Saturday, 20 September 2008

Clark airport project attracts big names

By Rendy Isip
The Manila Standard

The five taipans, the Ayalas and the Lopezes are among 11 groups that have expressed interest in bidding for a P6.5-billion project to design, build and operate Terminal 2 of the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport at Clark in Pampanga province.

Bids from the taipans’ Asia’s Emerging Dragon Corp., the Ayala Capital and nine other groups will be opened Monday, according to Victor Jose Luciano, president of the DMIA operator Clark International Airport Corp. The Lopez group is joining the bidding through First Philippine Holdings Corp.

The other bidders are Admiral Energy LCC USA, DM Wenceslao & Associates, FF Cruz Inc., IL & FS Transportation Network Limited, JEHA Construction Inc., Leandro V. Locsin Partners, Philippine Regional Investment Development Corp., and Synergy International Resources.

The opening of bids will start at exactly 2 p.m. at the Mimosa Convention Center in the Clark Freeport Zone, Luciano said.

Luciano said the winning bidder will be the joint-venture partner of Clark in developing a premier airport which can accommodate long-haul airlines and a world-class logistics and services hub.

He said the Terminal 2 is envisioned to accommodate 8 million passengers annually.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Philippine President Arroyo launches today gov’t “War vs. Red Tape”

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo launched today the Civil Service Commission’s ‘War vs. red Tape’’ in a move to make the frontline services of government be more client-friendly.

The President, assisted by CSC Chairman Ricardo Saludo cut the ceremonial ‘red tape” to symbolize the launch of the campaign that will make the Philippines more globally competitive.

“To be world-class for global competitiveness, we invest in reducing red tape in all agencies to cut business cost,” the President said in her message.

The launching of the program was held in time for the CSC’s 108th Founding Anniversary celebration today highlighted by the conferment of awards to the 2008 outstanding civil servants.

Republic Act 9485 or the Anti-Red Tape Act of 2007, was signed into law by the President last June 18. Its Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) were drafted through the joint efforts of the CSC, Development Academy of the Philippines, Office of the Ombudsman and the Presidential Anti-Graft commission.

The CSC, being the prime mover for a more client-friendly bureaucracy with campaigns such as “Mamamayan Muna, Hindi Mamaya Na!” and initiatives such as the TEXTCSC, was tasked to lead the implementation of RA 9485.

The Act puts together a comprehensive host of mechanisms, systems and programs that give teeth to government efforts to stamp out inefficiency and corruption in public service.

One of the most salient provisions in the law is that whenever a government office fails to act within the prescribed period to renew a license, permit or authorization, the document is automatically renewed.

With the implementation of the law, the days when it takes about 88 different signatures to get a housing development permit; to get tax overpayment refunds eight years to be approved (although to its credit, the BIR has begun overhauling tax refund procedures); and the pervasive fixing in government frontline offices, will just be history with the determined effort of government to eradicate red tape in the bureaucracy.

The notable features of the Anti-Red Tape Act includes the following:

--The law applies to all government offices including local government units and government-owned-and-controlled- corporations that provide frontline services. Agencies performing judicial, quasi-judicial and legislative functions are excluded from the coverage of the Act but their frontline services are deemed included;

--The law limits the number of signatures of officials or employees directly supervising the evaluation, approval or disapproval of the frontline service that may include request, application or transaction, to a maximum of five signatures.

--The law requires all government offices to draw up a Citizen’s charter which identifies the frontline services offered, the step-by-step procedures, the employee responsible for each step, the amount of fees, the documents to be presented by the client and the procedure for filing complaints in relation to requests and applications. The charter must be posted in all information billboards.

--All applications/requests for frontline services shall be acted upon not longer than five working days for simple and 10 working days for complex transaction.

--Denial of request for access to government service shall be fully explained in writing, stating the name of the person making the denial and the grounds for denial.

--Public assistance desks must be set in all offices and shall be attended to even during breaktime.

-The Citizens Help Line is touted the “mother of all call centers” as a single phone number that can connect citizens to every service provided by government will be set up;

--The Report Card Survey, patterned from the popular tv show Hoy Gising that was successful in calling the attention of government offices and officials by pointing out their failures as well as successes, the government will have its own Honor Roll for good performance and Horror Roll for the inept and corrupt.

The Report Card promises to hold non-performing bureaucrats to account while giving credit where it is due.

