WHEN IS A RORO VIABLE?

This article was originally posted on the old PSSS Website, and is reposted for archive purposes. No changes are made, including grammatical changes.

Written by Mike Baylon

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ROROs (Roll On, Roll Off ships) have long been viable as connectors of our major islands in the last three-and-a-half decades. All our big and medium islands have been connected already along with a few minor islands. One major factor for this was the completion of good roads in the major islands. With good roads the vehicle density then correspondingly shot up.

With good roads the cargo jeeps, trucks and the buses rolled along the new intermodal sea lanes. The sedans, AUVs and pick-ups soon followed. The booming of trucks was helped by the entry of surplus units in the free ports while financing for buses became easier with the availability of more money during the economic recovery. Versatile and fast wing van trucks also arrived and these became serious competitors to container shipping especially since they can depart daily and at any hour and need not queue in the North Harbor. Refrigerated trucks, too, revolutionized how we moved goods from place to place and they carried a variety from sea foods to processed or fresh meat to fresh produce and fruits.

M/V Odyssey loading a wingvan truck. ©Mike Baylon

RORO connection from Luzon to Samar and Leyte up to Mindanao immediately became successful and later connection from Luzon to Mindoro and Panay became  viable too. RORO connections between the main Visayan islands of Leyte, Bohol, Cebu, Negros and Panay also took off early. Soon there came also the connection of Negros and Bohol to Mindanao. In later years we also saw RORO connections to Alabat, Marinduque, Masbate, Catanduanes, Palawan, Cuyo, Guimaras, Bantayan, Siquijor, Camiguin, Siargao, Samal, Olutanga, Basilan and Jolo islands and the Romblon, Calamian, Camotes and Tawi-tawi groups of islands.

A privately-owned port. Click to open full-size to better appreciate the details. ©Mike Baylon

Not too long ago there was a push to connect smaller islands by RORO with MARINA  offering “missionary route” status to entrants. Along with a host of incentives, this status conferred to entrants exclusivity in the route and other and protection from entry of competitors in nearby connections up to a distance of 50 kilometers away. MARINA even produced feasibility studies made by foreign shipping experts with doctorate degrees but who have no knowledge of local shipping to support this project. But alas, as expected their recommendations bombed as in the ROROs stopped sailing and transferred routes because as they say in analytics it is “garbage in, garbage out”.

This way of thinking was exacerbated by a Ph.D thesis of someone who has no knowledge of shipping who did a paper on the state of competition in the Philippine shipping industry. The basic thesis was the assumption that if in a route there are only one or two competitors then “there is lack of competition”. The lady never thought some routes can barely support a ship and years later many routes she thought “lacks competition” are actually already gone or the shipping company or companies serving then are already bankrupt or defunct now. In actuality, one thing the so-called local “experts” in shipping and the government do not understand is the short-distance ROROs are actually eating up the market of the liner and even the overnight ferry sector including container shipping.

A law professor who has no background in shipping who headed a maritime agency also pushed LCTs (Landing Craft Transports)to connect small islands and coastal barrios in the interest of safety. This never really took off as motor bancas can land anywhere while LCTs can’t in the main (they still need wharves) and passengers and traders prefer point-to-point service rather than a single LCT covering many coastal barrios and minor islands that will result in delay. Nor did the lady lawyer understand that coastal island or small island people travel at dawn especially if they have catch to sell and if there is no passenger-cargo motor banca then fishing bancas will do the trip and they will not wait for an LCT that will still drop by many points. Maybe she also didn’t know that motor bancas are faster than LCTs in cruising speed. She maybe did not reckon also that LCTs consumed much more fuel than a motor banca and so what will be a viable route for a motor banca might not be so for an LCT. Finally, an LCT will cost in the mid-8-figure money while a motor banca will cost much less than a million and if a trader has mid-8-figure money he would probably not be living in a coastal barrio or a remote town.

LCT being built. Currently LCT St. Brendan. ©Mike Baylon

What makes a RORO route successful? I think the main determinants in this are the number of population and economic activity of the island including tourism. This is assuming there is no competitor route halving patronage or parallel routes dividing the market.

