SUBIC BAY FREEPORT—Subic has shifted to higher gear its preparations to become a global cruise ship destination, a long-held dream that is fast becoming a reality.
Just like the exotic tropics of Bali and Lombok in Indonesia, Phuket in Thailand and Langkawi in Malaysia, the Subic Bay Freeport has much to offer in terms of raw adventure, picturesque landscape and indigenous culture. And then, just like the urban jungles of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, it also has the man-made allures of theme parks, hotels and shops that the weary world traveler may look for.
This combination has fueled hopes that this former American military resupply and rest-and-recreation facility may one day welcome upon its shores foreign visitors that would come in droves to frolic on its beaches, trek inside its triple-canopied rainforests, or learn the ancient ways of the native Ayta tribe.
But cruise ship visits, alas, had been few and far in between. In recent memory, only two small cruise ships had ventured into Subic Bay: MV Spirit of Adventure, which brought in 378 passengers and 201 crewmembers in February 2012; and MV Silver Shadow, whose 700 guests and crew inadvertently became Subic visitors when their ship was diverted from Manila because of some high-level Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in November 2015.
Even the 7107 Islands Cruise, which was billed as the first cruise ship to fly the Philippine flag, did not sail past the first salvo after it announced in February 2009 that Subic would be its home port.
Now, Subic’s patience and faith may finally pay off, as it girds to welcome in June one of the world’s largest cruise ships, the MS Oasis of the Seas, to start what is expected to be a regular route that would finally make Subic a global cruise ship destination.
Subic checked out as a potential cruise ship itinerary during a two-day visit here in December of officials of the cruise vacation giant Royal Caribbean International (RCI), Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) Chairman and Administrator Wilma Eisma said.
For two days last December, Eisma hosted Dr. Zinan Liu, who is RCI president for China and North Asia Pacific Region, his assistant Anna Lian and company director Antonio Muresu, as they went on to gauge Subic’s potential in the international cruise-tourism scene.
RCI, which is a cruise line brand based in Miami, Florida, is reportedly expanding its cruise ship line in view of a growing Asian market. The company is owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCCL), a global cruise vacation firm that operates 24 ships in more than 500 destinations around the world, and controls about 22 percent of the global cruise market.
It was after the two-day assessment that Liu had confirmed the June schedule for Oasis of the Seas, with a 12-hour stop for the cruise ship at the Subic Bay Freeport.
Liu and his team, along with Isabela Vice Governor Antonio Albano, were in Subic on December 16 and 17 for an ocular inspection of possible places of interests in Subic and nearby Bataan and came out “visibly impressed”, Eisma said.
The tour included theme parks like Zoobic Safari and Ocean Adventure, the premier vacation hotel Segara Villas, as well as the Philippine heritage destination Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar in Bagac, Bataan, which are prospective destinations for cruise passengers.
“We were able to show the president of Royal Caribbean how beautiful Subic and the communities around it are, and for that, Subic will be part of the cruise ship’s itinerary,” Eisma said.
In particular, Liu noted that the Subic area also has attractions for people interested in culture, history and religion. Eisma said the cruise ship official also saw that the Subic Freeport’s modern amenities gave it a unique quality not found among most free-port zones.
Liu’s group also checked out Subic’s Alava Pier, where Oasis of the Seas is set to dock in June. Alava, which is the biggest pier among Subic’s 15 berths, services passenger and military ships during their stay in the Subic Bay Freeport.
The MS Oasis of the Seas is said to provide some of the most modern cruise experiences today, with facilities named after famous tourism areas like the Central Park, Boardwalk and Royal Promenade. The ship also has a Pool and Sports Zone, Vitality at Sea Spa and Fitness Center, Entertainment Place, and Youth Zone that features a surf simulator, cantilevered whirlpools suspended 112 feet above the ocean, and zip line.
The ship is 1,187 feet in length, has a 216-foot beam and contains 16 passenger decks. It is said to be capable of carrying 6,400 passengers, along with 3,900 officers and crew.
Eisma had assured RCI officials during their ocular inspection of Subic that the Freeport will offer the best tourism facilities and services for cruise ship passengers and crew, tailored tourism experiences and a safe environment conducive to the cruise vacation business.
In return for these, Subic and its business establishments stand to gain a huge financial windfall each time that a cruise ship like Oasis of the Seas arrives.
Eisma estimated that should each Oasis passenger spend $100 during their stay here, “that would mean at least P40 million in income for local businesses in a single day.”
For the SBMA, that would also translate to bigger gains to the port and tourism sectors, which are already the biggest earners in the past several years.
According to SBMA figures, the number of visitors to the Freeport increased by 7 percent from the 2016 figure of 7.89 million to 8.43 million in 2017, while tourist arrivals grew from 1.52 million in 2016 to 1.58 million in 2017.
Meanwhile, income from Subic port operations increased by 3 percent from P1.137 billion in 2016 to P1.173 billion last year.
The cruise ship industry in Subic is expected to provide heftier bulk benefits to both tourism and maritime-related business here starting this year.
To gain the expected bonanza, Subic has to step up its services and offerings to make it competitive with other global cruise ship destinations.
Eisma said the arrival of Oasis of the Seas would require a lot of preparations on the part of the SBMA, as well as other stakeholders in the Subic Bay area, and enjoined the cooperation of the local community and business establishments.
According to RCI officials, Subic is the only port in the Philippines that could accommodate the firm’s Oasis or Quantum-class cruise ships because of their gigantic size.
Even then, Eisma said that the Alava Pier area had to be dredged and its pilings strengthened to make it suitable for cruise ship landing.
Last July, RCCL Vice President for New Business Development John Tercek also visited Subic to assess its readiness as a cruise ship destination, and while citing the potential of Subic as a cruise ship stop, had advised the SBMA to further develop port facilities to address the demand.
Last year, the Subic agency announced that it would embark on a program to rehabilitate the 15 American-era piers that still exist in the Freeport. But Eisma said an estimated P2.46 billion would be needed for this project, which is why the SBMA is requesting for national funding to jump-start the repair program.
“Six months is not a long time and we have a lot of things to prepare for,” Eisma said after Liu’s visit last month.
“But this is our best shot and we have to make sure they will enjoy their stay in Subic and come back again and again,” she added.