-- The Legal Teeth, the most important feature of the Act as it gives legal teeth to the various government programs that seek to reduce red tape. It defines various violations from a simple failure to attend to clients to something as grave as “fixing.” Fixers may now suffer imprisonment for up to six years or be asked to pay a fine of up to P200,000. This is in addition to the penalty of dismissal and perpetual disqualification from public service to government employees found guilty of administrative offenses.

--The law gives an individual or a group the right to file appropriate charges against Cabinet Secretaries or Bureau Directors whose offices consistently fail to meet the standards of quality service every taxpayer deserves.

The Asian Institute of Management blames red tape for driving away investments and stifling business growth and job creation in the country. Compared with its Asian neighbors, the Philippines lags far behind in terms of competitiveness because of red tape.

A World Bank survey this year showed the Philippines ranking 133rd out of 178 countries in terms of the “ease of doing business” because of its failure to institute reforms in the bureaucracy.

Local companies invest $2.1b back to RP

Eileen A Mencias
The Manila Standard

The central bank said Filipino companies returned $2.1 billion in portfolio investments back to the country in the first half of the year amid the turmoil in the financial markets, a turnaround from the $516 million they took out last year.

“Risk aversion works both ways. Domestic investors feel safer if they have their money here,” Bangko Sentral Deputy Gov. Diwa Guinigundo said in a briefing yesterday.

“Market stresses are more pronounced in developed economies. And while the ripples from the turmoil abroad are felt here, our fundamentals are generally sound even in terms of withstanding market volatilities.”

The capital were used mainly to fund the operations of Filipino corporations and partly explained the slow growth in bank lending in the first half, Bangko Sentral director Iluminada Sicat said.

“Because of the tight conditions in the market, residents are making use of their funds overseas,” Sicat said.

Many Filipinos last year increased their investments abroad when the central bank liberalized its foreign exchange regulatory framework.

The return of the capital of Filipino firms brought the capital and financial account to a surplus of $1.18 billion in the first half of the year, up 170 percent from $144 million reported a year ago, as net inflows in both direct and other accounts negated the outflows in portfolio investments.

Sicat said the investments remitted by Filipino firms in the first half compensated for the loan repayments made by Filipino companies as well as the investments taken out of the country by foreigners during the period.

The national government repaid $571 million of its loans during the period. Eileen A. Mencias

Charice does New York

Jojo Robles
The Manila Standard

In New York City, where the news this past week seems to be all about the financial meltdown on Wall Street, a young Filipino teenager is making major waves in the pop music scene. And both the New York Times and the New York Post are raving about how 16-year-old Charmaine Clarice Pempengco stole the show from pop diva Celine Dion during the latter’s own concert at Madison Square Garden last Sept. 15.

The Laguna lass now known the world over simply as Charice, did a duet with the French Canadian singing superstar on the instigation of talk show icon Oprah Winfrey, who has taken the Filipino teenager under her wing. The enthused Celine predicted great things for Charice, who has performed with virtually every major star in the pop music firmament less than a year after she was “discovered” by talk show maven Ellen DeGeneres.

“The Most Talented Girl in the World,” as Oprah calls her, was praised by the two newspapers not only for her talent and vocal power, but also for her “impressive” emotional edge. “They performed ‘Because You Loved Me’, though Ms. Dion mostly stayed out of the way as Ms. Pempengco explored the song’s heretofore unheard rougher edges, with ample gesticulations and melisma. As Ms. Pempengco brought the crowd to its feet, Ms. Dion struck poses behind her: awestruck wonder, heartfelt empathy, ambient triumph,” the New York Times review read, as quoted by the ABS-CBN Web site.

“One of the most interesting turns in this show was the MSG debut of 16-year-old vocal prodigy Charice Pempengco, whose manager, Oprah Winfrey—that’s right—secured the Philippine singer a duet with Celine for the song ‘Because You Loved Me.’ The Charice segment was the night’s brightest moment. The teen was able to blast notes with Celine-like power, but she was also able to get in touch with the song’s emotions,” the Post’s review read.

“You did amazing, and the roof of the Madison [was blown off] tonight,” Dion said after the performance. “When you do perform in Madison Square, are you going to invite me? I love you and I can not wait to be with you to perform here for a whole concert.”

