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SUBIC Bay Freeport - Once envisioned as the new Hong Kong, this former American naval base hosted the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders Summit in 1996, making it a banner year not only for the freeport but also for the whole country.
This freeport, however, lost its luster in the next decade as the government restricted its duty-free privileges and zero-tariff importation of vehicles. Then came the news in 2005 that American logistics firm FedEx, the largest foreign operator in the freeport, would shift its Asian hub from Subic Bay to China.
This leaves electronics manufacturer Winstron Infocomm (formerly Acer) the largest investor in Subic. This single Taiwanese company accounts for more than half of the freeport's total exports annually.
So when the new leaders of Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) took over in September 2005, with the sudden resignation of Chairman Francisco Licuanan, the mood was not exactly upbeat.
Things would miraculously change though, thanks to the tide of giant East Asian investments. When SBMA celebrated its 14th anniversary on November 24, SBMA chairman Feliciano Salonga called 2006 as the banner year for the freeport, and for an excellent reason.
As of October 2006, SBMA attracted $1.6 billion in foreign direct investments, representing about 80 percent of total FDI commitments in the country this year. This was nearly 100 times more than the $16 million worth of FDIs committed to Subic in the whole of 2005.
SBMA administrator Armand Arreza said new investments include the $1 billion shipyard being built by Korean shipbuilder Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction, the $312 million investment by Chinese glass manufacturer Hebei Xintai Jingniu, and the $300 million investment by Taiwan Cogeneration Corp., a subsidiary of Taiwan Power Corp.
"SBMA is on a roll," Salonga said. "We caught the biggest fish in the bay. Hanjin will place us on the world map of shipbuilding."
Arreza said that from 1992 to September 2006, cumulative committed investments in SBMA hit $3.7 billion, generating total employment of 62,170. In the first nine months of 2006, SBMA collected P3.3 billion in revenues, surpassing revenues by any local government unit.
"I am happy to note that Subic is starting to regain its strength. Investors are beginning to trust us again as what the Koreans and the Chinese expressed. All of these are happening because of the volunteers' help," said Arreza, who himself served as a volunteer budget officer under former SBMA chair Richard Gordon.
What infuses more optimism though is the expected completion by November 2007 of the 93.7-kilometer Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway Project, which is mainly financed by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation. Construction of the project is in full swing. Another ongoing project is the expansion of the Subic seaport while a soon-to-be built project is the next phase of the Northrail project, which will provide new access to Subic.
"It is truly a banner year for SBMA." said deputy administrator Ferdinand Hernandez, who is in charge of luring back the tourists to Subic.
The number of visitors in Subic went up by 20 percent year-on-year to 2.2 million in the first half of 2006, and this happened despite the controversial rape case involving American servicemen and despite the Supreme Court's decision restricting imported used cars within the premises of the freeport.
"This only shows that there is life after used cars," said Hernandez, who has introduced new destinations in the freeport such as monthly festivals and the evening entertainment center, Boardwalk strip along Waterfront Avenue, where popular bands perform every weekend.
At least four new hotels, backed by Korean investments, were being constructed in November, to provide luxurious accommodation to rising number of international tourists.
Hernandez said more foreign and domestic visitors are expected to visit the freeport next year, because the Advertising Congress will be held there.
"We are serious about putting tourism as a priority project in Subic," Hernandez added.
Secretary Edgardo Pamintuan, chairman of Subic-Clark Alliance for Development, said that with the completion of new infrastructure projects, Subic and Clark would soon rise as a viable logistics hub in Asia, competing with the likes of Singapore and Hong Kong.
"It will be the catalyst of development in the Philippines," Pamintuan insisted. Roderick T. dela Cruz