Text and photos by Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman,

WHEN MARTIAL LAW was declared in Mindanao in May, the tourism and hospitality industry in Davao City saw a plunge in tourist arrivals, at least during the first few months of the announcement. According to its Tourism Office’s latest report, there was a 19% drop in the number of tourists who visited the city in June, from 152,678 tourists in June last year, to 123,343 tourist arrivals in the same period this year. But since August (thanks to the Kadayawan festival held every third week of August) everything, it seems, is picking up again. It’s back to regular business.

“The business was good [early this year], but when martial law was declared, there was a drop of tourists arrivals — of Chinese visitors cancelling their trips — in June and July. But it picked up in August because of the Kadayawan festival and because they saw that it is peaceful here,” said Bryan Yves Lasala, general manager of the Waterfront Insular Hotel, of the effects of Marial Law on the hotel.

The majority, or 80%, of the hotel’s visitors are locals, while the remaining guests are from the US, China, Korea, and Japan.

Upon the hotel’s invitation, a group of lifestyle journalists from Manila stayed at the Waterfront from Oct 11-13.

For the past 56 years, Waterfront has remained the only available accommodation in Davao City that has a beachfront, which makes it different from the rest, said Mr. Lasala. Davao City has a total of 10,000 rooms counting small and big hotels (Marco Polo, Seda, Microtel, Red Planet, Go Hotels, Dusit Thani), inns, and pension houses.

An iconic landmark in the city for the past five decades and counting, Waterfront Insular is primarily a MICE (meetings, incentives, conferencing, and exhibitions) hotel. While it has been hosting conferences, it has also become the go-to place for a communal New Year countdown in the city. Its beachfront is a good viewing location for offshore firework displays. It is widely known that Davao implements a firecracker ban, so locals enjoy staycations and tourists book accommodations at the hotel which is less than 45 minutes away from the city proper and less than 20 minutes away from the International Airport.


Standees of the city’s former mayor are seen in public places like hotels and parks.

When at the heart of the city, it is inevitable that one goes to the night market. In front of Aldevinco — a small shopping strip where pearls, souvenirs, and durian are sold — is a night market focusing on street food like isaw, barbecue, kwek kwek, and other skewers. Today there is no trace of the bombing that happened in the same spot last year as the crowd of hungry people sit on the plastic chairs while partaking of both their food and the juiciest gossip.

The night market is smokey because of the grilled food — the city is otherwise smoke-free thanks to a long-standing ban on smoking cigarettes in public. Chain smokers are limited to indulging in their vice in small designated smoking areas — a P5,000 fine awaits people who dare break the rule.

The city is veiled in darkness as the nights grow longer as the year draws to a close. Because the city is under martial law, there are curfews for minors but the locals said adults can still go out late at night. From the point of view of a first-time visitor, Davao — amidst all the bad publicity — seemed safe and at peace.

The night market closes at 7 p.m.

The mornings, meanwhile call for day trips to the sea.

Waterfront Insular is a convenient exit point going to nearby Samal Island where people can relax and swim in the Davao Gulf. A typhoon (Odette) was looming in Luzon at the time of our visit, but Mindanao remained sunny; the water, still and serene.

Waterfront also has its own beach, but Samal Island’s is clearer, cleaner, cooler. The resort-hotel offers boat services going back and forth to Samal — it takes just 30 minutes for the two-way trip. Insular’s partner tourist attraction in Samal is a quiet Bali-style villa called Chema’s by the Sea. At least three groups of tourists were also on the island with us, but the place remained quiet and at peace.

Lunch, though, is better taken back at the hotel’s Café Uno and La Parilla, each having distinct menus. Pizza, pasta, salad, and a buffet of Filipino food like pancit, chicken inasal, street food (kwek kwek and fish balls), and taho are available in Café Uno that serves breakfast and lunch buffets. Fresh sea food, meat skewers, and soup, meanwhile, are available in La Parilla.

From Waterfront is another tourist spot not too far away called Eden Nature Park and Resort. A garden of fruits and vegetables and manmade forest, Eden is like Tagaytay — because both are elevated areas making them cool and breezy. The sprawling resort is host to activities like fishing, sky swinging and sky cycling, horseback riding, swimming, and gardening.

Chema’s by the Sea in Samal Island is less than 30 minutes away by boat from Waterfront Insular

A standee of the city’s former mayor and now President, Rodrigo R. Duterte, is found in almost every tourist spot we visited: in Eden, in the airport, and in Waterfront’s lobby. While the politician’s slogan is “change is coming,” Waterfront, on the other hand, remains rooted in the past at its core, including design-wise.

Designed by National Artist for Architecture Leandro Locsin, the 12-hectare property has six function rooms, one big pool, and 159 rooms. According to general manager Mr. Lasala, the management did not want to touch anything because they respect and regard the structure as part of the national heritage. The amenities and rooms are mostly wooden and reminiscent of the Baguio hotels of the last century. The two-story property has no elevators — one goes up via pebbled stairways.

While the classic ambiance of the hotel has remained consistent through the years, it has witnessed changes in its name many times over the course of the last 50 years. It was build by a group of investors led by the Ayalas in 1961 and was first called Islandia Hotel. The following year, it’s name was changed to El Davao Insular Hotel when a Spanish national became its hotel manager. The Inter-continental group came to manage the hotel in 1980, when it was renamed the Davao Insular Inter-Continental Inn. In 1991, the Ayalas took over for two years — changing its name again, this time as the Insular Hotel Davao. Three years after that, the hotel became the Insular Century Hotel, after the Century Hotel group took the new management. In 1999, Waterfront Philippines acquired the property and the hotel has been using the name Waterfront Insular Hotel Davao ever since.

Martial Law is scheduled to be lifted in December and the hotel’s name (who knows) may change yet again, but what will remain constant, according to Mr. Lasala, is their efforts in keeping its good service sustainable for its guests.