The MSG guesting was just the latest triumph for the young girl who has been joining singing contests since the age of seven to help her mother make ends meet. And anyone who has seen Charice perform on YouTube will understand why Andrea Bocelli, Michael Buble, Josh Groban, David Foster and now Celine Dion (one of Charice’s own idols) have all asked her to perform with them.

Charice’s popularity extends beyond the US, as well. Even before she became known in America, she was already voted the best foreign act in South Korea. She is adored in the United Kingdom, where she made a memorable guesting on the hugely popular Paul O’Grady Show, and has been given the key to the city of Rotterdam in The Netherlands.

And she makes every music-loving Filipino proud—even those who don’t really like Buble, Groban or Dion.

* * *

“One of the things I love most about Charice is that no matter what obstacles she’s faced in her life, she’s never given up on her dream of something better,” Oprah said about her new ward. And Oprah says she is just happy helping Charice’s dream of being a popular singer come true.

Charice first got noticed locally when she placed third in an ABS-CBN singing search show. Then an adoring fan started posting videos of her performances on YouTube—the same videos that aroused the interest of people outside the Philippines about the little girl with the big voice.

Many Filipinos—and Americans— started hearing about Charice after she first appeared on DeGeneres’ show last December, but it was her performance on Oprah this year that really got things going. The show did a story on Charice’s life and hard times and Oprah herself decided to invite the young woman back to the show as she was about to leave to return to the Philippines.

The rest of Charice’s story is, well, the stuff pop-superstar dreams are made of. Oprah got in touch with starmaker and music industry legend Foster, who included Charice in a star-studded lineup he put together for a show in Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay hotel.

Charice also got invited by Bocelli to sing in a concert the Italian pop star staged in his hometown. And then came the Madison Square Garden duet with Dion, whose songs Charice likes singing.

Charice’s voice is indeed wondrous, a mixture of power, maturity and emotion that no teenager should be able to access. And her stage manner and presence make her a joy to watch—a combination of poise and just-happy-to-be-here joy.

With Oprah backing Charice and her formindable talents, there seems to be no limit to what the former star of YouTube can achieve in the future. She has yet to record any original songs, but anyone who has heard Charice will agree that she gives even the most hackneyed popular song a fresh sound—a sure sign that there’s more to this young singing sensation than just an uncanny knack for karaoke-style mimickry.

Not bad for a kid from Laguna who joined singing contests six days a week and who, if she earned P2,500 in prizes, was happy because she could feed herself and her mother and brother for a month. And now, when Charice is set to join the ranks of the world’s pop superstars even before she’s old enough to drive a car, her dream is truly on the verge of coming true.

Good luck, Charice. You do us proud.


US ambassador says Philippine economy stands on solid footing

Charissa M. Luci
The Manila Bulletin

Amid the global financial meltdown that is currently gripping the United States, the Philippines remains an investment niche for American investors because its economy "stands on solid footing," US Ambassador Kristie Kenney said yesterday.

While the US banking crisis might impact on global markets, Kenney expressed confidence that the Philippines is sufficiently armed with sound economic fundamentals to weather the debilitating effects of the financial meltdown.

"The Philippine economy stands on solid footing and playing to its good advantage," Kenney said during yesterday’s groundbreaking of the new US million US Department of Veterans Affairs Facility at the US Embassy Seafront compound on Roxas Boulevard in Pasay City.

The envoy said US companies investing in the country will remain, adding that there are still some multi-million dollar US investments coming in.

There will be no pullout of the US companies here, she stressed.

She encouraged the Philippine government, however, to further implement sound fiscal policy "to keep this country attractive to foreign investors."

Kenney said her government is currently mapping out measures to address the financial crisis.

"We certainly hope that the rescue of the American International Group will help stabilize the situation," she said.

"The US Congress is also looking at measures to further improve the regulation of the banking (industry)," she said.

Kenney also assured that US assistance to the Philippines will not be affected by the financial turmoil in her country, saying that her government’s foreign aid funding remains intact.

She expressed hope that the more than two million Filipinos in the US, mostly information technology (IT) and health care professionals, won’t be hit by the retrenchment of major American investment companies.

"Hopefully, that won’t happen as we need to save these people," she said.

According to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, the US is the second biggest trading partner of the Philippines with a total of $ 665 billion [sic] foreign direct investments (FDIs) in fiscal year 2007, next only to Japan.

Last year, Japan contributed a total of $ 827 billion in FDIs.

