Maasin Port Is An “Anomaly” And So Is The City

Maasin City as a provincial capital of Southern Leyte is an ”anomaly” but this is in no way meant to insult it and its people. But there is no other provincial capital in the country where the capital is the last and furthermost locality. And that becomes a problem for the people of its towns on the other end like San Ricardo and Silago. They would have to spend several hours on the road just to reach their capital should they need a transaction there. And funny, to reach Maasin faster, even public vehicles go back through Bato in the neighboring  Leyte province to take the mountain road that starts at Bontoc town because it is shorter and travel time is faster. Going back, many take the same road too.

Donna Simon

Maasin port by Donna Simon

Maasin port became an anomaly too because of that road. Ferries from Cebu would rather dock in Bato or Hilongos port in Leyte rather than Maasin port and its vehicles and the shuttles (called “boat service” when the ferries are not boats) will also take the Bato to Bontoc road. But the national government through the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) will always give priority to Maasin port because it has the designation as a provincial port even though the de-facto ports of entry now of Southern Leyte are the Hilongos and Bato ports in Leyte province.

Those two mentioned ports were so deadly especially with an extension like shuttle buses for passengers and a shortcut to Bontoc via Bato. The two killed the overnight ferries to Sogod, Liloan and Cabalian (or San Juan) especially those of ill-fated Maypalad Shipping (pun intended). Those ports have no chance as their ferries arrive near noon while ferries In Hilongos and Bato aided by shuttle buses can deliver passengers in those towns before breakfast. And the over-all fare is even lower because land fares are much cheaper than sea fares. Moreover, going to Cebu they would have just to wait for the shuttles instead of taking a local commute to the port and no transfers are needed.

Even Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. (CSLI) which has been loyally serving Maasin port (it was a bread and butter of the company in its earlier years) cannot increase its frequency to the city as its passengers now are just from Maasin and the towns between Maasin and Bontoc. In rolling cargo, unless they do some sacrifice they cannot match the rates of the ROROs serving Hilongos and Bato because the distance of the two from Cebu is shorter.

There is even no hope now of a fielding a RORO to the ports of Sogod, Liloan and Cabalian because in rates it can never compete with the Hilongos and Bato ROROs whose rates will be much lower because of the much shorter distance. Sogod, Liloan and Cabalian might be a little far but a car or a truck can easily roll to that and the fuel consumed will be much less compared to a RORO rate. Plus the total time will be way shorter. No way they can really win.

I do not think this situation will change in the future because one can’t change geography.  And thus one thing that could have boosted Maasin, that of being a good port of entry is really not around. Maasin could also not be a port of entry from Surigao like in the old past when ports were lacking because it is the farthest locality of Southern Leyte from Surigao.

In my wandering thoughts , I cannot even understand why Maasin became the capital of Southern Leyte when Sogod is the center point of the three “tentacles” of the province – the series of towns to Maasin, the series of towns to Silago and the series of towns to San Ricardo at the tip of Panaon island. Sogod could have been the commercial town of the province but a direct ship to Cebu hampered that, I think. Now, so-many intermodal trucks roam Southern Leyte already.

In the old past, liners from Manila also came to Maasin, Sogod and Cabalian. But those days are long gone now and will never come back again. Intermodal trucks from Manila have already cobbled up many of the cargo to the eastern seaboard of the country so much so that the old great port of Tacloban is diminished now.

And that also diminished Maasin port. Especially since the Palawan Princess of Sulpicio Lines which called on the port before is also gone now. Whatever, long live Maasin!

The Sunset of Tacloban Port

Tacloban City is the regional commercial center of Eastern Visayas and this has been so for about a century now. It has the advantage of a central location and a sheltered port and bay. Its reach weakens, however, in the western coast of Leyte which has its own sea connections to a greater trade and commercial center, the great city of Cebu which has been ascendant in the south of the Philippines since half a millennium ago. 

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http://image.slidesharecdn.com/easternvisayasfinal-150407210918-conversion-gate01/95/eastern-visayas-biliran-2-638.jpg?cb=1428459126

As a regional commercial center, it is but natural for Tacloban to have a great port with trade routes to many places. That has been the situation of Tacloban since before World War II and even before World War I. It also does not hurt that Tacloban is the capital of the province of Leyte. In fact, because of her superior strategic location, Tacloban even exceeded her mother town which is Palo which is still the seat of the church hierarchy.

