How safe is it to visit the Philippines? Expert advice

Joshua Jervis, Regional Security Coordinator for Asia Pacific at Healix International comments on the risks involved when visiting the Philippines.

Situation Report

Overall, the Philippines is assessed by Healix to be a MODERATE security risk country, with the majority of visits passing without incident. The Philippines is a growing international tourist destination, and rapid economic development has led to increasing business interest within the country. The majority of central business districts, like Makati and Bonifacio Global City within Metro Manila, are well secured, as are the main tourist resort destinations, including Boracay, Cebu, Bohol and Palawan. While comparatively well-policed and better secured by the security forces compared to other parts of the Philippines, these locations are not immune from security threats and isolated incidents can still occur.

Moreover, despite its overall MODERATE rating, there are a number of HIGH risk zones, including the southern and western areas of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago. These locations have gained international media attention in recent years due to high-profile kidnapping incidents, such as those conducted on Samal Island in 2016, and large-scale militant attacks, like the 2017 coordinated siege on Marawi City. It is these risk areas that highlight the continued need for travellers to carefully research potential destinations and understand the associated risks.

Primary risks

The prime risk facing the majority of travellers throughout the Philippines is petty crime. Tourists and foreign business travellers are frequently targeted as they often carry large quantities of cash, as well as valuables like mobile phones and cameras, which can be sold on for financial gain. Phone and bag snatching, as well as pickpocketing, are most common. The risk is significantly higher on public transport, such as the LRT in Metro Manila and on ‘jeepneys’; criminals often take advantage of the crowds to carry out crimes and escape detection.

Violent crime is common in the Philippines owing to the prevalence of gun ownership; the Philippines has the second-highest rate of gun ownership in Southeast Asia. Many criminals will be armed in order to carry out petty crime, and the risk of violence being used often increases if the victim resists. Foreign nationals have previously been impacted; in July 2017, a New Zealand citizen was fatally shot when resisting a bag-snatching attack on Bilirian Island. Local criminal gangs are also known to operate across the country.

The Philippines has garnered international media attention since the election of President Rodrigo Duterte in May 2016 owing to his ongoing crackdown on drugs and criminality. The hard-line approach led to a significant uptick in extrajudicial and vigilante killings on the streets of the Philippines. While the majority of these targeted local nationals, a number of foreigners were also killed; most were thought to have links to local narcotics rings.

There is a significantly increased risk of kidnap in the country’s south, where groups like the Abu Sayyaf (ASG) militant group are known to operate. ASG initially started operations as a kidnap-for-ransom organisation, but has subsequently declared allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) militant group and continues to cite more ideological aims. It has carried out a number of high-profile kidnappings, specifically targeting foreign nationals; previous incidents have targeted both ships sailing around the Sulu Archipelago and coastal resorts. One of the most high-profile incidents occurred in 2015, when two Canadians, a Norwegian and a Filipina were kidnapped from a resort in Samal Island.

While the risk of kidnapping is far higher in the country’s south, which is an area not typically frequented by foreigners, kidnap warnings have also been issued for a number of tourist destinations. This includes the popular islands of Bohol and Palawan; in May 2017, the US embassy warned that militant groups may be planning coastal resort raids on Palawan, after having infiltrated via sea. This followed a similar warning just a month before for Bohol, where the security forces foiled a raid after militants arrived on the island via speedboats.

Natural Disasters
The Philippines is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world and is exposed to typhoons, earthquakes and volcanic activity. Its geographical location increases its exposure, being located on the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ and in a typhoon belt. The typhoon season typically runs from June to November, though the weather systems can hit at any time; on average, 20 typhoons impact the Philippines annually. Limited infrastructure in many rural areas of the Philippines often increases the impact that these weather systems have; many buildings are poorly constructed and the absence of drainage infrastructure increases the likelihood of flooding. The most recent major disaster in the Philippines occurred in December 2017, when heavy rainfall led to flooding and mudslides across southern Mindanao. At least 200 people were killed, and many reported missing, as a result of the incident.

Additional risks

Scams are particularly common in the Philippines, with the majority involving foreigners being charged inflated prices for goods and services. This is often experienced on many levels, from taxi and tricycle fares to shops and tour operators. Taxi drivers have been known to lie about the meter being broken, or even using rigged meters, to charge extortionate fares. Bar and restaurants owners in many tourist hubs have also been known to manipulate prices or add items to the bill. Moreover, fake goods are also an issue, with street peddlers often offering counterfeit goods.