Philippines to weather crisis

GMA, economic team assure the country
Officials air confidence at economic briefing
Fil C. Sionil
The Manila Bulletin

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said yesterday she is confident the Philippines will be able to weather the financial crisis now sweeping the global markets and minimize its impact on the country.

Speaking at the Philippine Economic Briefing at the Shangri-La Hotel in Makati City, Mrs. Arroyo assured that the government is doing its utmost to minimize, if not altogether insulate, the country from the debilitating effects of the global financial meltdown.

She said that the administration’s economic team is "doing its best on all fronts to manage inflationary pressures, provide a safety net to those members of our society who are hit hardest by the global developments, and deliver the growth that will continue to generate jobs and the tax revenues that we need to fuel our investment in the future."

She acknowledged the relatively difficult business environment caused largely by the external factors, as shown by the deceleration in the pace of the economic growth for the first semester of the year, sliding to 4.6 percent compared to the 8.3 percent in the same period last year.

"Our economy has not been spared by the global economic downturn. Our economic growth has been impacted," she said. The situation is not uniquely Philippines, she said, as it is also true for other regional economies such as Hong Kong and South Korea.

While the risks and challenges the country is now facing "are broadly external," the President said, there is need for the government to implement "strong, decisive, and targeted action internally" to soften the effects on the populace.

The President said she believes the country can withstand and surmount the difficulties as the administration continues to pursue structural reform measures to increase the ability of the domestic economy to ward the influences from offshore, improve competitiveness, and become more self-reliant.

"We will continue on the path of economic reform. Our reforms have helped us in this time of global economic upheaval. Without them, we would not be as confident as we are that our economy will withstand these external shocks. We will continue to be vigilant against further challenges to our economy," she said.

She reiterated the political will of the government to "maintain fiscal prudence" in spite of the two-year slide in bringing the national government’s fiscal position to a balance.

The fiscal managers have decided to move back to the original 2010 target the fiscal balance spelled out in the Medium-term Development Program of the country, largely because of slower economic growth that means lower revenue collections.

"We must maintain the fiscally prudent policies that have given us the strength to weather this global storm. The global economy may have knocked us down, but we have gotten up off the mat and dusted ourselves off. Filipinos are fighters, naturally optimistic, and we don’t quit. Our story as a people has a practical, down-to-earth theme," the President said.

Tough decisions made earlier have softened impact, says President

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo yesterday said she is confident the Philippines will weather the external shocks in the international market, highlighted by the liquidity crunch that beset Lehman Brothers Investment Inc., Merill Lynch, and global insurance giant American Investment Group (AIG).

"There is no doubt that the global economy has hit the Philippines hard. The upheaval in the global economy this past year has clearly had a significant and painful impact on every Filipino through higher prices of food, fuel, and rice," the President said at the Philippine Economic Briefing at the Shangri-La Hotel in Makati City.

While the economic picture had been "challenging," the President said, the Philippine government has been able to soften the impact by making tough decisions earlier.

Speaking to foreign and local investors, Arroyo said the subprime crisis had severely hurt US financial icons and may have caused speculators to turn their attention to energy and food, which saw prices rise sharply earlier this year.

"Against this backdrop, the best buffer we (the Philippines) have to external vulnerability is our own domestic internal strength," she said.

"We hope the worst is behind us and we have weathered the worst of the global storm," she said, citing positive signs like the fall in world crude prices.

Oil prices have dropped below 100 dollars a barrel from their highs of 147 dollars in July.The surge in world oil prices had a severe knock-on effect, sending food prices, particular rice, the country’s staple, skyrocketing.

Arroyo said oil and food price hikes had taken their toll on the Philippine economy, sending inflation up and growth down. The Philippines relies heavily on imported oil and is one of the world’s major importers of rice.

Inflation in August hit a 17-year high at 12.5 percent while growth, which stood at a 30-year high last year of 7.3 percent, is expected this year to fall to around 5 percent.

The economic slowdown in the United States will hurt exports to the US which is the Philippines’ biggest market, Arroyo said.

She said the government had prepared for this by passing tax measures, boosting domestic food and energy production, diversifying export products and markets, and ensuring macroeconomic stability.

At the same forum, Finance Secretary Margarito Teves said the national government posted a budget surplus of P1.7 billion (36.2 million US dollars) in August despite increased expenditures.

For first eight months of the year, the budget suffered a deficit of P31.7 billion, up from P25.5 billion in the same period last year, he said.