Before World War II and after that, passenger-cargo ships from Manila will drop by first in Masbate, Catbalogan and Calbayog before hooking route and proceeding to Tacloban. Some of these ships will then still proceed to Surigao and Butuan or even Cagayan de Oro using the eastern seaboard of Leyte. Tacloban then was the fulcrum of these liner routes going to Eastern Visayas. That route was much stronger than the routes that drop by Ormoc and Maasin and perhaps Sogod and Cabalian before going to Surigao. The two routes were actually competing (like Ormoc and Tacloban are competing). If the route via Tacloban was stronger it is because Tacloban was the trade and commercial center of the region.

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At its peak, Tacloban port hosted some seven passenger-cargo ships from Manila per week from different liner companies. She also had daily regular calls from passenger-cargo ships emanating from Cebu. There were also some ships that originate from as far as Davao which dropped by Surigao first. Such was the importance of Tacloban port then which can still be seen in the size of Tacloban port and the bodegas surrounding it.

There were many liner companies that called over the years in Tacloban from Manila. Among them were Sulpicio Lines (and the earlier Carlos A. Gothong & Co.), Compania Maritima, General Shipping Company, Philippine Steam and Navigation Company, Philippine Pioneer Lines (and later the successor Galaxy Lines), Escano Lines, Sweet Lines, even the combined Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. and Lorenzo Shipping Corporation. When it was still sailing local routes, even De la Rama Steamship served Tacloban. Among the minor liner companies, Royal Lines Inc., Veloso Brothers Ltd., N&S Lines, Philippine Sea Transport and Oriental Shipping Agency also served Tacloban. Not all of those served at the same time but that line-up of shipping companies will show how great was Tacloban port then.

1979 Dona Angelina

Gorio Belen research in the National Library

For many years there was even a luxury liner rivalry in Tacloban port. This was the battle which featured the Dona Angelina of Sulpicio Lines and the Sweet Rose of Sweet Lines which mainly happened in the 1970s. Sweet Rose was sailing to Tacloban from the late 1960s and was in fact the first luxury liner to that port. The two liners were the best ships then sailing to Tacloban port. The rest, of course, were mainly ex-”FS” ships which was the backbone of the national liner fleet then and there was no shame in that.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

Tacloban port was doing well until the late 1970’s when a paradigm change pulled the rug from under their feet. This development was the fielding of a RORO by Cardinal Shipping, the Cardinal Ferry I that connected Sorsogon and Samar. With San Juanico bridge already connecting Samar and Leyte and the Maharlika Highway already completed, intermodal trucks and buses started rolling into Tacloban and Leyte. In fact, in just one year of operation the intermodal link was already a roaring success with many trucks and buses already running to Manila. Soon other ferries were connecting Sorsogon and Samar including the Maharlika I of the government.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

With this development the irreversible decline of Tacloban port began. It was a slide that never ever saw a reversal because what happened over the years was the buses and trucks rolling to Tacloban and Leyte just continued to multiply without abatement (and the ROROs in San Bernardino Strait also increased in number). Soon the passengers were already filling the intermodal buses and freight except the heaviest and the bulkiest was also slowly shifted to the trucks. Over the years the number of passenger ships to Tacloban slowly declined as a consequence.

In the late 1980’s, when the pressure of the intermodal was great there were still three national shipping lines with routes to Tacloban – Sulpicio Lines, William Lines and Sweet Lines. In the early 1990’s. when Sweet Lines quit shipping only the top two shipping lines then where still sailing to Tacloban with the Tacloban Princess of Sulpicio Lines and the Masbate Uno of William Lines. Incidentally, the infamous Dona Paz which burned and sank after a collision with a tanker in December 1987 originated from Tacloban.

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Tacloban Princess by John Carlos Cabanillas

When the WG&A merger came in 1996 the company pulled out the Masbate I from the Tacloban route. The last liners ever to sail the Tacloban route were the Tacloban Princess and the Cebu Princess which alternated in the route. Both belonged to Sulpicio Lines. The liner route from Manila to Tacloban was finally severed when Sulpicio Lines got suspended from passenger service as a consequence of the sinking of the Princess of the Stars when both the Tacloban Princess and the Cebu Princess were sold.

