The Dumaguete-Dapitan RORO Connection – A Connection That Took Too Long in Coming

Dumaguete and Dapitan have been blessed with relatively good ports (by Philippine standards) since decades ago because they have Manila connections. True liners and Manila passenger-cargo ships like the former “FS” ships called on them regularly in the past. But what puzzled me is the short-distance RORO connection between them took too long to materialize. Looking at the map, this is the obvious connection point between Mindanao and Negros (and Cebu by extension through the Negros-Cebu connections) because of the relatively short distance (the second shortest after Leyte-Surigao but that is too far away). Compared to the Sorsogon-Samar, Leyte-Surigao and Batangas-Mindoro short-distance ferry connections, the Dumaguete-Dapitan short-distance RORO connection came many, many years too late.

If there was ever a RORO connection before between the two ports, it was the ROROs of the overnight ferries serving the Cebu-Dumaguete-Dapitan route. However, the peculiarity of the Cebu overnight ferry companies is that they stress break-bulk cargo (like those in sacks and cartons) and loose cargo (those not in containers like pieces of GI sheets or rolls of wire) and not rolling cargo (which means vehicles) or containerized cargo. So these Cebu overnight ferry companies like Trans-Asia Shipping Lines, Cokaliong Shipping Lines or George & Peter Lines, to name a few that called on Dumaguete and Dapitan ports didn’t see the need for short-distance ferry-ROROs loading trucks. Maybe that was the reason they did not acquire that type of ferry. But actually it is that type that was really fit for the Dumaguete-Dapitan route and just shuttling between the two ports like what is the practice now.

The Cebu overnight ferry companies which were established later than the three were the ones which saw the need for short-distance ferry-ROROs. The prime example of that is Lite Ferries which had a passenger-cargo LCT at the start and later acquired ROROs in the 40-meter and 50-meter class for dual short-distance and overnight ferry operations. And maybe that is the reason why Lite Ferries is flying high now because they were able to tap a business and a paradigm overlooked by their overnight ferry competitors. Probably this is the reason too for the fast success of a late entrant, the Medallion Transport which started with basic short-distance ferry-ROROs and doing a lone short-distance route. Later they branched into overnight routes using small ROROs. Now they already have true overnight ferry-ROROs.

In comparison, in the Sorsogon-Samar, Leyte-Surigao and Batangas-Mindoro short-distance ferry connections, the shipping companies there started as short-distance ferry companies. They were then able to specialize in this kind of service and type of market which means they carry vehicles almost exclusively including the intermodal buses. Their passengers are mostly passengers of the buses loaded on them. The intermodal trucks they load especially the wing van trucks are long-distance carriers and those eventually developed into the competitors of container shipping with the support of this short-distance ferry-ROROs which became the “bridges” between the islands.

If these short-distance ferry companies have a near-contemporary that tried in that Dumaguete-Dapitan route it was the obscure shipping company Jones Carrier Inc. But that company did not last long as it had too many diverse routes, its ships were too small and old and maybe they were undercapitalized and not strong enough for the long run needed to establish and hold and a new shipping connection. And most likely the presence of the three overnight ferry companies from Cebu also impacted them. On the other hand, I also wonder why the “locals” Maayo Shipping, DIMC Shipping or Tanjuan Shipping which all have routes to or near Dumaguete did not try that route. Or maybe even the nearby Millennium Shipping which just sold its LCTs to Maayo Shipping rather than compete. At the start of a company or route in those earlier times an LCT is enough like what Lite Shipping did in the Argao-Loon route connecting south Cebu and mid-Bohol. But maybe except for the Millennium Shipping of the Floirendos, maybe it is capitalization and lack of vision that was the problem of these Dumaguete ferry companies.

Looking back, maybe it was overnight shipping company Palacio Lines which could have taken advantage of the opportunity offered by the short-distance RORO shipping in this route. They were not unfamiliar with Dumaguete as they had a ship then going to Dumaguete from Tagbilaran and Cebu but it was a cruiser ferry. They were then using their first ROROs on overnight routes much like what the Cebu overnight ferry companies as in concentrating on breakbulk and loose cargo. Maybe if they only looked north and south of them, they might have gotten the idea that short-distance ferry-RORO service is the wave of the future. After all they were a shipping company from Calbayog City in Samar and a little north of that was the Sorsogon-Samar short-distance ferries and down south to them were the Leyte-Surigao short-distance ferries that were both making good. But then they seemed to have been also be too protective of their route to Oroquieta which is not far from Dapitan.

Actually, if one analyzes, it might not only be the overnight ferry companies which might be at fault in the late RORO connection between Dumaguete and Dapitan. For after all, as a general principle, if there is a demand then a supplier responds. But then maybe the shippers were also not aware that there is a better mode than the one they were used to. Actually, the goods from Mindanao sent over that connection eventually find their way to Cebu, the biggest market after Manila. But for too long I noticed the shippers tend to rely on Zamboanga and Ozamis ports. Of course, the bad roads then in the Zamboanga provinces was a hindrance along with the presence of some banditry. So before, Dapitan might have looked too far and unsafe for those from Zamboanga City. And those from Baganian Peninsula, Pagadian and Panguil Bay were too used, too dependent on Ozamis port, their old port of departure (well, with Ozamis, they have a Manila and Dumaguete connection, too).