Arroyo had originally sought to achieve a balanced budget in 2008 but Budget Secretary Rolando Andaya said this had been pushed back to 2010 so the government can spend more money in the coming months to sustain growth.

Don’t panic; gov’t is prepared, says Favila at briefing

There is no need to panic over the impact of the US economic financial crisis because the Philippine economy is expected to weather this storm favorably as investors go for safer places to park their investment portfolios and over R281 billion investment leads to be pursued, Trade and Industry Secretary Peter B. Favila said yesterday.

At yesterday’s mid-year economic briefing, Favila reported the latest favorable figures on investments and exports and the challenges that have to be hurdled to sustain the growth amid an economic crisis in the US, the country’s number one trading partner.

"Don’t panic. We’ve seen this crisis and the government is prepared for that," he said. "As the President pointed out, we are taking measures to ensure we don’t get caught in the upheaval," Favila said.

Favila shrugged off the selling in the local stock market as a psychological reaction to the US crisis. He said he was confident that the financial markets will soon recover with short-term maturity investments characterizing the portfolio investments arena.

"All of these upheavals happened in the past and we managed," he added.

Favila pointed out that the unraveling of the U.S. economic crisis just happened in the past 48 hours.He said that investors are waiting until the market bottoms out and will be back into their buying positions at a good price. Portfolio investors, he said, normally go to safer investment havens or areas with little impact.

"Since the Philippines is not much affected, investors are sure to come back," he said.

"My guess is that in due time, the Middle East countries will come out resuscitated and global liquidity will ensue," he added.

Favila has directed the Philippine trade attaches worldwide to tap these opportunities.

"This is an opportunity to seek investors looking for safer places to go to," he said.

Favila, who is chairman of the Board of Investments (BoI) and the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA), cited the strong investments inflows registered by the these two premier investment generating agencies.

The agencies are challenged to close over P281.9 billion investments in the pipeline plus other leads with undetermined project costs, he said.

For the first semester this year, BoI and PEZA combined investments hit P281 billion, a 115 percent increase over the same period last year, and accounting for 72 percent of the full year investments target of P391 billion.

The investments represent the combined project costs of 505 projects that have been approved and registered by BoI and PEZA in the January-June period this year. These projects are expected to generate 121,223 jobs once they are in full commercial operation.

Based on a 12 percent annual investments growth target, investments from both BoI and PEZA are expected to hit P391 billion in 2008, accelerate to P438 billion in 2009, and P490 billion in 2010.

To attain the growth target, Favila has instructed agencies under him to sustain the inflow of high-value, high-impact investments.

The ratification of the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement is another big boost needed to facilitate entry of huge investments from Japan and open up new export products, he said.

The challenge, however, is to continue improving on the country’s competitiveness, he stressed.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Unemployment rate dips to 7.4% in July

The Manila Bulletin

The country’s unemployment rate declined to 7.4 percent in July from a near two-year high of 8.0 percent in April, the National Statistics Office reported yesterday.

The NSO said that employment rate for July was 92.6 percent. This implies that nine in every 10 persons in the labor force were employed in July.

Despite the fall in unemployment rate, the country has one of the highest jobless rates in the southeast Asian region, prompting the government to distribute cash subsidies, loans and discounted rice aimed at cushioning the impact of high prices of basic items, such as food and fuel, on the poor and unemployed.

The percentage of underemployed, or those who have jobs but want to work more, increased to 21.0 percent of total employed in July from 19.8 percent in April, according to the quarterly labor force survey by the NSO .

Of the total labor force of 34.6 million – more than a third of the country’s population of 90 million – more than half were employed in the services sector, over a third were in agriculture and the rest were in the industrial sector.

More than half of the employed were wage and salary workers for private companies and households and government corporations. Over a third were self-employed and the rest were unpaid family workers, mostly from the farm sector.

The current employment figure is not significantly different from the July 2007 rate which is 92.2 percent.

The July 2008 Labor Force Survey (LFS) revealed that the labor force participation rate is 64.3 percent.

The NSO said this means that the size of the labor force in July 2008 was approximately 37.3 million out of the estimated 58.1 million population 15 years and older for that period. Compared to the labor force participation rate in July 2007, 63.6 percent, the July 2008 rate is higher.