The overnight ferry service from Cebu almost followed the same path and died at almost the same time. The last three shipping companies which had a route there were Roly Shipping, Maypalad Shipping and Cebu Ferries Corporation (which was the successor of CAGLI). But passengers slowly learned that the routes via Ormoc and Baybay were faster and cheaper and the connection was oh-so-easy as the bus terminals of the two cities were just outside the port gates of Ormoc and Baybay. The High Speed Crafts (HSCs) to Ormoc, mainly SuperCat and Oceanjet also made great strides and captured a large portion of the passenger market and it further denied passengers for Tacloban. With the HSCs and overnight ships from Cebu that leave Ormoc in the morning there was no longer any need for Tacloban passengers to wait until night.

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http://www.maritime-executive.com/article/Paralyzed-Philippine-Port-Resumes-Operations-2013-11-21

The last rope for Tacloban port passenger-cargo ships was cut when the new coastal highway from Basey, Samar to Guiuan, Eastern Samar was completed. With that the passenger ships connecting Tacloban and Guiuan had to go as the fast and ubiquitous commuter vans (called “V-hire” in the province) suddenly supplanted them. Trucks also began rolling and some of these were even coming from Cebu via the intermodal.

Now only a few cargo ships dock in Tacloban port. There is still one cargo shipping company based in Tacloban, the Lilygene Sea Shipping Transport Corp. Gothong Southern Shipping Lines meanwhile still has a regular container ship to Tacloban but there are complaints that the rates are high (the consequence of no competition). Whatever, there are still cargoes better carried by ships than by trucks. However, some of the container vans for Leyte are just offloaded now in Cebu and transferred through Cargo RORO LCTs going to several western Leyte ports.

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What might remain for a long time maybe in Tacloban port are the big motor bancas for Buad island in Western Samar which hosts the town of Daram and Bagatao island which hosts the town of Zumarraga. I am not sure of the long-term existence of the other motor bancas for the other Samar towns except for maybe Talalora as more and more they have buses that go to Tacloban and maybe soon the commuter vans will follow. Or maybe even the jeep. The lesson is with roads established the sea connection always have to go in the long term.

Tacloban port is improved now. Improving the port eases port operations but it will not make the ships come back contrary to what the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) and the government say. It is cargo and passengers that make the ships come to a port but if there are other and better transportation modes that are already available then cargo and passenger volumes drop and sometimes it becomes uneconomical for the ship to continue operating.

So I really wonder what is the point in developing a port in the nearby town of Babatngon as an alternative to Tacloban port. Have the Philippine Ports Authority ever asked who wants to use it? It is not surprising however as the PPA is the master of creating “ports to nowhere” (ports with practically no traffic) especially in the time of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who was so fond of those (for many “reasons”, of course).

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Ormoc Port by John Luzares

In the past two decades the PPA always touted Tacloban port. For maybe they are based there. There was a denial that actually Ormoc port was already the main gateway to Leyte and it is no longer Tacloban port. Recently however, there seems to be an acknowledgment of the real score — that Ormoc port has actually been the de facto gateway already. The government is now developing Ormoc port and it is good that the PPA vessel arrival and departure site already covers it.

Whatever and however they try, it cannot be denied that the sun is already setting in Tacloban port. It is no longer the same port it used to be in the past because of the intermodal assault changed things.

Like they say, things always change.

The Original RORO Ferry Terminals

It has long been the dream of our country, the Philippines, to connect the main islands of Luzon, the Visayas group and Mindanao to unite the country physically. The only way to do this is through an intermodal system that will use both land and sea transport. This is because the sea crossings are simply too long for the bridges based on the technology of decades before. And, even if the technology is already available, the needed budget for such bridges might simply be too great for a poor country like the Philippines (only fools believe we are the “13th-largest” economy in the world).

The foundation for such Luzon-Visayas-Mindanao connection was actually the study and plan made in the early 1960’s during the administration of President Diosdado Macapagal for a “Philippine-Japan Friendship Highway”. Such grand project will depend on Japan reparations money, soft loans and technical assistance and that was why that project was retitled to such from “Pan-Philippine Highway”.

