Sailing away

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IN JANUARY, Star Cruises — a Hong Kong-based cruise line under the Genting Hong Kong umbrella — announced that its flagship, the Superstar Virgo, was to use Manila as its home port from March to May.

This was a very welcome development for a country whose tourism industry is playing catch-up with its neighbors and it was the first time in recent memory that such a well-known cruise line has set its sights on the Philippines as a homeport.

For three months, the line’s 18-year-old flagship would be shuttling Filipinos and international passengers from Manila to Laoag, Ilocos Norte to Kaohsiung, Taiwan, and Hong Kong before returning to Manila.

But while this is the kind of break that the country needs — it welcomed close to six million international visitors last year compared with Indonesia’s 12 million international visitors and Malaysia’s estimated 27 million international visitors — it was a fact that the ports are not yet ready to handle a cruise ship which can regularly handle close to 2,000 tourists and more than a thousand crew members.

“We were pitching Manila as a home port, maybe three years down the line when the infrastructure is ready but Star Cruises was adamant that they would home port in Manila this year,” Maria Corazon G. Jorda-Apo, director IV of the market development group of the Department of Tourism (DoT), told reporters during the inaugural cruise which ran from March 19 to 24.

It was a vote of confidence, she said, that such a large cruise operator was insistent that they use Manila as a home port. It was a sign that the market — if not the infrastructure — is ready for a full-fledged cruise industry.

Star Cruises is the third-largest cruise operator in the world (after Carnival Corp. and the Royal Caribbean Cruises) and certainly the largest in Asia.

Last year, the country welcomed 72 port calls. This year the number is expected to reach 117 port calls and with it an estimated 122,000 passengers.

Compared to other Asian ports such as Singapore and Hong Kong, which welcomed 374 and 200 port calls in 2014, the Philippines still has a lot of catching up to do. The DoT is banking on improving the industry as it is one of the nine product portfolios identified in the DoT’s National Tourism Development Plan (NTDP) 2016-2022 which aims to “enhance the competitiveness of the country as a tourist destination in the Asia Pacific region,” according to a press release.

Other portfolios are nature-based; cultural, sun and beach; MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions); leisure and entertainment; diving and marine sports; health, wellness and retirement; and, educational tourism.

“As a key element of our strategy, we are determined to build new dedicated cruise facilities, most especially in Manila. A superior cruise port and terminal in the capital, with its extensive airlift and ground facilities, will create a compelling reason for large ships to spend time in the Philippines,” said Benito C. Bengzon, Jr., undersecretary and heads the Cruise Development Committee for the Philippines in the press release.

In March, Mr. Bengzon, Jr. represented the Philippines in signing an agreement with Royal Caribbean Cruises which “will be providing all the necessary technical and financial support towards the building of a purpose-built terminal either in Caticlan or Boracay,” said a press release.

The construction of the terminal is said to “further open Western Visayas to the global cruising market,” specifically the “Turquoise Triangle” — a sea route connecting popular destinations in the area such as Boracay and Puerto Princesa.

“We foresee that by the end of the Duterte administration, we would see the realization of the first dedicated cruise terminal… Our ultimate goal is to be as seamless as possible and to gain competitiveness as a major cruise hub in Asia,” said Ms. Jorda-Apo in a release.

The upgrading of other harbors, piers, and terminals would increase the carrying capacity, making it possible to welcome bigger ships carrying as many as 5,000 passengers, she added.

Superstar Virgo arrived in Manila on March 19 and will stay until its final voyage on May 23. The route encompasses what the company called “Jewels of the South China Sea”: Manila-Laoag-Kaohsiung-Hong Kong.

BusinessWorld together with a handful of other media were invited to the inaugural voyage and what welcomed all the thousand or so passengers were incredibly long lines the moment they entered Pier 15 of the Manila South Harbor.

It was evident from the get-go that the pier wasn’t equipped to handle crowds such as this, and lines for the baggage drop snaked from the small covered area to the roundabout causing heavy traffic.

It took more than 30 minutes for a bag to be dropped and tagged, and for people to move from baggage to check-in.

The check-in area where passengers get their access cards (which function as a room card and a charge card onboard the cruise ship) and get cleared by immigration officers, was a large air-conditioned tent, but since the crowd was so big, it became unbearably hot and one passenger was reported to have fainted.

Ms. Jorda-Apo said that it was Star Cruises that set up the air-conditioned tent after an ocular inspection revealed that aside from the small — albeit air-conditioned — waiting area, Pier 15 had nothing else to offer.

It took about three hours from baggage drop to boarding.

The ship, which was supposed to leave the port by 6 p.m., left by 6:30 p.m.

It wasn’t a very good start for a cruise, but according to subsequent passengers this reporter talked to, the company apparently made enough adjustments to decrease boarding time to around 30 minutes or so.

