Traveling to Pag-asa island: 2013

At over 300 kilometers west of Palawan, the islands of the Municipality of Kalayaan are among the most remote communities in the Republic of the Philippines. It is in the same league as Basco in Batanes, and Mapun (Cagayan de Sulu) and Bongao in Tawi-Tawi.  What sets this municipality apart, however, are the a unique combination of barriers-to-access that have greatly retarded its development. This article explores those challenges.

Travel period

Travel to the island is only advisable within a narrow window each year. As per reports from the office of the municipal mayor, the interval between April of May presents the best weather conditions for both sea and air travel. As will be described later in this article, optimal sea conditions are essential for travel by boat.

While weather information specifically for Pag-asa is unavailable on various online weather Websites, Weather.com publishes weather information for nearby Song Tu Tay island — formerly Pugad Island.

http://www.weather.com/weather/5-day/Song+Tu+Tay+South+West+Cay+VMXX0030:1:VM

Travel by air

From the air, Pag-asa’s defining feature is its 1.3 kilometer runway: Rancudo airfield. It is an unpaved coral airstrip, covered for the most part, by grass, named after a forward-thinking Commanding General of the Philippine Air Force who had it constructed in the early 70s.

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As per a Memorandum of Agreement between the Armed Force of the Philippines and the Municipality of Kalayaan, signed in October 5, 2005, the airfield is open for joint civilian and military use. However, no regular commercial flights visit the island.

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To date, Rancudo does not appear on the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines’ (CAAP) official list of airports and has not been rated as a civilian aerodrome. The latter reportedly presents aircraft charter companies with potential aircraft insurance issues, thus serving as a deterrent to service. As per the above agreement, responsibility for having Rancudo rated as an aerodrome rests with the municipality — whose attempts to initiate the rating process, thus far, have been unsuccessful. Rejuvenated efforts to pursue certification are currently underway by way of the KIG development forum FB group and on Timawa.net

Despite the lack of  a civilian rating, on July 20, 2011, a Dornier DO-228 became one of the first chartered commercial flights to land on Pag-asa island. The passengers (which consisted of a congressional delegation and other government dignitaries) chartered the plane at a cost of PhP65,000 per flying-hour and PhP7,000 per hour on stand-by time, for a total price tag of P1.8M. The rates quoted were a function of the aircraft type and cheaper alternatives would have reportedly been available. The impact of the unrated airstrip on overall cost is unclear at this point.

Travel time to Pag-asa by air is approximately two to three hours by propeller-driven aircraft.

dornier

Travel by sea

As of writing Pag-asa island does not have port facilities. Ships, therefore, have to weigh anchor off-shore — exposed to the waves of the West Philippine Sea — and transfer cargo to shore via small boats. This greatly limits the times of year when the island is accessible by sea, as well complicates disembarkation of potential investors and tourists. The struggle to build this port is chronicled in the following article: Timeline: Kalayaan Sheltered Port Project.

In addition to passage on-board Philippine Navy transports that reach Pag-asa on a quarterly basis, Pag-asa residents also travel to and from the Palawan via the MARINA-rated municipal service boat: M/L Queen Seagull. This is a 200-ton-capacity wooden boat that can get underway at 9 knots. From Puerto Princessa, via the Balabac strait, it can reach Pag-asa in 56 hours under favorable weather conditions. When sailing from Ulungan Bay on the western side of Palawan, total travel time is 32 hours. Arguably, much too lengthy a transit for most visitors.

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Red tape

Of the nine occupied islands and above-water outposts that make up the municipality, only Pag-asa island — the seat of the municipal government — is currently open for civilian occupation. The rest of the municipality is restricted to military use. In addition to military personnel, Pag-asa hosts a community of fishing families and municipal workers that have established a variety of livelihood activities on the island and have even setup a municipal health center and an elementary school for the 20 children that call the island home.

The heavy military presence, and the international controversy over sovereignty over the islands and the waters around them, mean that anyone who seeks to travel to Pag-asa must obtain clearances from various Philippine government offices.

The Kalayaan Extension Office (KEO) in Puerto Princessa is available to assist potential travelers wade through the clearance system. The municipality maintains excellent rapport with the Western Philippine Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which has jurisdiction over the islands, and is therefore familiar with requirements at that level — which until a few years ago had largely been issued for domestic travelers.

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The system’s complexities are particularly pronounced when dealing with foreign tourists. The KEO discovered this to its dismay in 2011 when an Australian-led international group of ham radio enthusiasts attempted to organize an expedition on Pag-asa. As related by the incumbent mayor, The Civil Aviation Administration of the Philippines (CAAP) would not approve a flight plan to the Pag-asa without clearance from the AFP. The AFP wouldn’t grant such clearance without approval of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). The DFA, in turn, did not appear to have a clear policy about granting foreigner-access to the island. The resulting delays eventually scuttled the expedition.

As of writing another group, this time led by Fil-Am enthusiasts, is gearing up for an ham radio expedition in 2015. With two years of advanced preparation time, the KEO, in cooperation with volunteers from various sectors, hopes to sort out all relevant procedures before the targeted expedition date.

Of the four key hurdles: weather, air access, sea access, and red tape — the latter is both the principal show-stopper, as well as the issue that should be the easiest to address. It is, after all, merely procedural and can resolved if all relevant agencies simply get together and work out a process.  The reward for such inter-agency cooperation, is best exemplified by the Malaysian Spratlys outpost on Layang-Layang, which boasts of a thriving international diving destination with regular air transportation to its concrete runway — despite being co-located with a Malaysian Navy base.

Today, travel to Pag-asa Island is exceedingly difficult. Only the hardiest, or individuals with professional interest, would dare to visit the island. But with the build up of attention to the territory thanks to the power of social media and the efforts of ordinary Filipinos who were willing to take action beyond mouse-clicks and keyboard strokes, those difficulties are expected to diminish over time. The fate of the 2015 ham expedition will be an acid test for these efforts.