers is “budget.” Unlike regular tourists, backpackers usually stay in one country for several weeks or even months to see the best that the country can offer. In fact international studies have shown that backpackers usually spend more money than regular tourists – and they do it over a longer period of time, distribute their spending more widely and utilize local services which means that the money stays in the country.
The DOT uses several terms that could be synonymous to backpacking. “Eco-tourism” and “adventure tours” – the latest buzz-words - are somehow forms of backpacking, although they involve shorter period of travel.
While the Philippine Department of Tourism (DOT) endorses backpacking among local and foreign travelers, it does not have a way of distinguishing backpackers from regular tourists. Regular tourists are those who stay for a couple of nights at DOT-licensed accommodation facilities ranging from economy hotels to deluxe hotels. These hotels are mostly located at urban areas.
Who Are the Foreign Tourists?
While there is no available data on backpacking in the Philippines, general statistics on tourism can provide some clues. Data from the DOT shows that in 2001 around 1.671 million foreign travelers visited the country, 44 percent of whom came here for holiday, 25 percent to visit friends and relatives, 18 percent on business, and the rest to attend conventions and for other purposes.
By country of residence, the US topped the list, with 389,818 travelers accounting for 23 percent of all tourists. The US was followed by Japan with 343,021 travelers; South Korea, 205,788; Hong Kong, 134,254; Taiwan, 84,644; Australia, 68,253; United Kingdom, 59,100; Canada, 54,851; Singapore, 44,010; Germany, 40,286; Malaysia, 29,564; South Asian countries, 20,114; Middle East countries, 18,480; China, 14,533; Thailand, 14,472; France, 13,847; Netherlands, 13,422; Indonesia, 12,630; and Switzerland, 12,204.
Italy sent 8,962 visitors; New Zealand, 7,768; Denmark, 7,741; Sweden, 7,296; Norway, 6,589; Austria, 6,531; Spain, 5,614; Belgium, 5,432; South American countries, 3,083; Vietnam, 3,058; Guam, 2,746; Ireland, 2,306; Eastern European countries, 2,189; Finland, 2,009; Brunei, 1,783; and African countries, 1,631. The number of visitors from other countries was less than 1,000 each.
Almost 55 percent of all foreign tourists in 2001 were repeat visitors – meaning they had visited the country in the past. This applied to nearly 76 percent of all Singaporean, 69 percent of Australian, 67 percent of American and British, 64 percent of German and 57 percent of Japanese travelers.
Nearly 65 percent of the foreign visitors in 2001 were male and the rest female. Only Canada had more female visitors, accounting for 50.3 percent. Female visitors from Japan comprised only 19.7 percent while female American visitors accounted for 44.3 percent.
The average age of foreign tourists in the Philippines in 2001 was 40 years old. Visitors from the US had an average age of 45; Canada, 43; Australia, 42; UK, 42; Japan, 41; Germany, 41; Taiwan, 40; Singapore, 39; Hong Kong, 37; and Korea, 34.
By age group, foreign visitors aged under 15 years old in 2001 comprised 8.8 percent of the total; 15 to 19, 2.3 percent; 20 to 24, 4.2 percent; 25 to 34, 19.9 percent; 35 to 44, 24 percent; 45 to 54, 21.9 percent; 55 to 64, 11.1 percent; 65 and above, 6 percent. Others did not state their age.
About 64 percent of all foreign visitors were independent travelers and only 19 percent went on package tours. The rest did not state their travel arrangements. Only 2 percent of Singaporean; 4 percent of American, Canadian and Australian; 10 percent of German; 26 percent of Japanese; 33 percent of Taiwanese; 38 percent of Hong Kong; and 45 percent of Korean visitors came to the Philippines on package tours.
In terms of occupation, nearly 33 percent of the foreign visitors were engaged in professional, managerial and administrative services; 7 percent in clerical or sales services; 1 percent in military or public services; and a further 1 percent in the industrial sector. About 8 percent of foreign visitors in 2001 were students; 4, percent housewives; and 3 percent, pensioners or retirees. Over 41 percent of tourists did not state their occupation.
Only 31 percent of the foreign guests checked in at hotels, 12.5 percent rented houses or apartments, and 18 percent stayed with relatives and friends. A significant 38 percent of the tourists did not state their type of accommodation in the country.
Among top foreign visitors, about 39 percent of American tourists stayed with relatives and friends, 15.6 percent rented houses and apartments, and only 9 percent stated that they checked in at hotels. About 36 percent did not state their type of accommodation. Like the American visitors, many Canadian, European and Australian tourists stayed with relatives and friends or rented houses and apartments.
