Airport not crucial to VFA, says SBMA chiefBy Robert Gonzaga
Inquirer Central Luzon
Top port officials will continue pushing for the conversion of the Subic Bay International Airport (SBIA) into a major tourism center despite the expected arrival of more American troops and vessels here due to the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
Roberto Garcia, chair of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA), said he found no conflict in turning the free port and its facilities into a tourism destination while still hosting US military vessels that visit this former American naval base.
US military officials had earlier announced their strategy to focus their troops in the Pacific. Their Filipino counterparts believe the Subic port would have to deal with the increased US presence.
“There’s no conflict,” Garcia said in an interview last week. “Our expectation is there will be more maritime activity by the US Navy, so they will increase their port calls to Subic. They have already said as much,” he said.
In May, USS North Carolina, one of the most technologically advanced nuclear-powered submarines in the world, arrived at Subic Bay for a port visit.
Garcia said he would welcome American troops as long as their visits keep with the terms of the VFA. “[This means that there would be] no land-based military operations,” he said.
Port visits generate revenue for tourism establishments in the free port and port usage fees.
On June 3, General Martin Dempsey, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived in Manila from Singapore, where high-ranking US defense officials attended a security forum to explain a new military strategy that would increase American presence in the region in the coming years.
In that forum, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the United States would reposition its naval fleet so 60 percent of its warships would be assigned to the Asia-Pacific by 2020.
Responding to statements that the SBIA would be used by the Americans and should remain unaltered, Garcia said: “The more effective airport is an aircraft carrier. I don’t see why they need to use that airport. If they really need to use an airport, why not Clark? They even have double runways there.”
He said the SBIA had become redundant because of the Clark International Airport at the Clark Freeport, a 40-minute drive from the Subic Bay Freeport via the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway.
He said he had presented the tourism-driven conversion plans of the SBIA to the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) and to the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (Peza). The plan consists of building convention centers, business process outsourcing parks, a science and technology center, casinos, theme parks, a golf course and luxury villas, among other facilities.
Garcia said he wanted the SBIA to become “a family-oriented, integrated, international tourist destination. “Something like Sentosa [in Singapore],” he said.
The airport conversion could help save the SBMA from bankruptcy, he explained. “If you read what comes out in the newspapers [about] DOTC (Department of Transportation and Communications) declarations of a diversionary airport, Subic is never mentioned. That reinforces my argument.”
“It’s nice to have an airport, but Subic is going bankrupt. That’s a major asset, but it’s not being used,” he said.
The 200-hectare SBIA was home to the courier giant FedEx until 2008 when the company left for China. According to Garcia, the airport complex has been underutilized, causing its income to drop from P255.2 million in 2005 to P36.6 million in 2011, and netting, after debt servicing, an average loss of P150 million since 2010.
Tags: Airports , Department of Transportation and Communications , National Economic and Development Authority , Philippine Economic Zone Authority , Subic Bay International Airport , Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority , Tourism , Visiting Forces Agreement