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Puerto Princesa Palawan May Be Experiencing a Reputational Issue

I was watching YouTube one evening after dinner and I decided to watch a recent upload of one of my favorite travel channels which features a lot of Philippines travel but is seen from the point of view of a couple from the UK. They are always a pleasure to watch and it is worth noting that this is not a Pinoy Baiting channel that seems to have been popping up all over lately. This particular channel's content has that feeling of authenticity and is not in any way like those other contents that are clickbait meant to rile up Filipinos with controversial topics. Instead, they are mostly focused on the challenges of traveling all over the world with their toddler in tow plus they lived in the country for a while and they do have a condo in the Philippines. 

Anyway, in that particular vlog that I saw, I believe they were traveling to Cebu at the time and they were just reminiscing on their first visit to the Philippines when they went to Puerto Princesa a few years back. I found it notable that one of the things that stuck in their minds was that during that first trip, a tricycle driver charged them 500 Philippine pesos for a 5-minute ride to a nearby mall. They knew that they were being scammed but they went ahead and paid the asking price anyway with the rationale that these kinds of things happen all over the world, particularly in the touristy areas, and are not unique to the place and are just a dark side effect of the increasing popularity of tourist attractions. Despite this initial bad experience, they did not bad-mouth the country or even say negative things about the experience. They reasoned that they should have done more research in the future and that the person probably really needed the money and even rationalized that 500 pesos is not that much if converted to pounds and they would have comparatively spent that much if not more if they were in a touristy place back in their home country. Instead of focusing on that one bad experience, they chose to gloss it over and enjoyed the rest of their trip.

While I am happy that their initial experience did not deter them from exploring more of the country and eventually deciding to make the Philippines their regional base by purchasing a condo here, I am deeply saddened by that observation. Not because I think that the country is an amazing paradise free of criminality and corruption. I will be the first to point out that my country is far from perfect and I do not particularly like other travel content creators who paint the Philippines in such an overly positive light (some content creators will say "We only share good vibes here" and this is a form of Toxic Positivity which refuses to even acknowledge the negative side of anything). The reason why I feel sad about the observation as mentioned earlier is that I had a different first impression of the place some 20 years back, and my experience when I visited a few months back mirrors their experience where it seems a lot of the transport operators can't wait to swindle clueless tourists. First impressions are important. And what seems like an isolated incident becomes a worrying trend. Worse, we could just brush this off as an inevitable consequence of rampant tourism. 

I remember my first trip to Puerto Princesa more than 20 years ago and again about 15 years ago and the initial impression I got was how clean the city looked. Not a litter on the roads in sight and segregation bins were available everywhere you went. Street sweepers can be seen keeping the city streets clean and the locals were all very disciplined to keep it that way. Granted that we did rent a van both times so I didn't have any idea what the local public transportation was like. The few people that I had a chance to express this observation seemed genuinely proud of their city but they did make jokes about the local government officials taking this very seriously and that they would most likely abduct you and drop you off a helicopter in the middle of the ocean for littering (or I hope they were merely joking). 


An image meant to depict a coastal road lined with coconuts with Jeepneys and motorcycles on the road. Image generated with the assistance of Dall-E3.

I recently went back to visit last August 2023 and my experiences more or less mirrored that observation I have heard about in that vlog. Transport drivers (both tricycles and multicabs) trying to rip you off seems to be the norm, charging exorbitant fees for just a few kilometers. Ironically, it was far better for us to arrange for a taxi service (taxis are not that ubiquitous and we had to wait at the airport upon arrival for some taxis to come back after ferrying those that queued first) from the hotel rather than try to hail and haggle with a passing tricycle. 

I have honestly regretted my decision to stay at Puerto Princesa at the start and end of our vacation. We were going to stay at a resort somewhere in San Rafael and the uncertainty of where the new terminal is and how far it is from the airport made us decide to spend the extra night in Puerto Princesa to buy some groceries for our week-long stay and also to familiarize ourselves with the city first (and yeah I admit that I was reluctant to pony up the cash for a private van through our resort since this was supposed to be a budget-friendly vacation hehe). We also arranged for an additional night stay at Puerto Princesa at the end of the week since we will have an early morning flight. Staying in Puerto Princesa, although it has a lot of highlights, was marred with the stress of trying to negotiate for transport. Our hotel near the airport to Baker's Hill costs more than 500 Php one-way. Going to a nearby mall we were charged 400 which is only about 4 Km away. We came to a sad conclusion that staying in Puerto Princesa was a big mistake and we will not do that again in our future trips to Palawan unless it is a part of some travel tour itinerary. 

The relocation of the bus terminal to a relatively distant location from the city didn't help matters either. It further encouraged price gouging. Taxis are reluctant to go with the standard rates and said that we needed to pay double the normal fare since we would need to pay for the return even though there should be people needing taxis there at the bus terminal going back to the city.

At the end of our vacation, we dreaded the thought of taking a bus ride back to the bus terminal (aside from the fact that we were carrying a full week's worth of luggage with us) and going through all that stress again. We finally decided to arrange with the hotel concierge and we were pleasantly surprised that even though we were provided helpful quotes of how much a private van transport would cost us back to Puerto Princesa, a communal van option did exist - they just weren't actively pushing it to the guests but is available if you inquire about it - somehow that didn't surprise me anymore. It turned out not so bad since there were only 2 groups scheduled for the large van on the afternoon of our departure. A family that disembarked halfway through the way so we were left occupying the whole van the rest of the way. The van was supposed to drop us off at the airport and we were supposed to find our way back to our next hotel but the driver was kind enough to drop us off at our hotel. He was even shocked when we told him about our earlier experience with traveling around the city.

In conclusion, I think that the people in the city who are complicit in this practice are doing the city itself a disservice. Sure, they may score a quick buck now and then but I think this will be detrimental to the long-term reputation of the city as a safe and welcoming destination of choice. I am conflicted about the idea of having a strong authoritarian type of control from local officials that resort to threats but having consequences to these practices of price gouging can only help the city in the long run.  

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