Ironically, the highest rate of hotel occupancy was noted among Asian travelers. About 53 percent of Singaporean, 50 percent of Korean, 48 percent of Taiwanese and Hong Kong, and 41 percent of Japanese tourists stated that they checked in at hotels.
In 2001, the average occupancy rate among DOT-endorsed hotels in Metro Manila was 55.85 percent. The 15 deluxe hotels had an average occupancy rate of 58.4 percent; six first class hotels, 54.3 percent; 32 standard hotels, 52.5 percent; and six economy hotels, 41.1 percent.
These DOT-endorsed hotels in Metro Manila had combined 11,784 rooms in 2001. In particular, deluxe hotels had a total of 6,874 rooms; first class hotels, 1,779 rooms; standard hotels, 2,770 rooms; and economy hotels; 361 rooms. Guests spent an average of 2.73 nights at these hotels.
Who Are The Backpackers?
According to the Tourist Information Center, backpackers in the Philippines come in small groups, composed mostly of young European, American, Australian, Japanese, Korean and other Asian travelers aged between 20 and 35 years old. They do not spend as much per day as regular tourists who check in at in Metro Manila hotels, but they stay in the country longer. There are some backpackers who reportedly stay in the Philippines for as long as three months.
Visitors from countries, which have diplomatic missions in the Philippines, can enter the country by presenting a passport valid for at least six more months and a return (outbound) ticket. They can stay in the country for a maximum of 21 days, even without a visa. Those who intend to stay longer have to obtain a visitor’s visa, which will allow him or her a 59-day stay in the country. This visa can be obtained from Philippine embassies abroad. It is also possible to get a visa upon arrival in any of the international airports in the Philippines where the visitor has to register with the Bureau of Immigration and Deportation (BID).
A visa extension, which allows the visitor to stay up to six months or even one year, can be arranged at the Immigration office after paying the prescribed extension fees. A Temporary Alien Certificate of Registration, which allows the visitor to stay not longer than 12 months (cost, US$75), can also be availed of after paying additional fees and passing an AIDS test.
Most backpackers arrive in Manila where they plan their visits to the provinces. After experiencing the best of what Manila can offer, like the walled city of Intramuros, Rizal Park and the urbane commercial center of Makati, they take buses, jeepneys and other public transportation means to get to where the nature or adventure is to be found.
First-time backpackers usually consult with the DOT main office at Rizal Park before proceeding with their trip to the countryside. The Tourist Information Center distributes brochures and gives advice on how the travelers can make the most of their visit in the country and on how they can get to their destination.
Touring the countryside with a backpack is an inexpensive option. Once they learn the tricks, backpackers can in fact make the most out of their money in their two- to three-month stay in the Philippines. The traveler may even find his US$100 budget for a single day lasting up to a week, if he learns to adjust with the lifestyle of the Filipinos. In its 2001 report, the World Bank said 45.9 percent of the Philippine population lived on less than US$2 a day. Most foreign backpackers who stay up to three months in the country spend about US$3,000.
Because of the scant information available, it is hard, although not impossible, to identify backpackers from among regular tourists. While the large number of foreign visitors who did not state their occupation, type of accommodation and other information could be a restraining factor, clues can be derived from the statistics. Based on analysis of the foreign tourist data for 2001, we estimate that the number of foreign backpackers in the Philippines in that year can be estimated between 100,000 and 400,000. Probably the lower limit is closer to the mark – though it depends just on how “backpacker” is defined since many overseas Filipinos engaged in VFR would likely engage in some backpacking type activity during their stay.
Most foreign backpackers would be included among the 1.106 million independent travelers who came to the Philippines without package tours or among the 728,545 tourists who traveled here for holiday. They were among the 439,855 travelers aged 15 to 35 years old or 139,590 foreign students and minors. They were also among the 208,418 foreign travelers who rented houses and apartments or 301,294 who stayed with relatives and friends.
Filipino backpackers are more familiar with local destinations but they stay at it for only several days or a week at the longest. These local backpackers engage in nature tripping, sightseeing, beach hopping, mountaineering, caving or jungle survival training. Favorite destinations of Filipino backpackers include Baguio City, Banaue Rice Terraces and Sagada in northern Luzon; Subic and Mount Pinatubo in Central Luzon; Laguna, Tagaytay City, Puerto Galera and Palawan in southern Luzon; Boracay Island in western Visayas; Cebu and Bohol in Central Visayas; and Davao City and Mount Apo in southern Mindanao.
