ZAMBALES, Philippines – The Subic tour of cruise ship MV World Dream was canceled due to intense pressure from residents and local leaders for the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) to temporarily stop accepting cruise ships amid the novel coronavirus scare.
The cruise ship from China arrived in Manila on Tuesday, January 28, and its 778 passengers were "authorized to travel" by the Bureau of Quarantine.
Scheduled to arrive in Subic on Wednesday, January 29, the ship instead decided to cancel its arrival and head back to Hong Kong.
In a January 28 letter, Olongapo Mayor Rolen Paulino Jr urged SBMA Chairman and Administrator Wilma Eisma to "temporarily stop accepting cruise ships until the (novel coronavirus) threat has been controlled."
He cited the "uncertainty and lack of information" on the novel coronavirus, the virus that originated from Wuhan, China, and has so far killed at least 106 and sickened thousands across China and several other countries.
Paulino also noted that "infected persons do not manifest any of its symptoms until much later."
He said temporarily stopping cruise ships from docking in Subic "would not be unprecedented considering that various cities worldwide have implemented lockdowns in response to this disease."
'Loss of income'
The night before, Eisma issued a statement that said, "I have personally discussed the Subic situation with Health Secretary Francisco Duque today and confirmed to him that safety protocols are in place at the Port of Subic."
"He advised that there is not a need just yet to stop the entry of cruise ships in Subic in view of established safety measures in the Freeport," she added.
The SBMA initially highlighted the supposed loss of income that could occur if the arrival of cruise ships was rejected, but this only angered residents even more.
"As an emerging cruise ship destination in Southeast Asia, Subic expects to be adversely affected by this ongoing health emergency," Eisma earlier said.
Eisma was also in the habit of asking SBMA employees to physically welcome passengers of cruise ships at the dock upon their arrival, but none were willing this time. A rumor even circulated that SBMA tourism employees would not report for work if the cruise ship was allowed to dock.
On Tuesday, as the uproar from residents and Subic workers grew, Paulino pleaded with Eisma to "please err on the side of caution and put primacy in the health and safety of the residents and workers of SBFZ (Subic Bay Freeport Zone) and the city and municipalities surrounding it."
Subic Mayor Jonathan John Khonghun also sent a letter to Eisma, saying "let us join hands to be more cautious, giving priority to the health and safety of the people in our locality."
Photo from Randy Datu/Rappler
It was also reported that tourism establishments in the Subic Freeport were pushing behind the scenes and working with the Subic Bay Freeport Chamber of Commerce to temporarily suspend the arrival of cruise ships.
Robert Gonzaga, president and CEO of Subic Bay Marine Exploratorium Inc (SBMEI), said in a statement: "The SBMA has issued guidelines on how to deal with this, but they should do more to address the core issue of a temporary ban on cruise ship visits. For our part, we will refuse access to our park to cruise ship visitors if they do not comply with SBMA guidelines, and our [government's] health and safety policies."
SBMEI is the corporate owner and operator of Ocean Adventure, Adventure Beach Waterpark, and Camayan Beach Resort and Hotel – top attractions in the Freeport.
Gonzaga said that more important considerations should be prioritized over short-term income.
"We have put in place several measures to protect our guests, as well as our employees, from any health risk associated with the coronavirus. We want to reassure the public that safety comes first, last, and always for SBMEI," he added.
The backlash to Eisma's stance on the issue culminated in a rally in front of the main gate of the Subic Freeport, where about 200 residents and Freeport workers brandished signs that read: "No to cruise ships in the meantime," "Konting malasakit naman SBMA," and "Mas mahalaga ba ang kita kesa sa kaligtasan ng mamamayan ng Olongapo?"
While the rally was ongoing, cheers went up as news broke that the MV World Dream has decided to cancel its visit to Subic.
For her part, Eisma immediately took to Facebook and posted a statement saying, in part, that the cruise visit "has been canceled by Genting Cruise Lines, the operator of the cruise liner, in face of the circumstances on the ground."
She said that the Subic Bay Freeport community can "breathe a sigh of relief in the outcome that, we hope, is acceptable and satisfactory to all."
Despite this announcement, however, the SBMA is still silent on whether or not a temporary ban on cruise ships is already in place in the Subic Bay Freeport.
Among the groups that exerted pressure on the SBMA were Batang Gapo People's Organization Incorporated, Olongapo City local government units, Aeta leaders, all 17 barangay captains, and other people's organizations.
"Why would we put ourselves in harm's way if we can prevent it? If in their own country, they have already implemented a lockdown, why can't we do the same here?" Barangay Gordon Heights Captain Priscilla Echie Ponge, one of the 17 barangay captains, said. – Rappler.com