By Maya M. Padillo, Correspondent

DAVAO CITY — With the lifting of martial law effective Jan. 1 after blanketing Mindanao for over two years, business leaders are optimistic of a more robust growth, but at the same time stressed the need for strengthening disaster resilience following the series of earthquakes that struck parts of the southern mainland in the fourth quarter of 2019.

“During the Davao ICon (Investment Conference) 2019 last June, the lifting of martial law was one of the issues raised by the foreign diplomats and delegates to Mayor Sara (Duterte-Carpio) during their dialogue because of their interest to explore opportunities to invest in Davao and Mindanao,” Arturo M. Milan, past president of the Davao City Chamber of Commerce and Industry Inc. (DCCCII), said in an interview.

Martial law in Mindanao was first declared by President Rodrigo R. Duterte on May 23, 2017 at the start of the Marawi City siege and was extended twice.

In 2018, economic growth rate slowed down in four of the six regions in Mindanao compared with the 2017 performance.

Only Zamboanga Peninsula and Northern Mindanao posted higher gross regional domestic product (GRDP) growth rates to 6.3% from 2.4%, and 7% from 5.8%, respectively.

Those with slower GRDP growth rate were: Davao, 8.6% from 10.7%; SOCCSKSARGEN — composed of the provinces of South Cotabato, Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani, and General Santos City — 6.9% from 8.3%; Caraga, 3.2% from 3.6%; and the former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), 7.2% from 7.5%.

Aside from investments, Department of Tourism Davao Regional Director Tanya Rabat-Tan said taking away the negative image of military rule over Mindanao and the expected lifting of travel warnings by foreign governments would attract more visitors.

“We affirm the positive effect of this event for the region… We target to balance the marks of domestic and foreign tourist arrivals by 2020 given that we have diverse tourism destinations with unique experiences and offerings,” she said.

Ms. Tan cited that tourism’s contribution to the Philippine economy is currently at 12% and Davao Region, along with the rest of Mindanao, could give this a boost if it maximizes its tourism potential.

She also noted that tourism is a driver for rural development, especially if community-based, and micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) are made part of the sector’s value chain.

Honorary Consul of Bangladesh for Mindanao Joji Ilagan-Bian, a former Mindanao Business Council (MBC) chair, said improved credit access for MSMEs would be crucial to ensuring that development reaches the countryside.

“With this we will be able to largely reduce poverty also,” she said in an interview.

Mr. Milan also gave a pragmatic view that the destructive earthquakes in October and December could deter investors and consumers, especially in the condominium sector, from planned ventures and purchases.

The calamities can also dampen tourist enthusiasm, he added.

“Expectedly, there will be a shift of preference to subdivision development and other low rise property development. Second to be affected is tourism. I expect less people to travel for leisure to Davao and Mindanao for fear that they might be caught by the ‘Big One’ during their stay. While this fear do exist… I strongly believe this is very temporary and will prevail in the first half of the year until the situation stabilizes,” he said.

John Carlo B. Tria, this year’s DCCCII president, said in a separate interview that developing disaster resilience, especially among MSMEs, will be one of their priority programs.

Mr. Tria stressed that despite the headwind, they remain upbeat given the national government’s infrastructure program.

Several big-ticket projects in Mindanao are included in the Build, Build, Build program, such as the ongoing Panguil Bay Bridge connecting Misamis Occidental and Lanao del Norte, and the still pending Digos-Davao-Tagum segment of the Mindanao railway and the Davao-Samal bridge.

“Increased public spending on infrastructure and services with the 2020 budget will keep our growth strong and create further opportunities,” Mr. Tria said.

He added that the implementation of programs in the new Bangsamoro ARMM (BARMM) will prompt more economic activities and create new opportunities.

MBC Chair Vicente T. Lao, also the honorary consul of New Zealand for Mindanao, said with the southern islands being a major agricultural and fisheries area, “Mindanao will be thrust into global significance as food security and climate change becomes global issues.”