SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - September 20, 2019 - 12:00am

CEBU CITY – From my hotel room in this bustling city, I can see a vile-looking blanket of what looks like smog, even over the Mactan Channel where the sea breeze is supposed to lift polluted air.

Is industrializing Cebu turning into heavily polluted Beijing?

News reports said the smog is in fact haze from the forest fires of Indonesia – which is just as dangerous to health as smog. Cebuanos should hope that the haze lifts before it attracts enough attention to dampen tourism.

Cebu is still Ceboom – its numerous industries continue to boom – but tourism is one of the top earners, so the Indonesian haze is a cause for worry. It could negate the gains from a travel boom that has surely been helped in part by the expansion of the principal gateway to the province.

Landing at the Mactan-Cebu International Airport last Wednesday for the city’s observance of Press Freedom Week, I felt a pang of airport envy. (OK, with the quality of the NAIA, the Iraqis have told me I would envy their airport in Baghdad.)

The last time I visited this city was about three years ago, when I arrived through the original airport terminal.

This time I was amazed by the much expanded and modernized airport. Terminal 2 opened only in July last year, with an attractive native-inspired architecture.

The opening of Terminal 2 expanded the annual capacity of Mactan-Cebu from 4.5 million to 12.5 million. The airport, operated by a consortium of India’s GMR Group and local company Megawide Cebu Airport Corp. or GMCAC, would need further expansion. It handled 10 million passengers back in 2017 – a jump from the nearly seven million in 2014. And with more international and domestic flights now being added because of its expanded capacity, GMCAC might soon find the facility again overwhelmed. 

Expansion is what GMCAC is doing. In the first quarter of this year, Mactan-Cebu saw its domestic traffic rise by 13 percent to two million passengers, and international traffic by a million passengers or a growth of nearly 10 percent. The original terminal is now dedicated to domestic traffic; Terminal 2 is for international flights.

Last May, homegrown carrier Royal Air Philippines became GMCAC’s seventh and newest airline partner as it began offering direct flights to Manila, Cagayan de Oro, Caticlan, Davao and Puerto Princesa. GMCAC officials point out that Cebu is just a hop of 25 to 30 minutes to most of the top tourist destinations in the Visayas and Mindanao, so passenger traffic is expected to continue growing.

GMCAC took over the airport in 2014 after bagging a 25-year build-operate-transfer concession agreement. Construction of the expansion area began in July 2015. Cebu-Mactan is now connected to 29 domestic and 22 international gateways.

Cebu Pacific remains the market leader in its home turf, although Philippine Airlines and AirAsia are reported to be rapidly closing in.

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Think of what 10 million travelers can do to the local economy. The mechanized spits will not stop turning in the lechon pits of Cebu. Carcar City may have to import even more pork to meet the demand for its renowned chicharon laman, so rich it’s guaranteed to give you a heart attack. Titay’s Liloan Rosquillos and Delicacies will be assured of another 112 years of success.

Travel and tourism and its downstream industries have powered economies around the world. It’s no different in Cebu, which has the added advantage of having an international container port.

To draw tourists in this globalized environment, air connectivity is critical.

Industry players say the Ninoy Aquino International Airport still has about seven times the capacity of Mactan-Cebu. But the NAIA has no more room for expansion; Mactan-Cebu still has a wide space for it.

Any expansion means more business for everyone, more jobs and upward mobility for all.

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Bohol, for example, is expected to see the number of visitors increase following the opening last November of the Bohol-Panglao International Airport. The new gateway can handle two million passengers annually. 

On Sept. 1, new navigational equipment allowed the Bohol airport to allow night landing up to 10 p.m. from the previous 6 p.m. limit, although the extended hours are still wanting. 

The world does not sleep and all international airports (and shipping ports, for that matter) should be able to operate around the clock. Still, the extended operating hours (starting at 6 a.m.) will not only increase passenger traffic in Bohol but also help decongest the NAIA.

My Philippine Airlines flight took off on time from the NAIA. Being on time is of the essence in air travel; there are schedules that must be met upon arrival or connecting flights to catch.

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Congestion at the NAIA has made keeping flight schedules iffy. It can aggravate weak transport connectivity in our archipelago. Foreigners have complained to me that they can waste an entire day just trying to reach their ultimate travel destination upon arrival in the Philippines. If they have only a few days of allowed leave, that’s a considerable waste.

So they opt for countries that serve as air travel hubs, with direct flights to many cities around the world, and with efficient land and water transport links to the main tourist destinations.

Good air connectivity has to be one of the reasons for the massive tourist arrivals in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia – the top destinations in Southeast Asia.

There are only 17 foreign airlines operating in Cebu, mainly Asian and Middle Eastern carriers. South Koreans account for about 60 percent of Cebu’s international seat capacity so there are six Korean carriers serving Mactan-Cebu apart from four Philippine airline companies.

There are reports that GMCAC is pursuing long-haul routes with Turkish Airlines and Finnair to Europe, and a direct link to Australia. The group is also waiting for Philippine Airlines to open direct Cebu flights to Los Angeles.

Such links will mean even more boom times for Cebu.

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