The magic number needed for viable RORO operation, in my observation, is between 50,000 and 100,000 and depending too on economic activity and tourism. There are some islands which have a population of 100,000 but cannot support a RORO and examples of these are Polillo and Dinagat islands. Located in far-flung places, there is really not that much economic activity in those islands. Meanwhile, the similarly-sized Siargao island in the same place as Dinagat can support a RORO because of its tourism.  The island-provinces of Guimaras, Siquijor and Camiguin which all have about 100,000 in population are able to support ROROs especially being independent provinces there is more money from the national government pouring in. if the tourism is stronger like in Camiguin (where the abundance of lanzones does not hurt) then there are more ROROs. Population in Marinduque, Palawan, Catanduanes and Masbate is even bigger. And Jolo island, the main island of the province of Sulu and Bongao island, main island of Tawi-tawi, both have populations well in excess of 100,000.

Lipata Port. Click to view full-size. ©Mike Baylon

Samal, Bantayan and Camotes, all islands which are not provinces, all have 100,000 people and tourism too especially in the first and the second have an egg industry. The population of Tablas is even bigger. Romblon island have ROROs because it is still a gateway to the province, the capital is there and it is the gateway to the nearby Sibuyan island. Romblon island might just have have a population of 40,000 but combined with Sibuyan’s nearly 60,000 the magic number of 100,000 is reached. It is also in this sense why Calamianes can support ROROs. The island group’s population might not reach 90,000 but it has tourism, fish and it is an intermediate point to Palawan and Cuyo.

That brings us to the peculiar cases of the islands of Alabat, Cuyo and Olutanga. Alabat island has a population of just 45,000. Maybe it is the tourism and economic activity which buoys up the place to merit a RORO. Cuyo group of islands has a population of about equal to Alabat and not much short of 50,000 too. Originally cruisers and motor boats (“batel”) served the route and operators maybe just used a RORO as a substitute for a cruiser. Montenegro Shipping, which serves the route from Iloilo and Palawan, likewise has no cruisers.

M/V Catalyn-E ©Mike Baylon

Olutanga island, meanwhile, which has about the same population of Alabat and Cuyo is just very near the mainland. Besides it is the Provincial government which owns and operates the LCT connecting the island as a public service. And that brings us to the case of the small islands of Sibutu and Simunul which have an LCT too. Same case, it is the Provincial Government which owns and operates the LCT. And by that what I imply is the service is not a strictly commercial service. The case of Cagraray island in Albay is somewhat similar. The operator of the classy resort Misibis Bay fielded an LCT so that vehicles can cross – for more patronage. It didn’t hurt that the resort owners were already LCT operators previously (but the LCT is already withdrawn now as the bridge connecting the island is already operational).

Among island-municipalities it is only Samal (which is a city) that I know can support a RORO. All others cannot, historically, so it is puzzle to me why the previous administration pushed for ROROs in these places and it even built ports with RORO ramps to support that (well, that administration was infamous for building “ports to nowhere”).

Caliclic Wharf ©Mike Baylon

Can islands with two towns without much economic activity support a RORO? I have not seen it in the cases of Burias, Buad (in Samar) and Dumaran (in Palawan) islands. Lubang island with two towns was able to support a RORO before but with the advent of motor bancas in a competitor route from Nasugbu, Batangas, the RORO lost. It remains to be seen if Atienza Shipping will be successful in reinstating the RORO there. It might be if Lubang is used a midway point to a longer route.

Ticao island with four towns and a population of over 50,000 cannot support a RORO. There is also no RORO now to the Batanes. There is also no RORO doing coastal barrio routes like in the southern Bicol coast which has no road or in the Samar Sea linking the island-towns there.  That is also the case in the many small islands between Basilan and Jolo and the Babuyan islands in Cagayan and the Polillo group of islands. MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority) should really do empirical studies first before pushing for RORO routes and not just hypothesize from their air-conditioned offices.

Maybe in the future when economic activity rises and the disposable income of the peoples there improve significantly our island-towns and other small islands might have a RORO of their own. But until that happens it will still be the motor bancas which will do the job and that might still be for a long while.

Motor Bancas of Surigao. Click to view full-size. ©Mike BaylonBASI
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