Port of Dangay, Roxas, Occ. Mindoro. Image © Mike Baylon
In the past, the main connection between Panay and the national center was through ships from Manila that call on several Panay ports. The foremost of these ports was Iloilo (Fort San Pedro Port) because Iloilo is the regional center. Secondary ports that connect then to Manila were Dumaguit (New Washington, Aklan), Culasi (Roxas City) and Estancia (Iloilo). At various times the ports of Malay (Aklan), Batan (Aklan), Ibajay (Aklan), Lipata (Antique) and San Jose de Buenavista (capital of Antique) also had connections to Manila. There was practically no connection from Batangas or Lucena before.
There was also a connection before to Mindoro across Tablas Strait. This was mainly done by the “Aida” wooden motor boats (the “batel”) which connected up to Palawan and the Semirara islands. There were also other batel and big motor boat operators in these routes. But as they are, they cannot carry vehicles. They also don’t sail when the swells are strong especially during the ‘habagat’ (the southwest monsoon) which can be fierce in these seas especially for the smaller crafts (well, even liners do not pass west of Mindoro during ‘habagat’).
Using Mindoro as a bridge to Panay in the past might not have been possible, too. First obstacle of all then were the nearly impassable roads and rivers of Mindoro in before. Aside from long stretches being unpaved, muddy and treacherous during the rainy season, Mindoro is one peculiar place I have reached that in many critical river crossings there were simply no bridges existing anymore and vehicles have to cross a river through the river itself!
In Oriental Mindoro, reaching then the southern towns of Roxas, Mansalay and Bulalacao was a big challenge when the monsoon rains set in and the rivers are swollen. To get out of Roxas, heavy equipment must assist the trucks and buses (don’t even think of small vehicles) in the river or else take the treacherous mountain pass. If it is dry, vehicles can reach up to Mansalay. Bulalacao then can only be reached in the driest of months but of course past the town of Bongabong there is almost no surface to speak of. It is for this reason that there were motor bancas from Roxas going south because if no vehicles can pass then those were the only connections. There was also no road going to San Jose in Occidental Mindoro except for an old logging road which was nearly impassable then except for the brave with 4-wheel drive vehicles.
Well, even past then the near town to Calapan of Victoria, one’s vehicle has to wade through the river as the bridge has collapsed. That was how difficult travel then was in Mindoro (and I have not even described the roads and bridges to Abra de Ilog and Puerto Galera). Add to that the very poor state of power in the island and “poor state” might even be an understatement. Using then Pinamalayan as connection to Panay is also not an option as the port then there was primitive and not capable of handling ROROs. It is also a little bit far from Panay. That was how sad the state of infrastructure then in Mindoro.
In designing a RORO connection to Panay, the obvious entry point there will be Malay port (now known as Caticlan port) as it is the closest to Mindoro. In Mindoro, it should have been Bulalacao because it is the closest to Panay and closest to Occidental Mindoro, too (as the southern end of Occidental Mindoro is also connected to Panay). But Dangay port in Roxas won and maybe not for anything else except for practicality then (and also the lobbying of the well-connected mayor before) as the road there was already built when the road further was not yet paved and the mountain pass to Bulalacao was slippery and treacherous. And so Dangay port connected to Caticlan port in 2003 and the ROROs came and the vehicles rolled to Panay. Suddenly, Manoc-manoc became more accessible (which was already better known as Boracay). This intermodal route originated from Batangas port and the port of entry to Mindoro is Calapan.
Gloria Arroyo called the intermodal connection as the Western Republic Nautical Highway (isn’t nautical highway an oxymoron?), part of her Strong Republic Nautical Highway (SRNH). When Gloria touts of SRNH, it is as if it only came into being during her term when in fact the intermodal, short distance connection was mainly laid out in 1980’s and 1990s. The ports, routes and ROROs were already there even before she became the president. More routes would have been around too if not for a shortage of short-distance ferry-ROROs in some areas. Actually, this Mindoro-Panay connection was her only major achievement in this field.
After the opening of Dangay port in Roxas town, the road to and the port of Mansalay were also developed. Mansalay was touted as an alternative to Dangay but it did not take off. Ironic since earlier proposals pushed for Mansalay since it is closer to Caticlan and it has a good harbor. Meanwhile, the government of Gloria Arroyo which is a master of port and route duplication (to ensure her political survival) also pitched for a Bulalacao-Lipata route with a premise that Bulalacao will also be the connecting port to Caluya in the Semirara islands group. The Bulalacao-Lipata route did not take off for the simple reason that it is a longer route than Roxas-Caticlan.
