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Bicol revs up economic engine

INQUIRER SOUTHERN LUZON

By Fernan Gianan, Jonas Cabiles Soltes, Mar Arguelles

In this Year of the Water Dragon, Bicol is poised to take off. The optimism stems from the region’s economic growth in previous years as most of its provinces turned to tourism and services to boost their standings. Some, however, were hobbled by challenges brought about by high power costs.
“Last year, Bicol shed off its ‘poorest’ image with a leaping growth rate of 8.2 percent, the highest so far among the other regions and even surpassing the national growth rate,” says Albay Gov. Joey Salceda, who is also current chair of the Regional Development Council (RDC).
The economic landscape, Salceda says, “looks different, and the momentum of growth it had taken had been decisive.”
In Albay, the official says he needs to focus on addressing high power costs, which he describes as “the biggest single stumbling block to faster, more sustained and more inclusive economic growth.”
Rising power costs have emerged as the biggest disincentive to more domestic and foreign investments, he adds.
“While provinces like Albay have been providing Luzon with cheap geothermal energy of almost 464 (megawatts) while getting virtually nothing, under Epira (Electric Power Industry Reform Act), (Albay) is now compelled to purchase the same power at WESM (Wholesale Electricity Spot Market) for P7.8 per kilowatt-hour (kWh),” he says.
Salceda says the RDC would endorse flagship infrastructure developments, particularly on multimodal transportation infrastructure and the Bicol River Basin Project which are both under way, and the P3.4-billion Southern Luzon International Airport (SLIA) in Daraga town.
“The SLIA is seen to uplift the economy and position of Bicol on the global tourism map,” he says.
CamSur-driven
In the first-class province of Camarines Sur (annual income: more than P450 million), which is embroiled in a politically charged “partition” issue, a sustained boost in the economy fueled by steady tourist arrivals is expected.
Provincial administrator Fermin Mabulo, who spoke in behalf of Gov. Luis “LRay” Villafuerte, says that aside from tourism, the financial standing of the largest province of Bicol was fed by a boom in the housing industry.
The entry of real estate giant Ayala Land in the property adjacent to the Capitol complex would be complemented by the improvement of the facilities of the capitol, including the Camarines Sur Watersports Complex (CWC), he says.
“The improvement of the CWC is included in the overall development of 9,000 square meters of provincial land near the capitol, which would be turned into a convention area as Camarines Sur poises to market itself as the convention hub of the country,” says Mabulo.
While CamSur would be harshly affected by the cut in the internal revenue allotment from the national government this year, he says it would remain an affluent province—even if the proposed Nueva Camarines province materializes. He says the partition could hurt growth plans, but he remains hopeful it would not push through.
In Naga, planning and development coordinator Wilfredo Prilles says the city’s economy did very well amid continuing challenges, mainly coming from a slowdown in the property sector.
Last year, the total number of registered firms grew by 33 percent in terms of new business and renewals, says Prilles. “For 2012, we expect this trend to continue,” he adds.
“We see more businesses opening at the same pace, especially with the PNR (Philippine National Railways) services to Bicol now restored. Tourism will continue to be a sunshine industry, with at least two hotels expecting to operate next year,” he says.
In Iriga, tourism is expected to provide an “additional shot in the arm in the short term” as Iriga stages the second “Gayon Bikol” Festival in February, says city information officer Francisco Peñones Jr.
Maj. Angelo Guzman, spokesperson of the Army’s 9th Infantry Division based in Camp Elias Angeles in Pili, Camarines Sur, sees “improving peace situation” as the government’s anti-insurgency program that was implemented starting last year “was slowly harvesting its fruits.”
He claims that more communist rebels will go back to the fold of the law because of dwindling mass support.
Sick man no more
For Camarines Norte, Mayor Tito Sarion of Daet expects a booming year for Bicol’s longtime sick man as the capital town welcomes businesses that provide amenities taken for granted by more urbanized areas.
The “newcomers,” Sarion says, includes Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co., which has started installing facilities.
Daet is also undergoing an urban renewal program, including the construction of an integrated terminal, a well-lit plaza, and a renovated government center.
Evelyn de Leon, chair of the small and medium enterprises council of the province, says the entry of McDonald’s, 7-Eleven, Liberty Commercial complex and other investors augurs well for Camarines Norte.
She says the inactive Bagasbas Airport in Daet is being refurbished starting 2013.
The influx of tourists in the Calaguas group of islands is another boost, along with the growing popularity of the province as a water sports destination.
But De Leon says a slowdown is expected in the mining industry because of the nonissuance of permits to small-scale miners by the provincial government.
Looking bright
In Sorsogon, Gov. Raul Lee expects an improved situation, pinning the fortune of the province mainly on tourism.
“On the peace and order side, we are relatively peaceful. On the economic side, business in the province is relatively slow.” Lee says.
He says he is hoping that 2012 will be a year of less crime and improved economy for the province famous for the butanding or whale sharks that feed off its shores.
In Masbate, Placer Mayor Joshur Judd Lanete, son of Gov. Rizalina Seachon-Lanete, sees a rosy future despite the province being put in bad light due to political violence and criminality.
“The economy and peace and order situations are looking bright. With the help of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police, it seems that the people feel safer already. It bodes well for the tourism industry in the province,” he says.
Prospects are up in Catanduanes despite a significant drop in the buying prices of abaca fiber and a steep rise in power rates beginning this month, according to Ireneo Panti, Jr., provincial director of the Departmentof Trade and Industry. The island produces 20 percent of the country’s annual production.
Panti says the plunge in the price of abaca fiber has kept businessmen worried even as the trade in abaca bacbac (dried leaf sheaths) continues to expand.
Over 20,000 farmers and their families depend on the abaca industry for subsistence.
Catanduanes is also burdened by the unreliable and expensive cost of power, with the Energy Regulatory Commission recently approving six petitions to increase power rates filed by National Power Corp. to recover losses in fuel costs and foreign exchange fluctuations.
The increases, which will bring the cost of residential power to over P12 per kWh, will be implemented over the next four years.
Bishop Manolo delos Santos and Provincial Micro, Small and Medium Enterprise Development Council chair Rene Abella have appealed to Malacañang to defer the power-rate increases. They suggested that these be stretched over six years to cushion their impact on consumers.

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