The Greatest Port in Northwestern Mindanao

The greatest port in northwestern Mindanao is actually not so obvious to many as it is not looked upon as a good port of entry. Ports like Davao, Zamboanga and Cagayan de Oro and others always overshadow it. Of course, many do not know its history. And having a small port area and limited wharfage, it does not really impress outside observers. I am talking here of the Port of Ozamiz (that is using the modernized spelling) in Misamis Occidental.

Originally, it was not even Ozamiz that became the first prominent port in Misamis Occidental even though Misamis, the earlier name of Ozamis, was the capital of the unified Misamis province before the war. Cagayan de Misamis, the current Cagayan de Oro (no, it does not have gold) was small compared to Misamis town. In prominence, the Jimenez port of Misamis Occidental rivaled Misamis port because the oil mill of the Chiongbians (and nobody in shipping does not know them) was there and copra was the most important crop of the province. An oil mill was a very big deal then in a municipality.

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Ozamiz port by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

Before the war, there were not many liners from Manila except when our passenger-cargo ships got bigger in the late 1920s. Northern Mindanao mainly connected to Cebu then but after the war, liners from Manila became commonplace. A route calling in Cebu, Tagbilaran, Dumaguete, Ozamis and Iligan looping around those five ports was common and the premier exponent of that is William Lines, obviously, as Misamis Occidental is their home turf.

Being provincial capital favored Misamis in their rivalry with other ports early but then it was removed as capital in favor of Oroquieta City.  But the biggest asset of Ozamiz port is its connection to Mukas port of Kolambugan in Lanao del Norte across the narrow Panguil Bay. Tamula Shipping dominated that connection then with wooden-hulled boats progressing to small cruiser ships later. Tamula Shipping was a pre-war shipping company starting from the American father-in-law of Tamula.

After the war, Pagadian of Zamboanga del Sur had its own liners from Manila. Along the years, in the 1970s, the liners left Pagadian. 1970s was the peak of the roadbuilding then in the country when once dirt roads were concreted. This roadbuilding impacted shipping in many ways, both positively and negatively. But in Ozamiz’s case, the new road uplifted it as traders, shippers and passengers of Zamboanga del Sur began moving toward Ozamiz. The travel time through Ozamiz and by road from that was shorter and cheaper compared to using Pagadian which loops around Zamboanga City. Actually, this route to Pagadian even reaches Cotabato as there were nightly big motor boats going there that lands in the city proper instead of Parang, Maguindanao which is still a good distance from Cotabato City.

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Ozamiz Port passenger terminal building by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

Ozamiz also served as a liner gateway to western Lanao del Norte through the Tamula ferries and later the Daima Shipping double-ended ferries which ended the reign of Tamula in Panguil Bay when Tamula failed to convert to ROROs. With the ROROs and the trucks and buses aboard it, Ozamiz’ reach magnified. Ozamiz became or became more prominent as the trading and distribution center in the area between Zamboanga and Cagayan de Oro.  Trucks from Ozamiz routinely reach Ipil, the capital of Zamboanga Sibugay. With that the ships from Zamboanga to Ipil and Kabasalan lost.

Ozamiz is actually the 5th busiest port in the country in 2018 in terms of passengers handled after Cebu, Batangas and Calapan ports and even ahead of Manila and other great ports. This is actually because of the big volume of passengers aboard the Daima ferries that cross to and from Lanao del Norte. Ozamiz is the shopping, trade and scholastic center of western Lanao del Norte (it is not Iligan City). Additionally, passengers from Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao can use Ozamiz port as there are vans from Kapatagan, Lanao del Norte that go to Cotabato City.

Lately, Ozamiz port even became the entry port of ships imported to the country especially by the Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC). However, one down side I noticed is Manila liners and container ships including Manila companies do not know how to use and support Ozamiz port. With that the dominance of Cebu traders in Ozamiz continues. Can’t goods from Manila be sent direct to Ozamiz instead of going through Cebu? Take a look at the major Manila corporations. They do not have offices like what they have in Cagayan de Oro or Zamboanga City. Well, I know that the common availability of the “white powder” in Ozamis frightened them. Ozamiz port was also limited in size and in the back-up area.

Now there is a threat to Ozamiz port. Dapitan port is gaining in prominence and the rolling cargo loaded there for Dumaguete and Cebu were taken from Ozamiz. The fish that was once shipped from Ozamiz is now trucked through Dapitan. Recently, the Galas port of Dipolog also became a threat to Ozamiz port. Those two ports even handle trucks and passengers on the way to Ipil, the rest of Zamboanga Sibugay and Zamboanga City. Ozamiz port is being outflanked.