The new intermodal connection through Mindoro took off very fast especially since the Batangas-Calapan connection was already very developed. Suddenly, the shippers and traders found they need not go through anymore the horrible gauntlet to Manila North Harbor where thieves, mulcters and hustlers abound. That is not to mention the bad traffic and the very slow break-bulk process inside North Harbor where one has to load the cargo on containers even though arrastre fees has already been paid. Batangas port might not have been 100% hassle-free (especially if there is a rush of vehicles) but it beats Manila port by a mile in ease in moving cargo. This was a perfect example of the true intermodal beating the break-bulk. With trucks as carriers, the shippers and traders can already make point-to-point deliveries and not risk again all the perils in break-bulk at the port of destination like theft, extortion and paper hassles aside from the need to reload their cargo on trucks and pay the hustler-porters. And besides, their cargo arrives faster.
With the opening of the Batangas-Mindoro-Panay route, the liner route from Manila declined immediately, both in passengers and in cargo. Ports and shipping companies were thus affected. Where before the passenger liners to Dumaguit and Roxas were lively, the two ports soon declined until there were no more passenger ships from Manila to these two ports because the passengers were already taking the buses to Iloilo, San Jose de Buenavista and Estancia. The passenger ship to Lipata in Antique also lost along with liners that stop off Caticlan and Boracay. Even the number of passenger ships to Iloilo City also declined considerably. In fact, Iloilo port is the only port now left in Panay that has a passenger liner connection to Manila. But then maybe two dozens or more buses leave Panay now for Manila every single day and even more during the peak season.
Fortunes of shipping companies also went down south fast. MBRS Lines which has also routes to Panay stopped operations and sold its ships (although admittedly most of their routes were outside Panay). Moreta Shipping also stopped passenger operations and sold its passenger ships and shifted to cargo shipping (like MBRS most of Moreta routes were also outside Panay). The loss of passengers also contributed too to the path to illiquidity of Negros Navigation. Even the Aida motor boats that once had a Palawan-Mindoro-Panay-Semirara connection lost out eventually along with the other motor boats and big motor bancas.
Cargo that were once transported through container vans and carried by the ROROs and container ships also declined considerably because the trucks were already rolling (admittedly, this intermodal route is also used by tractor heads hauling container vans). For goods from the CALABARZON factories, the Batangas-Mindoro-Panay connection became the default route since bringing their goods to Manila with its traffic and hassles is a farther and regressive route. Panay shippers also began to patronize this route to short-circuit the hassle-full and dangerous Manila port. And if they will be delivering goods to various places like markets then there is no better way than to use a truck especially a wing van truck and roll to Batangas port through Mindoro. Suddenly, with the paradigm shift to the intermodal the bottom fell from the ships serving the Manila-Panay routes.
Today, Panay is essentially one of the main islands lost by shipping to the intermodal form of transport like Masbate, Samar, Leyte and Bohol islands. The only hold-out there for Manila shipping is Iloilo port and even there shipping has been weakened, too. Essentially, it is just a rear-guard battle for them now that they don’t lose Iloilo. Well, they won’t be completely driven away since Iloilo is the midway port to Western and Southern Mindanao for the container ships like in the past. As for passenger shipping it might also survive since the travel time compared to the bus is the same and the ship is still more comfortable. However, those who take the ship have to battle the Manila gauntlet (it is outside the port now after the redevelopment of North Harbor by MNHPI) and there is no liner leaving everyday unlike the bus. With the bus. there is “free tourism”, too, as bonus.
Now, there are more connections between Mindoro and Panay because the FastCats of Archipelago Ferries are using Bulalacao port to connect to Caticlan. The sea route is shorter there but more land kilometers have to be rolled by the vehicles. As a note, there is also the Batangas-Odiongan-Caticlan and Batangas-Romblon-Roxas City routes being run by 2GO Travel. Aside from that, the Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) also has a Batangas-Odiongan-Dumaguit service.
As further notes, vehicles that are bound to/from Negros also take the Batangas-Mindoro-Panay route since connection to that island is easy using the Dumangas-Bacolod route or the Iloilo-Bacolod route. As a matter of fact, there are vehicles to/from Cebu which also use the Batangas-Mindoro-Panay route. And that is aside from the few vehicles bound for Guimaras and Dapitan in northern Mindanao. Truly, the Batangas-Mindoro-Panay connection is now very important in linking the Visayan island chain (except the western part) to Manila and the industrial belt of CALABARZON.