The six-day/five-night trip itself was quite uneventful unless one counts the long queues to the complimentary restaurants: the Mediterranean (an all-day dining buffet restaurant), the Genting Palace (a semi-fine dining restaurant which serves Western cuisine), and the Pavillion (a semi-fine dining restaurant serving Chinese cuisine).

Of course there are other dining options onboard if one is willing to pay: Noble House, which serves Chinese cuisine; the fine-dining Palazzo which serves Italian fare; Samurai, which serves Japanese cuisine; the Taverna which is a poolside snack bar; and Taj, which offers Indian cuisine.

On the second night, the media members decided to dine at Samurai because the lines for dinner at the complimentary restaurants were too long, and for about HK$150 we enjoyed a fine Japanese teishoku meal (set meal) which consisted of Wagyu beef cubes, salmon sashimi, and a few pieces of shrimp and vegetable tempura. It was the best dinner we had on the trip, so it was definitely worth it.

It might seem a chore, lining up for food every time, but after a few nights and crowded meal times, it was easy to establish a routine — either take breakfast early at around 7 a.m. or settle for brunch at the Mediterranean.

In fact, the Mediterranean was always the answer if one run out of patience waiting for a table to open at the Genting Palace and Pavillion, and it offered adequate dish options.

Aside from food choices, the 13-storey cruise ship also offers solid entertainment options — some free and some pay-per-view (the adult shows such as Brazilian Bombshells in the Galaxy of the Stars club/bar must be paid for, while the Lido Theatre performances are free).

It should be noted that most singers/musicians are Filipino while the dancers are mostly Caucasians.

For those who are not interested in watching the performances or who would like to enjoy a leisurely cruise, the Library is a good refuge and it also has faster Wi-Fi than most parts of the ship. (Wi-Fi is a paid add-on and a 72-hour connection will set one back HK$255.)

Taking a dip at the pool with its three huge water slides and Jacuzzi is also an option, as is getting a massage or a salon treatment or a bit of retail therapy as the ship has a well-stocked Duty Free center on deck 8.

There’s also a “High Seas Gala Night” where people get to dress in their cocktail finery and dine in style. Do note that reservations in the participating restaurants should ideally be made on the first night of the cruise because seats get taken up fast.

The Gala Night affords passengers upgraded fare and a little performance from the staff — it was fun until you are ushered out of the restaurant because they need to prepare the room for the second batch of diners.

Basically, every creature comfort is on this ship, some for free and some for a sum.

The rooms are, of course, smaller than the usual hotel rooms and it would definitely feel cramped if more than two people share a single room. Balcony rooms, like the one this writer was billeted in, are a bit roomier but would still make two people very close — close enough to be very good friends (if they aren’t already) or hate each other as there’s little wiggle room, especially in the bathroom.

For the most part, the sea was calm though we experienced rough seas on the way to Kaohsiung and then to Hong Kong, therefore it is imperative that one brings enough motion sickness medicine.

The almost 20-year-old ship, while still a beauty, is beginning to show its age — from the worn patches on the carpet to the old bathroom fixtures — but it’s definitely not shabby. Yet.

Once the ship reaches the ports on its route, passengers can opt to explore the destinations on their own or buy an excursion for about HK$300 or so and are able to choose their own itineraries.

Each stopover takes around seven to eight hours.

In Laoag, passengers are taken to the Currimao port via boats (a 20-minute trip) and from there continue on to Laoag and see the Paoay Church (the 300+-year-old Baroque church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and go for a ride on the Paoay dunes.

Or one can continue on for another hour or so to Vigan, Ilocos Sur, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a town known for its Spanish Colonial architecture.

At Kaohsiung, an industrial municipality in south Taiwan — which looks like a cross between the Manila’s Chinatown and an earlier version of Makati City (sans a lot of skyscrapers) — one can see the Love River (a 12-kilometer stretch which got its name from a pair of lovers who jumped to their deaths in the 1940s), and the remnants of the Dutch occupation through former forts such as Fort Provintia (now named Chikhan Tower) which was built in 1653 but was destroyed by an earthquake and rebuilt in the 19th century.

Hong Kong, of course, needs no introduction as “Asia’s Global City” is familiar to most Filipinos. It is home to a famous shopping district Tsim Sha Tsui which contains the Harbor City mall complex, the first-ever Peninsula Hotel, and the Avenue of the Stars, modelled after the Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, which pays tribute to famous Hong Kong stars.

In all, it was quite an experience — sleeping in a ship decked out to the nines and waking up in another country — and it wasn’t all that costly either as rates start at $758 per person for a twin sharing room (not including the mandatory $100/night gratuity and visa charges if applicable). One can visit three destinations for less than $1,000 and the package comes with complete full-board meals, entertainment, and lodging.

And even though the Virgo is still in Manila (its last voyage is on May 23), Star Cruises, according to Ms. Jorda-Apo, has been so happy with the reception that they are already planning on coming back in December for a five-month home port stint.

So for people who are still on the fence or weren’t able to book their cruise for the first round, the Virgo is coming back soon.