Palawan security tightened amid US travel alert

PUERTO PRINCESA CITY—Security around the Puerto Princesa Underground River (PPUR) National Park was tightened on Wednesday following a US warning that terrorist groups might be planning to kidnap foreigners in one of the Philippines’ most popular tourist spots.

The US Embassy on Tuesday said it had received “credible information” that terrorists may be targeting areas in Palawan province, including Puerto Princesa City and the PPUR.

The military foiled a kidnapping raid by the Abu Sayyaf in Bohol following a US Embassy warning in early April of such a plan by the bandits in the province and nearby Cebu.

President Duterte did not confirm or deny the terrorist threat when asked to comment on the US travel advisory before he flew to Cambodia on Wednesday.

Instead, he said he had ordered security forces battling Abu Sayyaf bandits to “shoot them on sight.”

“Do not waste your bullets [then] you take care of them in hospital,” he said. “Expend your bullets to finish the problem because it is really a problem. It is a problem of security, law and order.”

AFP: No specific threat

The Armed Forces spokesperson, Col. Edgard Arevalo, said the military had not monitored any “specific threat” to Palawan.

“Whether there indeed is a threat or not, our position is we take all reports seriously. We keep our monitoring and vigilance, and are taking all precautions,” Arevalo said.

The British Embassy in Manila cited the travel warning and like the US Embassy advised its citizens to “carefully consider travel plans and exercise heightened vigilance” in Palawan.

Canceled visit

The management of World Heritage-listed PPUR said in a statement that it had “coordinated with the authorities, both the [Armed Forces of the Philippines] and the police, to be [on] heightened alert.”

The Philippine Military Academy on Wednesday canceled plans by cadets to visit the underground river and Honda Bay. The cadets were in the provincial capital for a silent drill exhibition.

Security around most of Palawan’s tourist destinations has been tightened since late April after the military clashed with the Abu Sayyaf in Bohol.

The military’s Western Command (Wescom) based in Puerto Princesa City had announced the formation of interagency task groups to conduct random checkpoints and mobile patrols in all major tourist areas in Palawan like Coron, El Nido, Sabang, Honda Bay, Balabac, Bataraza, Rio Tuba and Brooke’s Point.

Impact on tourism

Wescom said in a statement on Wednesday that it had beefed up security for the tourist season even without any travel advisory.

“We see to it that we are always a step further on security,” it said.

Travel agents are worried about the immediate and long-term effect of the terrorist threat on local tourism as foreign visitors begin to scratch Palawan off their itineraries

following the latest US travel advisory.

“I just spoke with two other agencies and we have been getting cancellations,” said May Libiran, a tour operator in Puerto Princesa.

“We have one arriving on the 21st. We were about to issue the ticket today (Wednesday), unfortunately we had to cancel the ticket last night,” Libiran added.

She said the travel agents expected a “major” impact on tourist arrivals because of the fear and uncertainty caused by the advisory.

“We are lucky if we can recover in a month’s time, but I doubt it. People are now scared,” she said.

An average of 1 million tourists visit Palawan yearly, according to the provincial government. About 1.4 million visitors were recorded in 2015.

Palawan was first targeted by the Abu Sayyaf in 2001, abducting three Americans and 17 Filipinos from a high-end resort on Honda Bay.

One of the Americans was beheaded by the bandits and another hostage was killed during a military operation in which the third hostage was rescued. —WITH REPORTS FROM PHILIP C. TUBEZA AND AFP