Recognizing the potential of backpacking in the country, the DOT endorses "Barkadahan sa Turismo" (Peer Alliance in Tourism) which encourages youth and student groups to travel extensively throughout the country. Eight main tourist destinations have been identified under this program, namely: Metro Manila, Baguio-Ifugao, Vigan-Laoag, Palawan, Boracay, Bohol, Cebu and Davao.
Popular Backpacker Destinations
Of these areas, Baguio is undeniably the foremost backpacker destination. There are about one million foreign and local tourists who visit Baguio every year, many of them stay there for several weeks. As the country’s summer capital with an average temperature of 19.7°C all year round or eight degrees cooler than the rest of the Philippines, it is probably the only place in the country, which has adequate backpacking facilities.
One area that could edge out Baguio City as a backpacker haven is Sagada, a pastoral upland town in Mountain Province (northern Luzon). Situated west of the capital town of Bontoc, Sagada provides an endless expanse of mountain ranges, which are clothed by fogs in the early morning. Among its attractions are towering limestone cliffs, subterranean caves, unexplored forests, pristine rivers, amazing falls and calm lake.
Another area that could in the future rival Baguio City is Palawan province, whose exotic natural beauty remains undefiled for the most part. Branded as the country's last frontier, Palawan is a sanctuary to an amazing variety of exotic flora and fauna that are found nowhere else. Palawan is also home to Tubbataha Reef, the only national marine park that made it to the World Heritage List and whose grandeur is comparable to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.
With more than a thousand islands and islets, Palawan boasts of white-sand beaches, scenic rock formations, underwater rivers and magnificent caves. Other well-known attractions include Saint Paul's National Park which boasts of caves that nestle an underground river; El Nido, a world-class resort famous for its awe-inspiring seascape and limestone cliffs; and Calauit island, home of Philippine and African wildlife.
There Are Limitations
Backpacking in the Philippines has much potential and could not only spawn further development of the US$2 billion tourism industry but could also distribute the tourist dollar much more widely than is done at present. The Philippines is an archipelago of over 7,100 islands so the opportunity for sightseeing is boundless. Problems, however, include insufficient transportation means, telecommunication facilities, clean bathrooms, comfortable lodging houses in the countryside, and food and water, poor peace and order in some areas, and wet weather at many times of the year.
Situated between latitude 21°25'N and 4°23'N and longitude 116°E and 127°E, the Philippines is a tropical country with an average year-round temperature of 27°C (82°F). Philippine time is Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) plus eight hours. About 20 typhoons visit the Philippines between June and October each year.
There is no available data as to how much backpackers contribute to the domestic economy. Spending usually starts at the 60-hectare Rizal Park and ends hundreds of miles away in the provinces. The 31-meter Philippine flagpole at Rizal Park is called kilometer zero, because it is from where the distance of all the country’s towns and cities is measured. Embarking from Rizal Park to backpacker destinations is not that convenient since the Philippines still lacks basic backpacker infrastructure. Besides, you have to go elsewhere to catch a bus.
In the absence of backpacker routes or circuits, backpackers have to bring maps on their own just to track to the next tourist spot. While public buses and jeepneys offer affordable fares, they do not ply directly to tourist spots and travelers often have to board other public vehicles several times in order to complete the trip. Train transport is almost non-existent, except in Metro Manila. If you are a train buff, forget it!
While there are convenient ferry services between major islands, shipping from a small island to another might be risky. The Philippines has hogged the headlines in the past for a number of sea accidents that resulted in the loss of hundreds of passengers’ lives. Some ferry companies operate to international standards but not. - it is best to check around.
The distance between different tourist spots can also be quite daunting if you are out to see everything. For example, the time travel from Baguio City to the Banaue Rice Terraces or Sagada would take over 10 hours, although the countryside view would be rewarding.
While popular American fast food chains are present in many towns and cities, they do not have branches in farther communities near tourist spots. Travelers, therefore, usually bring with them canned goods and noodles. Others try to learn to eat the typical Filipino dish, which is composed of a cup of rice and fish, meat or vegetable mix.
Budget-conscious travelers prefer inns, apartelles and pension houses but these are hard to find in the provinces. Households near popular attractions have opened their doors to the travelers for very affordable rent on a B&B basis. Travelers, however, have to share the kitchen and the bathroom with the family who own the house.
Internet facilities are only available in urban areas, since telephone lines do not reach far-flung towns and barangays. Most large towns have internet cafes where you can keep in touch with the world.