Employment rate in the national capital region (NCR) was at 87.2 percent, Central Luzon was 90.6 percent and CALABARZON, 89.6 percent was lower than in all other regions. As in previous LFS, the NCR recorded the lowest employment rate. In terms of the labor force participation rate, the NCR 61.7 percent, Ilocos Region 62.3 percent, Central Luzon 61.8 percent, CALABARZON 62.9 percent, and ARMM 57.4 percent posted lower rates compared to the rest of the regions.

Monday, 15 September 2008

RP dubbed ‘adventure buffet for picky tourist’ in UK report

The Manila Bulletin

The Department of Tourism (DoT) has been flooded with requests and inquiries from tourists from the United Kingdom after getting favorable reviews from London as the "adventure buffet for the picky tourist."

Tourism Secretary Ace Durano said the Philippines was featured in the Daily Mail, Britain’s second highest-selling magazine, with more than 2 million circulation and almost 6 million readership, by freelance travel writer and famous author Michael Arditti.

In a two-page article, Arditti cited the Philippines as "an an adventure buffet for the picky tourist."

Arditti opened his two-page, full-color feature entitled, "Manila Really is a Thriller," with his astonishment at the country’s popular image of exploited maids and shanties when it has a wealth of history, culture and scenery. After two weeks of stay, Arditti was "wowed" by the Philippines, from its "pulsating capital to the exotic islands."

"After the article’s publication, Department of Tourism London was flooded with calls," said Ace Durano, Secretary of Tourism. Durano further remarked that the country’s image problem can easily be reconditioned by a single person’s experience of the country’s destinations.

Durano also called on bloggers and writers to keep highlighting the best of the country, its undiscovered destinations and hideaways, through photos and words.

Eduardo Jarque, Jr., DOT Undersecretary for Planning and Promotions, added, "Seeing is believing. That’s why we encourage hotels, resorts and airlines to link up with us in our familiarization tours campaign to bring in more potential ‘ambassadors’ who will promote our country."

DOT-London, Tourism Attaché Domingo Ramon Enerio mentioned that Traders Shangri-la, Boracay Tropics, Plantation Bay, Nurture Spa, and TRIPS which were part of Arditti’s trip have also been receiving numerous inquiries after the article’s publication.

In the article published on September 6, Arditti started his trip in Manila, noting the evident Spanish influence on century-old churches and the walled city of Intramuros. He was also surprised by the dynamism of Makati’s financial hub with its cosmopolitan restaurants and designer shops. Then he headed further South in Tagaytay where he trekked Taal Lake and ended the day with a relaxing massage. He also went to Quezon for the colorful festivals, which he regarded were a mix of pagan and Christian rituals.

The London-based writer’s two-week sojourn also included a stay in Cebu – a city which he observed to be fiercely independent and proud of its remarkable historic architecture. His final stop was Boracay where he raved about the island paradise’s golden sands and warm people.

Manila really is a thriller

By Michael Arditti, The Daily Mail, 9th September 2008

Mention the Philippines to any Westerner and certain images spring to mind: former First Lady Imelda Marcos's shoes, young maids exploited by Arab employers and poverty so acute that shanty towns grow up on noxious rubbish dumps like some real-life version of Dickens' Our Mutual Friend.

There is, however, so much more to the Philippines than that; a rich history, vibrant culture and verdant landscape.

For a start, the country is not a single entity but consists of more than 7,000 islands, which can be broadly divided into three areas: Luzon in the north; the Visayas in the centre and Mindanao in the south.

I began my trip in Luzon and the capital, Manila. What had been a small town of 2,000 inhabitants when the conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legaspi arrived in 1570 (or, as my guide pointed out, 'When we discovered the Spanish') has since grown into a sprawling metropolis of more than 15 million people.

With the exception of Warsaw, no city suffered more devastating bomb damage during World War II, and 21st-century Manila is a place of violent contrasts: old-style colonial architecture, soaring skyscrapers and tumbledown shacks in an urban wasteland.

In fact, Manila is not one city but a federation of 14, each with its own administration.

The essential areas of Manila for the tourist are the Intramuros, the walled city that made up the old Spanish capital; Makati, the business and financial centre, full of smart restaurants and designer shops; Ermita and Malate along Manila Bay, with their exuberant nightlife; and Binondo and Quiapo, home to both the city's Chinese community and some of its most historic churches.

I stayed at the Traders Shangrila hotel in Manila Bay, a discreetly opulent establishment opposite the Cultural Centre of the Philippines, which, with the neighbouring Folk Arts Centre, Film Centre and Coconut Palace, forms a kind of Manila South Bank.

