Bubbles, jabs and jobs


SUBIC BAY FREEPORT—Business is bouncing back in the Subic Bay Freeport, with most of 2021 first-semester revenue and other key indicators either eclipsing 2020 figures and easing toward prepandemic levels, or in some areas like export and import performance, even topping 2019 records.

In a report to the Office of the President on July 15, Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) Chairman and Administrator Wilma T. Eisma said the Subic agency “capped its 2021 first-semester performance with major accomplishments in its key measures,” even when a few areas remain impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Subic port operations grew by 17 percent in the first half of this year, boosted by a 14-percent increase in containerized cargo volume.

“The general trend is upward where the SBMA was able to accelerate growth and surpass its performances in the previous year,” Eisma added in the SBMA midyear performance report.

She said among the measures showing positive growth from January to July 2021 were operating revenue, port operations, employment, business registration, and import and export performance. Meanwhile, tourism income, non-containerized cargo volume, and committed investments were those that have yet to pick up, Eisma added.

Fast recovery

FOR the first semester, SBMA recorded an operating revenue of P1.66 billion, a slight increase over the P1.53 billion in the first six months of 2020.

Eisma said that while this was still short by P226 million, or 11.96 percent, from the prepandemic record of P1.88 billion in 2019, “it still shows how fast Subic is able to recover from the effects of the Covid-19 health crisis and the resulting global economic slowdown.”

Much of SBMA’s revenue growth in the first half was boosted by a P718-million collection from leases of land, facilities and other real-estate assets, followed by P685 million from port operations. A P189-million income taken from regulatory fees, as well as P69 million from miscellaneous sources, sealed Subic’s remarkable growth this year.

Likewise, SBMA figures showed port revenue reaching P645.8 million in the first semester—17 percent higher than last year’s figures. The upsurge came mainly from a 14-percent increase in containerized cargo volume at the Subic seaport, which rose from 107,740 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in 2020 to 122,862 TEUs this year even when the Port of Subic recorded fewer ship calls this year.

The SBMA said that even when noncontainerized cargo slid down by 2.5 percent from 3.54 million metric tons (MTs) in 2020 to 3.46 million MTs this year, the importation of raw materials from foreign countries, and the exportation of finished products like tires and veneer lumber to Japan, largely helped increase Subic’s container cargo volume.

The growth in containerized trade here was marked by total imports of $842.29 million that was 40 percent higher than the $601.8 million last year, as well as export value of $636.8 million that was 86 percent higher than last year’s $342.3 million.

Eisma also pointed out that this year’s first-semester import and export values even topped respective records of $797.24 million and $528.29 million in 2019 when the global economy was still a year away from the adverse effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Leaders and (some) laggards

MEANWHILE, the Subic Bay Freeport workforce kept growing despite the pandemic, as some businesses defied the economic slowdown by migrating to other operations or developing new product lines. From a total of 134,268 workers in 2019, Subic’s labor force swelled to 138,110 in 2020, and now to 138,964 in the first half of 2021.

The services sector here, which employed 101,390 workers or about 73 percent of the total as of the latest count, continued to be the bulwark for employment even when other sectors recorded some contraction.

The number of workers in the services sector grew from 91,046 in 2019, to 98,634 in 2020, and then to 101,390 in the first half of 2021.

Matching the upward trend in the number of workers here, the number of registered investor-companies in Subic continued to increase from 1,691 in 2019 to 1,706 in 2020 and to 1,744 by midyear 2021.

However, despite the growth in the number of investors, committed investments have not picked up as yet, probably indicating a wait-and-see attitude among businessmen. Eisma said that the 2021 first-semester committed investment totaled only P873.75 million, which was 14 percent lower than that of last year’s first-half figure of P1.02 billion.

Compared to the prepandemic level of P5.03 billion, this year’s investments total indicated a whopping drop of 82.6 percent.

Subic’s tourism industry, on the other hand, showed a modest growth of 32 percent with 3.2 million same-day visitors in the first half of 2021; a slight increase in tourist arrivals from 149,951 in 2020 to 206,229 this year; as well as increased growth in hotel occupancy at 26.7 percent from 20 percent in 2020.

Still, these figures are way off the first-half records in 2019 of 5.09 million same-day visitors, 553,286 tourist arrivals, and 65.8-percent hotel occupancy rate.

Subic bubble

Eisma had attributed the growth in key sectors to sound economic policies, best practices in anti-Covid measures, and a vision for renewed growth under the new normal.

In January, the Subic agency approved the Economic Relief Assistance (ERA) Payment Scheme that would allow longer amortization period for bills that had remained unpaid since the pandemic hit in March last year.

While this resulted in lower collections for the SBMA in the meantime, Eisma said it gave businesses a breather with which to sustain their operations, avert further losses, and spring back to productivity and profit.

Eisma said that aside from the ERA scheme, the SBMA has also temporarily suspended from March to June last year the collection of penalties and other fees from business locators and residents to help ease economic difficulties during the Covid-19 pandemic.

At the same time, the SBMA developed the bubble concept to generate new businesses and encourage more economic activities in the Subic Bay Freeport—first coming up with the corporate jet maintenance bubble concept in February to draw in business jet operators in the Asia-Pacific region, then following it up with the sports and meetings “bubbles” to bring in national-level tournaments in volleyball and basketball, as well as conferences and seminars.

In her State of the Freeport Address in March, the SBMA chief reiterated her thrust to “capitalize on opportunities under the new normal and find new ways to handle new problems.” She said that “If we can’t change the direction of the wind, we can always adjust our sails to favor the ship and continue with our journey.”

By the first quarter of 2021, the SBMA had already recorded P820.84 million in operating revenues—a 5.23-percent increase over the P780.08 million posted in the first quarter last year.

Jabs and jobs

THE Subic agency then further boosted Subic’s economic opportunities by working for the use by the Philippine Airlines of the long-dormant Subic Bay International Airport (SBIA) as alternate port of entry for returning overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) under the government’s repatriation program. This project again capitalized on Subic’s carefully calculated reputation as a haven of safety and security.

Starting with the July 5 PAL flight, Subic has since secured steady business for more than 20 hotels and other accommodation establishments here and in neighboring Olongapo City that were used for the mandatory quarantine of returning overseas workers.

PAL has so far landed 10 OFW flights in Subic, with an average of 250 passengers each flight. The arriving passengers are booked in local hotels from seven to 10 days of quarantine, with the government footing the bill.

As of now, the SBMA is working with the Department of Health (DOH), as well as private groups, on the inoculation against Covid-19 of workers, residents and business locators in the Subic Bay Freeport to further bring about Subic’s economic sustainability, Eisma said.

During the launch of the government’s vaccination program for workers in essential sectors and other economic frontliners, Eisma stressed that because workers are the backbone of the economy, “it is important that we maintain their well-being and safety at all times.”

The DOH-SBMA vaccination program, which depended on government allocation, had so far rolled out vaccines for close to 3,500 recipients as of August 4.

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