While these are the most common forms, more advanced scams have been reported in the country. Tourists have previously been drugged and robbed after being lured into secluded areas through deception scams; criminals have been known to use sob stories to build trust with victims before targeting them.

Scams have even been noted at major transport hubs, including Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport. In 2015, the bullet scam (locally known as the ‘laglag bala’ scam) made headlines; the scam involved live ammunition being planted in travellers baggage by corrupt airport officials. Once the traveller passed through the routine pre-boarding security screening for restricted items, they were threatened with arrest for possession of a controlled item, unless they pay a fine. Other airport-related scams that continue include check-in staff not resetting weighing machines and then making travellers pay for excess baggage/luggage allowances, bogus porter payments, illicit money exchange schemes and so-called ‘fast-track’ payment systems, in which a group of individuals usually approach foreigners and convince them to make payments to pass queues faster.

Healix advice

Seek itinerary-specific advice prior to travel: Owing to the variable security environment in the Philippines, letting your security provider know your travel plans will allow them to advise you on any prevailing security risks and whether you should look at getting more robust security measures in place, particularly if travel is planned to higher-risk locations, such as those in Mindanao. Itinerary-specific information also allows your provider to highlight any localised risks, such as particular crime hotspots in the vicinity of your hotel, or a heightened risk of unrest coinciding with the dates of travel owing to a planned protest or anniversary.

Maintain a low profile and avoid overt displays of wealth: Those displaying jewellery, designer bags, cameras and mobile phone are more likely to be targeted by petty criminals. It is worth leaving non-essential valuables at the hotel, preferably in a hotel safe, or avoid bringing them into the country at all. If you are carrying valuables, do not put them in your back pocket as these are more easily accessible. You should remain aware of your surroundings and, where possible, avoid non-essential pedestrian travel after dark; the risk of crime increases significantly after dark and you should limit travel to isolated and poorly-lit areas.

Remain alert to the risk of scams: It is advisable to politely, but firmly, decline unsolicited offers of assistance from strangers. You should continue walking and avoid further engagement. This is also the case when asked to donate or pay money. This includes street children as, in many areas, donating to one will lead you to be hassled and followed by others. When dealing with street vendors, if an offer appears too good to be true, it usually is.

How Healix can help employers with their duty of care

Employers should ensure that they have a detailed understanding of the operating environment that they are sending their personnel to; usually, this means breaking down areas of exposure by geographic region and delegating responsibility to specific individuals in accordance with operational and cultural expertise. Alternatively, and perhaps preferably, employers can outsource this task to an organisation such as Healix, which has dedicated intelligence and operations teams, each with a direct regional focus.

Building on from this, employers should ensure that their employees are briefed on the predominant security risks associated with their operating environment before travel, and advised how best to mitigate these risks. Where necessary, this should encompass a detailed travel security briefing and location-specific security training. They should also ensure that employees have a robust means of communication in order to communicate with their designated point of contact throughout the trip and that there is a robust travel risk management program in place covering all eventualities.

Healix can provide employers with support in all these areas through our comprehensive range of Security Services.

What are the health risks in the Philippines?

Contributed by Dr. Simon Worrell, Head of Medical Communications, Healix International.

Those travelling to Manila will find modern healthcare facilities, competent to manage the most severe of medical emergencies. Outside the capital, however, medical care is variable, necessitating transfer to Manila should an emergency occur. For the vast majority of trips to the Philippines such considerations will not be required of course. Food and water precautions should be followed, meaning that only bottled water should be drunk, and only food prepared in reputable restaurants should be consumed – however tempting the street food appears. Mosquito bite prevention is important throughout the Philippines. This will involve wearing long-sleeved shirts, trousers, and the regular application of a DEET-containing insect repellent. As always, your itinerary should be discussed with a travel medicine authority before travelling, so that the correct vaccinations can be received. What is sometimes overlooked in this process is the need for a fully up-to-date childhood vaccination scheme, since many individuals have not received immunisations such as the MMR vaccine. As the Philippines has experienced large measles outbreaks in recent times, this can be of some considerable importance.

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