It was built by Imelda Marcos on reclaimed land at the height of what the locals describe as her mining activities: 'This is mine, and this is mine, and this is mine.'

From there it's a short drive (traffic permitting) to the Intramuros, the most impressive monuments of which are the ruined Fort Santiago, now a museum to national hero Jose Rizal; the squat Romanesque cathedral with its exquisite stained glass; and the San Augustin church and monastery, the oldest in the Philippines, with its magnificent baroque interior, stunning trompe l'oeil ceiling and collection of icons.

On the borders of the Intramuros stands the famous Manila Hotel, which General MacArthur made his headquarters from 1936 to 1941.

Those with long pockets and a sentimental disposition might like to stay in his suite, while the general traveller can slip back in time by sipping a cocktail in the wood-panelled lobby to the strains of a string quartet, or taking lunch in the lavishly ornate Champagne

Room, amid the festoons of yellow silk, wrought-iron mirrors and giant crystal trees.

Despite the stalling traffic, the city moves at a frenetic place, making visits to the American and Chinese cemeteries doubly welcome. Both are magnificent monuments and indispensable oases of calm.

From Manila, there's an interesting excursion to Tagatay, a small town with breathtaking views of Lake Taal, the country's third largest lake, which has at its heart an active volcano.


While hardier souls climbed the crater, I opted for a massage at the nearby Nurture Spa. Reclining in the tropical garden, lulled by the gentle sound of running water and the heady fragrance of frangipani, with a therapist gently kneading my neck and shoulders, I was transported to a more forgiving world.

I also took trips to Quezon province for the spectacular May festivals in Sariaya, Tayabas and Lucban.

The Philippines is the only predominantly Catholic country in Asia, yet it retains much of its pagan heritage, and these festivals, with their splendid decorations, gaudy costumes, processions, dancing and feasting are a compelling mixture of Christian and animist traditions.

After ten days in Manila, I flew south to the Visayas, staying first outside Cebu, the second largest city, and on Boracay, a true island paradise.

Like many second cities, Cebu is fiercely independent and somewhat scornful of the capital. It proudly asserts its history, which includes San Carlos university, the oldest in Asia.

It has its own language, Cebuano, one of more than 150 spoken in the islands and quite distinct from Tagalog, the dominant language in Manila (thanks to the 50-year American occupation, everyone — except in the remotest areas — speaks some English).

Cebu boasts an array of historic monuments, including Fort San Pedro, a unique triangular citadel, and is home to the Casa Gorordo, a striking example of Spanish-era architecture. It is also home to the country's most precious icon, the

Santa Nino, a statue of the infant Christ, presented by the Portuguese explorer Magellan to the Queen of Cebu on her baptism.

You won't go far wrong by staying at the newly established Plantation Bay hotel, a compound of small colonial-style buildings set around a series of man-made lagoons, in which you can swim, dive, raft and, best of all, relax in the spa.

Boracay Island

The Philippines possesses 20,000 miles of shoreline and is home to more than 40 per cent of the world's maritime life. It therefore seemed fitting to end my stay in the most celebrated of its resorts, Boracay island.

I took the hour-long flight from Cebu to the tiny Caticlan airport, followed by the 15-minute boat trip to the island, marvelling as the lush palm trees and white gold beach came closer into view.

Boracay derives from the local word for cotton and alludes to both the colour and texture of the sand.

Most of the island's activities centre on the four-kilometre White Beach. There you can sunbathe, swim, surf, buy a fake Rolex or genuine pearls, drink at the Hobbit bar staffed entirely by midgets, and enjoy all-you-can eat buffets from £3 a head.

The beach remains packed into the early hours, and more sedate visitors would do well to avoid the shore hotels in favour of one such as the Boracay Tropics, a few minutes' walk inland.

On a two-week trip, I was able only to get a taste of a country which offers not just a huge contrast to life in the West but a series of striking contrasts within itself.

On the other hand, having visited three of its 7,017 islands, I have 7,014 reasons to return.

Travel facts

Responsible Travel (01273 600030, PhilippinesTour) offers a 21-day Philippines holiday from £1,113. Qatar Airlines flies from Heathrow to Manila from £569 return, including all taxes and charges (0870 3898090

For more information, visit Philippines Department of Tourism (020 7835 1100,

NAIA 3 update photos