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The Philippines Bus Hijacking: One Disaster Follows Another

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The recent bus hijacking in Manila once again placed the Philippines under an unpleasant media spotlight this week, with the BBC and CNN rightfully decrying the incompetence of the local authorities. Eight tourists died at the end of the bus hijacking, mostly due to the Manila police’s self-admitted “inadequate capability, skills, equipment and planning.”

As a travel writer living in Manila, I’m of two minds on the matter. I grieve along with other Manila residents, as these were eight tourist deaths in our backyard that should never have happened. On the other hand… “Philippines disaster” seems to be the default setting for any news coverage of this part of the world.

It’s not entirely undeserved. Filipinos have long suffered under years of corrupt government and backward theocracy, with no end in sight. Official responses to major disasters vary from the barely viable to the outright incompetent, with this week’s police failure being very much the latter. (I had to check a few times if Frank Drebin had been inexplicably put in charge of the Manila SWAT team.)

Yet this reflects unfairly on the parts of the Philippines that are, in not so many words, awesome. Anybody who’s gone kayaking on the lagoons of El Nido or eaten durian on the streets of Davao City will tell you that the disaster/corruption/foreigner danger media tropes are overblown.

In many places in the Philippines, the system does work. The locals do look out for their foreign guests. The taxi drivers are honest and don’t gouge anybody who’s obviously foreign.

But frustratingly, these facts don’t fit in with the lazily-reported media conclusion that the Philippines is dangerous to foreigners. It’s true to a certain extent, as it’s true for any country, but probably not to the extent that CNN would have you believe.

For good or ill, the bad-news trope about the Philippines keeps tourist levels low. That’s less tourists that can get picked off by crazed hijackers, but that’s also less tourists that get to chill out in Boracay. That’s less paperwork for the already overworked U.S. Embassy in the Philippines, but that’s less income overall for the one in ten Filipinos who depend on the country’s tourism industry.

Speaking as a travel writer who considers Southeast Asia his particular beat, and also speaking as a citizen of the Philippines, that’s unfair for almost everyone — the tourists who miss out, the locals who earn less, and the travel writers (like yours truly) caught in between.

This travel writer struggled for a bit to write an ending to this essay that would satisfy everyone. But nobody wins this round: not the citizens of Hong Kong who get their compatriots back in body bags, not the other parts of the Philippines who see their tourism livelihoods stagnate for yet another year, and certainly not the tourists who get scared off from visiting the Philippines.

I guess the news cycle wins this one again, at one whole country’s expense.

Image © Sakuradate / Creative Commons; Michael R. Aquino

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About Mike Aquino

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Mike –

    I’m a semi-retired white guy sitting in Quezon City as I type this. My 15 year-old son is attending high school here. Next year my family will all be here. We choose to be here – I choose to be here – because IMO in the big picture it’s less dangerous here than in the States.

    Driving is less dangerous in Manila. Why? Because as bad as the traffic is here, it’s all slow. When accidents happen as they will, the lower speed results in far less harm.

    Going to school is less violent here. There are schools in America that now require students to go through metal detectors before they enter the school due to the prevalence of firearms. My son was offered drugs three times just this past year in a relatively safer school in western Washington state.

    Families are much closer here – and I suspect you know that already.

    Yes, there are problems in the Philippines – poverty, disease, and corruption. But most Filipinos in my experience are too busy trying to live a quiet life to cause trouble.

    So no, not all us ‘canos think the Philippines is a violent place. Some of us know better…and we do our best to assure our fellow ‘canos that things are not nearly so bad as the media would have them believe.

    Take care, friend –