NIGHTLIFE― Even in El Nido town, the nightlife is much more low-key than in Puerto Princesa City or other tourist destinations, but with similar opportunities to “meet” local girls. (Photo by Roy Mark Maarat)

(This report was made possible with support from the Philippine Press Institute (PPI)-HSF under its 2021 Fellowship Program on Civic Journalism.)

Diana earns more than P7,000 on a good day. For her, financial freedom working in the sex industry was better compared to her present job.

“’Yong sweldo ko ngayon para sa isang buwan, isang gabi ko lang ‘yan dati,” the 27-year-old former sex worker said.

In March 2020, when President Rodrigo Duterte placed the entire Luzon under enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) due to the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19), the tourism-dependent province of Palawan was among the first to be economically hit due to the travel restrictions imposed. The pronouncement was made at the start of the peak travel season when local and global tourists abound in the province.

Most tourism-related workers and key stakeholders thought it would be over after a few weeks, she said. But that had not been the case.

BAYWALK PRINCESS―More “authentic” nightlife in Puerto Princesa City Baywalk lined with small resto-bars as a go-to place for local tourists. (Photo by Geoffrey Delahaye)

Struggling to make money due to a lack of tourists in a travel-restricted, isolated island province, Diana was forced to look for “more decent” jobs before burning through all of her savings.

She was eventually hired as a COVID-19 marshal, working for the city government to implement health safety protocols among the general population.

Within a year, she hopped in between jobs, from being a manicurist to being an online seller of goods to being a home service masseuse.

“Walang kahit anong [negosyo ‘yong] bukas noon kasi bawal naman lumabas ‘pag ECQ o GCQ ‘di ba. Kaya syempre dapat resourceful―nag-online selling din ako ng mga gamit at home service [ng massage],” she added.

Flickering neon lights

Palawan’s commercial sex trade is not as comparable to those of other prominent Philippine tourist destinations. There are no consolidated red-light districts even in Puerto Princesa City, the island’s capital.

More than 70 percent of visitors to Palawan go to Puerto Princesa City, which serves as an international hub, where they stay an average of four nights, spending around $168 per night.

This spurred economic growth and urbanization, which most likely resulted in the “proportional growth” of the sex industry.

Even in El Nido, a world-renowned tourist destination having consistently topped the list of the “best islands in the world”, the nightlife is much more low-key than in Puerto Princesa or other destinations, but with similar opportunities to “meet” local girls.

Nightlife and “pick-up girls” are usually offered in bars and clubs all across Palawan province, most of which are in Puerto Princesa City and El Nido.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, local bars charged upwards of P80 for a bottle of beer and P250 for ladies’ drinks, a portion of which goes to the girls who are “charged at the table” by mostly foreign solo travelers.

Sex offers for one of these women range between P3,000 and P4,000 as “bar fine,” depending on how young and confident the woman is.

Sex workers can also be seen along the “Tourism Mile” in the dark areas of Rizal Avenue or Don Pedro Vicente Park at about 10 p.m. for a “short time”, looking for quick and easy customers. The bright and vivid neon lights attract the attention of every tourist walking down the street lined with bars and restaurants that stretch up to Abrea Road.

The most popular way to “meet” women is through dating apps and sites for those who are “curious” about meeting a foreign national. As a tourist hotspot, many local and foreign travelers informally arrange dates for some “dinner and drinks,” with casual offers of island travel and getaways.

Civil authorities recognized sex tourism as a social concern that even resulted in the enactment of a resolution by the Sangguniang Panlalawigan to tap certain establishments for monitoring and documenting cases of child abuse and prostitution.

CAPITOL’S OPEN SECRET―Sex workers can also be seen along the dark areas of Rizal Avenue or Don Pedro Vicente Park about 10 p.m. for a “short time”, looking for quick and easy customers. (Photo by Geoffrey Delahaye)

Sex exploitation

According to a 2018 report by the Department of Justice-Interagency Council Against Trafficking (DOJ-IACAT), Palawan was among the “most vulnerable provinces to human trafficking and sex exploitation.”

The commercial sex trade had flourished as the number of local and foreign tourists increased, especially during the peak travel months, which were primarily driven by unemployment and poverty that made men, women, and even children vulnerable to illegal activities for quick bucks.