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Ozamiz port by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

Whatever, Ozamiz needs to have a forward-looking plan how to bring the city to the next level as trading and distribution center. After all it is cargo that brings in ships. Moreover, the bottleneck of vehicles between Mukas port in Tubod and Ozamis must be addressed and so is the congestion in Ozamiz port. Ozamiz must learn how to conquer the Narciso Ramos Highway in Lanao del Sur because that is not within the reach of the Dapitan and Dipolog ports. The old leadership in Ozamiz with plenty of “parochial” concerns was now toppled by President Duterte. The succeeding leaders should now prove their worth.

Did you know that the leading trading and distribution centers have archbishops particularly those outside Luzon? Well, Ozamiz has an archbishop.

Take a cue from that.

When Polloc Port Lost

Polloc-Port

Photo from REZA-ARMM

Many times a reader will read “Cotabato Port” when it comes to shipping and many of them will think of the great but now conflict-ridden city of Cotabato. They will not realize that the “Cotabato Port” referred to is actually the Polloc port in Parang town in Maguindanao province which is about kilometers from the city. The true Cotabato Port is actually a river port near the mouth of Cotabato River hence it is shallow and can just accommodate small and shallow-draft vessels.

So when ships became bigger, the government decided to develop a new port for Cotabato City but this was not located in the city but in the nearby town of Parang. Actually the port was between Cotabato City and Parang and its name is Polloc port and the national government promoted and supported it well.

1980 0921 Port of Polloc

Credits to Philippine Daily Express and Gorio Belen

In the past, Polloc was a viable port when the roads in the region were still terrible. Sulpicio Lines and Aboitiz Shipping made good sailing there and they even had dedicated passenger-cargo ships and container ships to Polloc port. Sulpicio Lines used the Dona Marilyn (the former Dona Ana) which was a good fast cruiser liner then. They then fielded the RORO liner Cotabato Princess when it arrived and she served the route here well.

Aboitiz Shipping tried this route with a newly-fielded ship here, the SuperFerry 3, smaller that her fleetmates but more fit for this route. When the merged shipping company WG&A was formed a slew of ships served the route including the former William Lines flagship Dona Virginia and a host of ROPAXes including the very well-regarded SuperFerry 1 and SuperFerry 8. The respected sisters SuperFerry 2 and SuperFerry 5 also served Parang port along with the Maynilad. Doesn’t that line-up tells one that Parang port and the Cotabato route was once good then?

1980 1022 Polloc Port

Credits to Times Journal and Gorio Belen

Of course Parang will not be as strong a port like Dadiangas or what is later known as Gensan. South Cotabato was able to develop agribusiness (think Dole) and a hog industry and that was what supported the port. Cotabato and Parang had no such equivalent especially since the area became conflict-ridden at the approach of the 1970’s and in the aftermath the area sank into a certain degree of lawlessness which is a deterrent for trade, investment and tourism.

When the conflict and lawlessness abated a little, Cotabato and Parang did not rise even though the government tried to pour in money and promoted Parang port especially when the SPDA (Southern Philippines Development Authority) was created. And the support continued under the banner of the ARMM (Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao) and it tried to attract Malaysian businessmen and other businesses and promoted Polloc as a free port and ecozone.

Ironically, what doomed Polloc was actually the opening of two new highways, the Narciso Ramos Highway which connected to Malabang, Pagadian and a route to Marawi and Iligan or Ozamis and the paving of the old Sayre Highway which connected the area to Cagayan de Oro via Bukidnon. Where before a shipper will have to wait for the weekly ship, now he can truck his goods to Cagayan de Oro, Iligan or Ozamis and the combination of the three means the availability of daily ships plus a shorter sailing time with a lower shipping cost. And for passengers there are many direct commuter vans now from Cotabato to Iligan and Cagayan de Oro. They can just take the ship there and travel time and costs will be less. Conversely, when they arrive in those ports there will commuter vans waiting for them.

http://www.philstar.com/nation/2015/06/12/1465121/officials-see-rise-polloc-port-bangsamoro-shipping-hub

Now there is no more liner to Parang and cargo ships and container ships are few although the regional government tries to promote it mightily. However, it does not rise because there are simply better alternatives in shipping out cargo or bringing it in. Long-distance cargo trucks from even Cebu already penetrate the area and the main point of departure is Cagayan de Oro. Davao or General Santos City can also be the entry point especially if the goods are from abroad and there is no problem in trucking in the goods to the Cotabato area (talking of the city and not the old province).

