Davao, Duterte & Paradise!
Phil Hopkins, Travel & Arts Correspondent
This week we are running a series of features on the Philippines. Our theatre and travel man, Phil Hopkins, has been on an amazing three-week adventure to the other side of the world, and here recounts his journey to this country of more than 7,000 islands. Today it is the turn of Davao in the Southern Philippines.
Alliteration is never more popular in the Southern Philippines than when it is uttering the words Davao and Duterte in the same breath!
One, the jewel of the Southern Philippines' crown, is supposedly among the safest places in the world, the other is the city's former mayor and the country's newest President elect, Rodrigo 'Rody' Duterte, the man said to have single-handedly cleaned up Davao over the last two decades.
Twenty years ago, when the country's biggest city had a reputation for drugs, crime and corruption, Duterte promised, if elected, to adopt a no-nonsense style of politics that would change Davao for ever by ridding it of its drug lords. He was and he did.
Now that same rhetoric has won him the country's top office and as president, he has promised to dole out the same sharp shock treatment to criminals and corrupt officials, across the country, when he takes up office on July 1st.
But what is his legacy in Davao, on the one hand sometimes touted as a city to avoid because of its Mindanao location - there have been several Abu Sayyaf terrorist kidnappings in the wider area - whilst on the other hand said to be largely safe if you consult website www.numbeo.com
Freelance tour guide Sharon Caneda reckons the area gets a raw deal and that it's time to take a fresh look at this beautiful city.
"Locally we all know that this is one of the safest places in the world and we have to keep telling people that. Yes, it has been reported in both local and foreign news that there are some areas in Basilan that are not safe, so we do not really recommend those places to tourists. Davao City is different", she insists.
If this is the case - and Davao feels massively less threatening than the capital, Manila, - then it is former Mayor Duterte who now has thousands of loyal followers singing a new tune. Compared to Manila, traffic is well policed, there is an extensive network of CCTV cameras, the only 911 (999) service in the country, smoking is banned in all but special 'permit' areas, and drug dealers know better than to ply their trade.
There even appears to be an unspoken truce with terrorists who seem to stay away from the city itself. "Duterte's son is a Muslim and his father is said to have a dialogue with many dissident groups," says Sharon, as if to reassure me that my safety is guaranteed!
Duterte is famous for his Sunday TV appearances when he names and shames drug pushers, advising them to hand themselves in or, by implication, suggesting that 'we're coming for you'. Apparently many do!
One local told me: "We love him (Duterte). He's a smart guy, a lawyer who knows what to say and how to say it. Duterte didn't quite say 'I will shoot you' (drug dealers) but the threat was implied and, one by one, they either disappeared of their own volition or............" He stopped mid-sentence, grinned and raised his eyebrows as if to say 'they were compulsorily disappeared if they didn't disappear themselves!'
Tough Guy Duterte
The Mayor even prided himself on living in a modest home, and is now famous for his hard-hitting, no-nonsense national campaign and subsequent victory.
And it all began in Davao where he implemented a cultural shift by banning pyrotechnics and firework displays, bringing in a Gender Sensitivity Ordinance to protect members of the gay community, and making cabbies so fearful of not putting their meters on, that it is now one of the best cities in the Philippines to get a fair and honest taxi ride!
Smokers having a quick puff outside of specially defined permit areas, are fined between 500 and 1500 pesos if they are caught, with all income going towards child cancer support work. Davao is, by legacy, a Duterte city and, for most part, its residents seem to love him and everything he's done.
Which all bodes well for the region's tourist industry, now hell bent on jettisoning its 'not safe' tag in order to bring more non Filipinos to the area, also home to the Southern Philippines' ultimate Paradise Island!
"We want to see more nationalities, lots more," says James Lopez, Marketing Communications Officer for Davao's only five-star facility, the Pearl Farm Resort on the Island Garden City of Samal.
It takes 45 minutes by boat to reach this glorious island which is straight out of a Hollywood movie.