“Documented cases indicate that the incidence of prostitution, pornography and trafficking of children was higher in areas considered as tourist destinations. Among the most popular sex tours destinations in the country include Palawan, Boracay, Aklan, and the Cities of Baguio, Olongapo, Batangas, San Fernando, Angeles, Manila, Bacolod, Cebu, Davao and Zamboanga,” read the report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

The province also topped the region with the highest recorded incidents of human trafficking, with 1,322 rescued commercial sex victims and a record 324 cases from 2001 to 2016, according to a report from the International Justice Mission (IJM).

The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) noted that while tourism contributes to the economic assets of the country, it has also become an instrument in the further exploitation of children and women.

In 2019, the most recent available data from the local social welfare office reported two minors, both of whom were teenage girls below the age of 16, as the latest reported victims of commercial sexual exploitation of children.

Tourism loss

The tourism industry was among the top income drawers in Palawan province and its independent city of Puerto Princesa.

The number of international tourist arrivals to the country significantly dropped in 2020 compared to the previous year. From around 8.26 million foreign tourists coming to the Philippines in 2019, this decreased to just about 1.5 million in 2020 due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, after which the country implemented a nationwide lockdown, causing a tremendous impact on its inbound tourism market.

When the country was placed under lockdown in March 2020 and continued until its gradual easing of travel restrictions in October 2021, an estimated 24,000 tourism workers in Puerto Princesa City and Palawan had been reportedly displaced because of a lack of tourist arrivals, according to the tourism department.

This number, however, does not include the “informal” tourism workers under the commercial sex trade, which among other things, also included an intricate system that involved “girlfriend experience,” where tourists usually pay a woman for accompaniment during the course of their stay in the province.

In December 2021, more than a year after it closed its borders to outsiders, Puerto Princesa City is eyeing reopening its doors to leisure travelers in a bid to revive its local economy, which is primarily hinged on tourism.

Meanwhile, the northern Palawan tourist towns of Coron, El Nido, and San Vicente reopened their tourism industries early in November 2021.

From January to December 2020, Puerto Princesa City’s tourism loss was P5.45 billion, a steep 80 percent drop in revenue compared to the same period in 2019, according to the Department of Tourism (DOT). Tourist arrivals dipped to 71,889 from 1,170,083 as lockdowns were declared and tourist destinations were forced to close after the pandemic struck in March of that year.

According to the DOT, the three top tourist destinations in northern Palawan—Coron, El Nido, and San Vicente—incurred losses amounting to P3.1 billion in tourism revenues, and resulted in some 14,000 displaced tourism workers.

Demetrio Alvior Jr., assistant city tourism officer, said consultations with the Incident Management Team (IMT) had been set up for suitable guidelines to be followed by stakeholders and relevant agencies.

“Kino-konsulta pa ang City Health Office (CHO) at ang IMT kung ano ang mga protocol na gagawin para ma-ensure ang safety ng mga mamamayan. ’Yon na rin ang direksyon ng city government. That is why nagme-meeting kami kung ano ang mga strategy ang gagawin,” he said.

The City Tourism Department (CTD) previously aimed to accept visitors from outside Palawan in mid-March, but the plan was postponed due to a surge of cases in Metro Manila.

The travel bubble plan, similar to those being used in El Nido, Coron, Busuanga, and San Vicente, was also suspended in early August because of ongoing COVID-19 surges in the National Capital Region.

Fresh start

According to Republic Act 9208, or the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003, as amended by Republic 10364, or the Expanded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2012, it is unlawful for any person to commit acts related to trafficking in persons, prostitution, or attempted trafficking in persons.

However, poverty and a lack of job opportunities remained the top drivers of illegal sex work—a systemic issue that needs to be addressed from the ground up, according to the social welfare department and other non-government organizations.

“Kung mabibigyan naman ng opportunity, why not ‘di ba? Hindi ko rin naman gustong gawin ‘yong ginawa ko pero pag hindi ako kumilos, marami kaming magugutom―titirik lang mga mata naming kung aasa lang kami sa wala nga,” Diana said.

Asked if she is eyeing returning to her previous job as a sex worker upon the expected return of tourism in the province, she added that she will maintain her blue-collar job even if it means switching from one work to another.

“Bahala na,” she said.