By Carlos H. Conde
Conde Nast Traveler
Published: October 2006
In 2001, members of the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf swooped into the Dos Palmas resort in the Philippine province of Palawan and kidnapped 20 tourists. When the group killed three of the hostages, including one of three Americans it had taken, the incident made headlines around the world and dealt a fatal blow to the country’s vital tourism trade. “People simply stopped coming,” says Ivan Lim, the owner of Dos Palmas. Five years later, Abu Sayyaf is on the runâ€”thanks to the American-supported war on terrorâ€”and tourism has made a remarkable comeback: Tourist numbers jumped 10 percent in the first six months of this year, and 2.5 million foreigners visited the country last year, including more than 300,000 Americans.
The Philippines has danger zones, to be sure, but among the 7,000-plus islands, insurgent groups are active primarily in the provinces of Sulu, Basilan, and Tawi-tawiâ€”which tourists should avoid until the political situation stabilizes. Though most of the violence has been confined to these provinces, two notable exceptions are the 2003 airport bombing in the popular tourist destination of Davao in which 24 people were killed, including an American, and a 2005 bus bombing in Manila that killed 4. Although Sulu is home to some of the most beautiful and pristine islands, it is known to shelter bandits, terrorists, and separatists and is considered among the most dangerous areas.
But given the number of tourists who visit the country each year without incident, and the vast swaths unaffected by violence, many consider the Philippines a prime vacation destination. “There are great places here that are miles away from trouble,” says Erin Prelypchan, a Canadian security analyst at Pacific Strategies and Assessments, which provides risk consultancy services to Western companies operating in the island-nation. Prelypchan says that visitors should always be prudent about safety, but that issues such as weather and the availability of medical care and mobile phone service are more relevant to travelers in the Philippines than any terrorist threat.
Unspoiled islands with glorious beaches are the top draw for visitors. Palawan, an archipelago province in the west, has several of the country’s best beaches, including those fronting the Dos Palmas Arreceffi Island Resort. As much a marine sanctuary as a resort, Dos Palmas offers overwater bungalows, empty stretches of sand, and water sports, as well as reefs that are popular with snorkelers and divers. Perhaps the ultimate in luxury, Amanresorts’ Amanpulo occupies an island of its own nearby. In the southern Philippines, the Pearl Farm Beach Resort is tucked in a cove on Samal Island. Designed by one of the country’s top architects, its buildings are tribal-inspired and are mainly bamboo and wood, in harmony with the tropical surroundings. The Pearl Farm’s villas are set on stilts above the sea, and the resort offers diving, waterskiing, outrigger tours to neighboring islands, and a spa where a one-hour massage can be had for less than $15. At a nearby village, guests can visit a traditional weaving house, where women from the local tribe create dresses and costumes as well as jewelry. The resort has seen such an uptick in American and other Western tourists recently that it is doubling the number of rooms and cottages to meet the increased demand.
Although the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office advises travelers to be particularly cautious in Davao, the province in which the resort is located, Singapore-based security consultant Nick Owen said that following a recent visit to the island, he believes it is ripe for tourism. “I was aware of the security problems before I came here,” says Owen, “but this area is worth checking out.”
Where to stay: In the Palawans, Dos Palmas Arreceffi Island Resort is on a lovely bay (63-48-434-3118; dospalmas.com.ph; doubles, $336â€“$376). The posh Amanpulo is nearby (63-2-759-4040; amanresorts.com; doubles, $550â€“$925). On Samal Island, the Pearl Farm Beach Resort has stylish cottages and a spa (63-82-221-9970; pearlfarmresort.com; doubles, $110â€“$240). Whom to call: Rajah Tours Philippines (63-2-522-0541; rajahtoursphilippines.com).