Aside from a concrete highway stretching from Aparri, Cagayan to Zamboanga City, it also had provisions for a Sorsogon-Samar connection through a ferry, a Samar-Leyte connection through a bridge (which later became the San Juanico bridge), a Leyte-Panaon island connection by a short bridge and a Panaon-Surigao connection through a ferry. That route was the one chosen because it will involve the least number and shortest ferry crossings plus it will mean the most regions that will benefit from a concrete highway. Included in the project was the purchase of two RORO ships for the sea connections and four RORO ferry terminals.

This project was actually not finished during the term of President Diosdado Macapagal. It was actually not even started during his term. The project was really grand, the highways to be paved were really long and a very large number of bridges have to be built. The project was started in 1967 and it was finished about 18 years later. Along the way, the new administration of President Ferdinand Marcos renamed the project into the “Maharlika Highway”. The ROROs in the two sea crossings were also named as Maharlika I and Maharlika II.

The four so-called RORO ferry terminals (they were not called as ports even though they really are) were located in Matnog (Sorsogon), San Isidro (Northern Samar), Liloan (Southern Leyte) and Lipata (Surigao City). For Luzon, the logical choice is really Matnog as it is the closest to the island of Samar. In Samar, it should have been logically located in Allen, Northern Samar. However, it was located instead in San Isidro of the same province because at that time the Calbayog-Allen road was not yet finished. The vehicles then still pass through the mountain town of Lope de Vega to Catarman.

In Panaon island, the logical location of the ferry terminal should have been in the southernmost town of San Ricardo. The problem again was the uncompleted road. The first plan was to put it in San Francisco town. However, the final decision was to locate it in Liloan. One reason forwarded was it was more sheltered which is true. That reason also factored in the choice of San Isidro as it has an islet off it. In Surigao, the ferry terminal was located in the barrio of Lipata. It is nearer to Panaon island than Surigao City poblacion.

Looking at the lines of the ferry terminals it is obvious that all were constructed from just one architectural plan. The only one that is a little different is the Liloan Ferry Terminal. All are modern-looking and even now, more than thirty year after they were constructed, they still do not look dated. It is obvious from the design that effort was made to control the heat from the sun. They were also all well-built and all sat low and maybe that was done to minimize damage from strong winds. Typhoons and earthquakes have come over the decades but all are still spic and span. They all seem to blend with the terrain, too.

The ferry terminals themselves are surrounded by access roads. The design was that the vehicles to be loaded have a separate access from the vehicles being unloaded. There is also back-up area for the vehicles to be loaded. Inside the terminals aside from the usual waiting areas, there are shops and a restaurant. That is aside from the office of the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) and booths for the shipping companies and the useless arrastre firm.

One difference of the ferry terminals from the ports of the past is the presence from the start of RORO ramps in the wharf. It signified that the ferry terminals were really meant for RORO operations right from the very start. Originally, there were only two RORO ramps per ferry terminal. This provision grew short when the number of RORO ships using the ferry terminal multiplied. So, alterations and expansions were done along the way in the quays of the ferry terminals.

When the sea ferry terminals were opened in 1982 in Matnog and in San Isidro with the arrival of the RORO Maharlika I, San Bernardino Strait, the sea separating the two was already connected by privately-owned ROROs for three years. However, they were using the shorter Matnog to Allen connection. Allen, in Northern Samar, had a port even in the past but a private operator developed their own port. Actually, San Isidro port is not well-placed for the vehicles headed just for Northern Samar as they need to backtrack.

Also, when the ferry terminals were opened in 1984 in Liloan and Lipata, Surigao Strait, the sea separating the two was already connected by privately-owned ROROs for five years already. The original connection here was between Surigao port and Liloan municipal port (plus Maasin port). Incidentally, in both connections it was Cardinal Shipping which was the pioneer using the ROROs Cardinal I and Cardinal II. This is to correct the wrong impression by many who thinks it was the government and the Maharlika ships which were the pioneers in this routes. This erroneous impression is the product of government propaganda. May I add also that even before the ROROs came these two straits were already connected by wooden motor boats (called the lancha locally) and big motor bancas.

Trucks, private cars and government vehicles made the first Luzon-Visayas-Mindanao connection and it was not many at the start. The signal connection that everybody was waiting for was the bus connection since that will mean that all and everybody can make the LuzViMinda run. It finally came in 1986 when the Philtranco bus made its first Mindanao run. The run took longer than expected because of mechanical problems but finally it came about. Now, private vehicles and trucks and everybody is taking it now through many buses and even by commuter van at times.

And the Philippines is physically connected now.