It took a push from President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for the Dumaguete-Dapitan connection to come true and hold. Half of the push needed was actually the cementing of the roads of Zamboanga Peninsula. The roads should have been completed much earlier since AusAid (Australian Agency for International Development) is funding the road construction but that stalled for many years because AusAid only wanted to employ Korean construction companies, for quality reasons. However, the local politicians wanted local contractors (for “percentage” reasons, of course). A compromise was worked out and the roads were finally completed (though the Filipino-built sections were obviously substandard). Moreover, the military took control of the mountain pass near Vitali and security was improved after that. After those, travel at night was already possible and that was key to using Dapitan port especially from Zamboanga City. Soon, Dapitan port no longer look too distant. Passengers, instead of waiting for the ship that was not daily even then were soon taking the bus to Dipolog to connect to Dapitan. The trucks followed suit soon, too.

The shipping companies which pioneered the RORO connection between Dumaguete and Dapitan were actually “foreigners”, which mean they were not natives of the area. The first two in the route were the Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC), a Cebu shipping company and Aleson Shipping Lines, a Zamboanga City shipping company. Later, Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) also came and they are a shipping company from Batangas. The common characteristic of the three is they have a good understanding of short-distance ferry shipping, an understanding which was clearly lacking in the earlier Cebu overnight ferry companies. And all three have the type of ROROs needed here, the basic, short-distance ferry RORO which the old Cebu overnight ferry companies simply didn’t have.

Today, all these three shipping companies are still in the Dumaguete-Dapitan route and thriving, adding ships and frequencies. Now, Montenegro Lines and Aleson Shipping have even invaded the Siquijor route using ROROs from Dumaguete and so maximizing their ships and personnel stationed there. Meanwhile, DIMC Shipping, Maayo Shipping and Tanjuan Shipping all seem to have steam and two of them are obviously floundering while another, the Maayo Shipping company was selling off excess ships (the coming of a competitor in their route is the primary reason for that). Palacio Shipping is even gone now as in they are already defunct and their ships have been sold already. Well, talk of a wrong bet, lack of vision and maybe even too much conservatism.

Why would the Dapitan-Dumaguete route hold? Actually, there is plenty of cargo emanating from that portion of Mindanao and going to Central Visayas. After all Cebu is the second biggest market after Manila and it has sea connections to many islands for further distribution of goods. One of the biggest and most valuable produce being sent from way back by Zamboanga Peninsula to Cebu is fish, the frozen and the canned varieties. Most of the frozen fish emanate from the many “pulo”. This is what they call there Basilan, the Pangutaran group, Jolo, the Tawi-tawi group and the many other islands off Zamboanga. The Sangali Fishport, the regional fishport is also located in Zamboanga City and it is there where many basnigs, trawlers and purse seiners fishing in the Moro Gulf unload their catch. Zamboanga City meanwhile is host to seven canneries. Dapitan is now the ports of choice in bringing the frozen fish through fish carrier trucks. However, a ship is still preferred for canned fish as it is heavy. Meanwhile, Spanish sardines in bottles also became a hit produce in the Dipolog area and they use Dapitan port in bringing their goods to the Visayas.

There is also plenty of freshwater and brackish fish from the fishponds of Zamboanga Sibugay especially those located in the marshes of Sibuguey Bay. Meanwhile, fishing vessels catching off Zamboanga del Sur, Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao unload in Pagadian and Tukuran ports and fish carriers pick them up these catches. Practically all of them now use Dapitan port to bring the fish destined for Negros island and Cebu province instead of Ozamis port. This portion of Mindanao has finally discovered the superiority of the intermodal truck (including the intermodal fish carriers) which can deliver goods along the way and not be dependent on distributors or wholesalers. That flexibility and ubiquity was also discovered by the company and distributor trucks from Cebu. Instead of just relying on distributors based in Ozamis City like before, their trucks now normally roll to up to Ipil, the capital and trade center of Zamboanga Sibugay and along the way they deliver their products to the markets, stores and groceries. Now, there are even intermodal buses with routes from the Visayas to Zamboanga City. First to roll was the Bacolod-Zamboanga Ceres Lines bus and recently they also have a Cebu-Zamboanga bus service too.

In recent years, it is obvious that the Dapitan-Dumaguete route has impacted the Cebu-Zamboanga and Cebu-Sindangan routes heavily. There is now just one regional passenger ship left sailing the Zamboanga-Cebu route, the Zamboanga Ferry of George & Peter Lines where before Trans Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) and George & Peter Lines put emphasis in that route. There is also one liner of 2GO from Dumaguete and Manila, a liner route that was previously abandoned. Meanwhile, Cokaliong Shipping Lines has already abandoned the Cebu-Sindangan route.

Intermodal trucks rolling long distances to other parts of Mindanao and Negros island also use this connection and some even go as far as Panay island. This is especially true after the liner service to Southern Mindanao was halted by Aboitiz Transport System (ATS). With that halt, the shippers of Southern Mindanao also began rolling their trucks. Private vehicles running to or from Cebu to Mindanao also use this connection since the rolling rate from Cebu to Ozamis, Iligan and Cagayan de Oro is very high (rolling sea rates by kilometer is far, far higher than rolling a vehicle in the highway). And again, rolling cargo is not the specialization or priority of the overnight ferries. For many, this western route is preferred over the eastern route that passes through Leyte and Surigao unless the destination or origin is eastern Mindanao or southern Mindanao.

Unless threatened by the direct Samboan-Dapitan route (or a possible Samboan-Dipolog route), the Dumaguete-Dapitan route will continue to grow.

That we will have to see in the future.

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