Despite a relative lack of coverage in the western media, most people are aware that the Philippines is experiencing some serious issues at the moment. In Manila it’s estimated that up to 8000 people have died as a result of the extra judicial killings designed to stamp out the city’s drug problems, whilst martial law has been declared in the Mindanao region due to terrorist activity.
I subscribed to the foreign office travel advice alerts for the Philippines and have received multiple warnings and updates for travellers. The attacks in Marawi happened while we were in Hong Kong, a day before our scheduled flight to Manila, and the casino attack in Manila took place while we were in Cebu.
We were close to cancelling and going elsewhere, but decided eventually that we’d give it a go and just be cautious. We’ve seen a lot of evidence online that others have cancelled their trips or have decided not to consider visiting the Philippines at all due to the current situation.
It’s no surprise that what’s happening has led to a lot of nervous travellers, and as I mentioned in a recent post about travelling to ‘dangerous countries’, it’s hard to find balanced perspectives online. I believe that locals are so (understandably) keen to defend the reputation of their country, that they can be guilty of sweeping dangers under the carpet. Potential travellers and the international community on the other hand are reacting just as hard to the contrary. Comments we’ve seen on social media include things like “you’d be mad to visit the Philippines now” and “there’s no way I’m going anywhere where Isis are bombing people”.
This ignores the fact that the majority of the country is not under any travel warnings and is (relatively speaking) stable. While the former neglects to mention that the Philippines is a country where a reasonable level of caution and common sense should be applied when travelling.
We wanted to share our experiences of how we’ve found travelling in the Philippines in recent weeks.
I’ll start with the negatives, beginning with our stay in Manila, the country’s capital.
Firstly, I know it’s common across a lot of developing countries but there is a shocking level of poverty here. Slums are easily seen sitting alongside more affluent areas and there are more street children and homeless than we’ve experienced elsewhere. I walked out of McDonald’s holding a coke in Intramuros and immediately a group of hungry, dirty and sad looking children ran over and plucked it out of my hand. In hindsight I wish I’d gone back in and bought one for each of them.
We also saw a couple openly injecting heroin in the street, at which point I nearly legged it given that so many involved in drugs in Manila have been shot on sight.
As we walked around Binondo (on a tour) and Intramuros (independently) whilst I didn’t feel in overt danger at any point, I definitely didn’t feel safe. We drew a fair amount of attention as white western tourists, with many stares and the occasional hiss. That said, we did spend an entire day exploring the main highlights of these areas and didn’t encounter any direct issues.
We also spent time in a couple of islands – Bohol, where we stayed at Alona Beach and Cebu, where we stayed in Malapascua. These actually felt a lot safer than Manila, perhaps unsurprisingly. The main issues here in our experience were overpriced accommodation and a few instances where it seemed people were trying to rip off tourists. Overall though, no real safety concerns here except a serious case of nerves when taking a 5 hour bus journey which turned out to be completely fine.
There are many positives from our experience travelling in the Philippines. Firstly, the number of people we met who were so amazingly friendly and welcoming. Equalling the stares and more intimidating experiences in Manila were the number of times people came up to us just to say Hi and ask where we came from – wishing us a great stay in the Philippines.
We took a street food tour in Manila and it was without doubt one of the best tours we’ve done on all of our travels. Two young Filipinos spent almost 5 hours showing us around the region of Binondo and sharing their experiences of what it’s like to live and work in Manila. Never have we been on a tour where we felt so welcome and learnt so much about the country we were visiting.
There’s also loads to see in Manila. If you are brave enough to head into the streets and walk around for the day you’ll be rewarded with amazing Spanish architecture, delicious street food and some great museums. In Makati, the most popular area for tourists to stay, it’s even more modern and safe with good restaurants and a business district that rivals most others we’ve seen.
The islands were far safer and clearly extremely tourist friendly. There was a strong security presence – not as many armed security guards as in Manila where you’ll see them outside many buildings and hotels – but still plenty dotted around the resorts. It was easy to book tours, taking local transport and even negotiating with tricycle drivers felt safe and straightforward.
We did feel that Cebu City and Lapu Lapu cities in Cebu were more similar to Manila, with many slums and extremely poor communities dotted around where there may be a higher chance of coming across issues like pickpocketing and petty crimes against tourists, but we didn’t spend too much time here.
Our Verdict- Is The Philippines Safe For Travellers?
The decision of whether to travel to somewhere that is the subject of travel warnings is always a very individual call. Some people just don’t feel it’s worth the risk which is completely valid, whilst other intrepid travellers see it as an opportunity to explore somewhere without the usual throngs of tourists.
We had some serious doubts but overall we’re very glad that we decided to visit the Philippines. It’s completely different to any other South East Asian country we’ve been lucky enough to visit, reminiscent of our time in South America in many ways, and we would have missed some great experiences had we not gone. By staying in touristy areas, using organised tours, travelling with locals at many points and generally being a bit streetwise we felt very safe on the whole.
Not entirely safe that’s true – I can’t deny that I was on ‘high alert’ the whole time we were in Manila in particular – but far safer than we expected on the whole given what we’d read before our visit.
The Philippines boasts so many fantastic places and we only got to experience a tiny amount of what’s on offer for travellers. We loved the food, the beaches and the nature and wildlife that you can see in so many places. Whilst I wouldn’t go back to Manila or at least not without a tour group, I’m also glad that we got to take in some of the fascinating history of this city.
I hope sharing our experience has been of some help and has offered some insight – we would definitely return to the Philippines and see some of the places we missed, particularly Palawan, Siquijor and perhaps Borocay as we heard some great things about all of these islands.