The experience is actually what some say that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. It is okay and good to open the Narciso Ramos Highway and the Sayre Highway to connect Central Mindanao to Western and Northern Mindanao but then the unintended consequence is the sinking of Cotabato and Parang port.

I just hope the oil facility invested in by the Malaysians in Parang will somewhat make up for the fall. Hopefully they will allow goods from Singapore to be brought in tariff free under the ASEAN Free Trade Zone (which in Philippine bureaucratic definition means a lot of restrictions since they never care to read the dictionary and there are vested interests hiding behind those restrictions and bureaucrats and politicians protecting them). But then the local Nestle operation will balk because Nestle products from Singapore actually lands cheaper in Zamboanga (and that is even with grease money).

Wither Parang? No, actually I don’t have a good idea. It will be another locality whose fate is dependent on decision makers in Manila even though they don’t know much of local or regional realities.

Federalism, anyone?

The Cruel Loss of the Southern Mindanao Liner Routes

Talking here of Southern Mindanao ports, I am not only referring to Gensan (General Santos City) and Davao but also of Zamboanga and Cotabato which are technically Western Mindanao and Central Mindanao ports. But once the four were all closely interrelated as the routes through them are inter-connected. This connection also goes all the way to Iloilo port which was the intermediate port then of the Southern Mindanao liners.

In the late 1990’s, Davao had six liners to Manila per week which was about the same number Gensan and Zamboanga had. Cotabato had less as in only about two or three as it was not as big as the three other cities. Cotabato port, by the way, is actually the Polloc port in Parang, Maguindanao, a nearby town and not the river port in the city which is too shallow for liners.

I cannot believe that in just over a decade’s time from that all four ports will lose their liner connection to Manila or to Iloilo and Cebu. To think that since the Spanish times all had steamers from Manila with the exception of Gensan which was not yet existing then. Zamboanga has one ship a week now to Manila but several years ago she also lost her liner to Manila. The intermediate port of her liner now is Dumaguete and not Iloilo any more.

The slide first started when Negros Navigation Company (NENACO) shrunk operations due to financial difficulties. Among the routes they abandoned early were their routes to Southern Mindanao (but they held on to the Zamboanga route). The frequency they held was never filled up. Among that could be added to the early loss here was when Aleson Shipping Line of Zamboanga also dropped their liner route when they sold their Lady Mary Joy (not to be confused with the current Lady Mary Joy 1 which is a different ship) to the breakers because its run was not profitable.

But the big slide came when Sulpicio Lines got suspended in 2008 after of the floundering of the Princess of the Stars in a typhoon which drew international and local outcries. In the aftermath of that, stringent regulations were laid out for Sulpicio Lines in order for them to come back to passenger shipping. Only two liners were maintained by Sulpicio Lines after that and they withdrew from all routes in Southern Mindanao (among many other routes too).

I was saddened and worried by the departure of Sulpicio Lines. I know the passenger liner segment of shipping was weakening already as budget airlines and the intermodal buses were getting stronger but Sulpicio Lines is not the ordinary shipping company that will immediately withdraw from routes as soon as that route is no longer showing profit. It was one resilient liner that was actually needed then to shore up the weakening passenger liner sector.

I was apprehensive even then of that development because the only remaining liner company in Mindanao which is governed by bean counters is very fast in junking routes and in selling liners to breakers. Even when they fielded the SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21, my apprehensions were not quelled especially since I know they are fast weakening in container shipping because they have the highest rates and new challengers with lower rates are already around and challenging them.

And I was not mistaken in that apprehension because in just over a year they withdrew from Davao but still temporarily retained Gensan. But in about one or two years’ time again they withdrew from Gensan, Cotabato and Zamboanga. With that withdrawal the Iloilo-Zamboanga route was also eliminated.

At about that time, the buses for Manila leaving Ecoland terminal in Davao grew in number. It was not just Philtranco anymore but PP Bus came and soon the so-called “colorums” followed. It was not just the budget airlines that benefited from the withdrawal of the liners.