Owned by the country's 'Banana kings', the Floirendo family, who have invested tens of millions into creating it, Pearl Farm, as its name implies, was originally a place where oysters were cultivated for their hidden booty.
Now its 69 rooms, many with verandas opening onto sea views, is a playground for the well-to-do of Manila, honeymooners, or anyone with enough money to shell out between 8,000 and 45,000 pesos a night (£120-£671) for two to six people, which buys you the right to stay on the main 14-acre island resort, or the adjacent eight hectare Malipano Island where there are seven three room, three storey villas for the elite of the elite! Still cheap by UK standards!
Summer in this part of the world is March to May when you can expect so-called 'brown outs', periodic power cuts throughout the day, sometimes for as long as five hours a day, albeit in sporadic bursts.
Davao Light, the equivalent of Yorkshire Electricity, can't meet demand but, in between the grumbles, is often applauded for pre-announcing pending cuts on social media before they actually happen; a bit like BR advising that trains will be late!
And as if Rody Duterte has re-programmed the entire local population, James Lopez chirps: "Davao is one of the safest cities in the world. Yes, some dissenters would say we have the highest crime rate but many of the statistics relate to smoking and minor car crime, not drugs. There is a difference!"
He quickly adds, as if by way of compensation: "And, thanks to nearby Mount Apo, the highest peak in the Philippines at 10,300 ft above sea level, we don't have any typhoons locally."
Davao is a beautiful city. There is San Pedro Cathedral, at first view, something of a concrete monstrosity on the outside, but, apparently, designed to look like the apostle and patron saint of Davao, St Peter's, Vinta boat.
Nevertheless, it is stunning on the inside and just across from the Legislative Hall and its Peace Monument, ironically commemorating the harmonious relationship between Muslims and Christians over the past 100 years.
As in so many Filipino cities, you can take a taxi ride half way across the city for just £1.76 including tip, and it must surely be the place to sample Davao's local fruit Dorian, said to taste like Heaven but smell like Hell!
And no visit to the area would be complete without dropping in at Eden Nature Park. Owned by the Ayala family, it is now one of the area's main tourist attractions. Bought in the 1970's as 80 hectares of illegal logging devastation, the Ayala family have re-planted the area which is now deemed 95% man-made.
You can stay overnight in cabins, enjoy the wonderful nature of this tropical haven, an amazing restaurant where everything is home grown, and even an array of outdoor 'sky' rides.
And, if you have any time left (!), the People's Park is a nice afternoon out and an opportunity to take in the work of local artist Kublai Millan.
.........or you can pop into yet another shopping mall, this time the Abreeza!
Davao is an amazing place and has been cleaning up its act for nigh on two decades. Its hotels are comfortable and cost effect - no complaints about the three-star Crown Regency Residences although I'm sure glorious sunshine and a lovely pool always help!
Maybe it's time to dust off your Lonely Planet guide and take a fresh look at this group of North Pacific islands, with their glorious climate, tropical plants, blooming bougainvillea, and azure oceans. A secret to Western Europeans for far too long? I think so. And Davao's very cheap, a MUST for all Yorkshire folk!
Don't smoke in Davao unless you are in a permit area!
You MUST hire / book a guide before you go, for reasons of personal safety.
Exercise caution at all times but plan your trip carefully and wisely and you will be fine. I was! Don't become a prisoner of your fears!
Tell people where you are going and take a note of your taxi driver's number plate. Be a healthy paranoid!
(in-country travel agency / nationwide city guides / Travel & Hotel Bookings)
Sharon Caneda, Davao Guide. Friendly. Great English firstname.lastname@example.org
Crown Regency Residences, Davao - http://davao.crownregency.net/
www.pearlfarmresort.com - (James Lopez - email@example.com)
o www.numbeo.com - 'safe city' survey.
Davao, Duterte & Paradise!, 26th May 2016, 8:00 AM