Davao was at least more fortunate because there are many Manila flights to it and there are plenty of intermodal buses to Manila. Gensan and Cotabato was not that fortunate because even though they have planes to Manila they do not have buses to Manila. Now some people are simply afraid to take flights and some do not have the identification papers needed to board planes. Some are too terrified to enter an airport because they fear losing their way around (well, I found out there were even people who do not know how to order in Jollibee) and also be exposed as stupid barrio folks. They may not really like the buses but they dislike the plane even more.

So some Cotabato folks would take the bus to Davao and transfer to the Davao-Manila bus. People from near Cotabato City also has the option to take the commuter van to Marawi-Iligan so they can take the ship there. Some can also opt for the commuter van for Kapatagan, Lanao del Norte and from there they can connect to Ozamis which both has a ship and a plane. Well, people from Davao or Cotabato province also take the bus or commuter van to Cagayan de Oro where there is also a plane and a ship.

But what kind of cruelty is that of forcing people to travel long land distances in order to catch a ship? Maybe to ameliorate that the only liner company offered tickets to Manila which included a bus ticket of Rural Transit of Mindanao to Cagayan de Oro for a ride that is 320 kilometers from Davao.

With the loss of the Southern Mindanao liners, people also lost their transport for the intermediate routes like Davao-Zamboanga, Gensan-Zamboanga and Cotabato-Zamboanga. Also lost was the intermediate route Iloilo-Zamboanga. Taking a ship then was cheap, relaxing and one disembarks freshened (after taking a bath) and probably fed and ready for the next trip. Now one has to take the plane or the very long bus or commuter van ride.

There is a Davao-Zamboanga plane but it is more expensive than the Tourist class of the former liners. There is no Gensan-Zamboanga or Cotabato-Zamboanga plane as of the present. There is a Zamboanga-Iloilo plane but not daily and it is more expensive than the former liners. Saying it is more expensive does not even include the airport terminal fee nor the airport transfer expenses.

From Zamboanga, people now take the cruel route of a Rural Transit bus up to Bacolod which takes over a day. Mind you the ordinary bus has no comfort room nor meals on board and one is tossed around for that length of time. So the meals are extra expense (it is automatically included in the ticket of Sulpicio Lines). I tell you that ride is backbreaking and it is hard to sleep because at every terminal the bus will stop, open its lights, vendors will board or hawk and there is the general shuffling of people coming up and going down. One also had to look if his luggage is already being taken down by other people.

I also take the very difficult bus-commuter van-bus ride from Davao to Zamboanga and it is backbreaking too and lasts nearly a day if via the Narciso Ramos Highway of Lanao del Sur. The trip is longer and more expensive if it is via Cagayan de Oro. All these alternatives to the ship I am mentioning are all more expensive and the wear to the body is maybe twenty times that of the ship. One reaches his destination fagged out, dehydrated, hungry and stinky.

The Gensan-Zamboanga land trip is no less arduous than the Davao-Zamboanga land trip. Look at the map and one can see the distance is almost the same. If it is via Cagayan de Misamis the distance is even greater. It is only Cotabato-Zamboanga which is a little nearer but the distance is still about 450 kilometers and the waiting time for the commuter van to leave is long as it is basically alas-puno. There is a certain minimum number of passengers before a van will leave (it will cancel the trip if filling up takes too long or the minimum is not reached). And mind you those commuter are not even airconditioned. And in the Pagadian-Zamboanga stretch, the Rural Transit bus is oh-so-slow because there is no competition. Expect up to 12 hours for a 280-kilometer route.

This is the cruel condition left to the passengers when the only remaining liner company in Southern Mindanao jilted and left them. There was a merger again later between the last two liner companies which produced 2GO but still the liners did not return and there is no hope on the horizon that they will return.

Now if only MARINA will relent and allow again some cargo or container ships to take in passengers again that will be better but I don’t see it happening. All they know is to say they are open for new liners companies applying but entering the liner business is too unattractive for all the shipping companies. There are more regulations, more investments needed including in service people and supplies, passenger can balk at delayed arrival or of anything in the service if it is below par. And if there is an accident, for sure, the press and the social media will be baying at their door.

If MARINA knows anything about liner shipping and the plight of Southern Mindanao passengers they should even encourage Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) to take in passengers because their Cargo ROROs need no modifications to carry people. But does MARINA really know anything about passenger liner shipping? They didn’t even understand that with their too strong restrictions on Sulpicio Lines they will be killing a liner company and that there won’t be a replacement anymore.

Now that is the sad fate of us Southern Mindanao passengers.

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