Terrorism, scams, and urban crime. Is safe travel in the Philippines possible? Read up and find out!
Safety is an understandable concern of tourists given the constant news of political instability and crime. But traveling by nature is unsafe. How do you guarantee maximum enjoyment while having a safe travel in the Philippines?
As a Filipina, in a Third World country who’s not particularly sheltered, safety is a matter of survival on a daily basis. Every day, the majority of us are exposed to threats. We have learned how to adapt, trust our gut, and avoid dangerous situations.
I’m sharing this knowledge with you; not to scare you, but to motivate you to go past unfounded fears:
#1 Conflict Areas and Terrorism
Perhaps one of the primary concerns of most tourists in terrorism. After all, it’s a problem even in First World countries.
The primary thing to know is that, generally, you don’t have anything to worry about when it comes to terrorism in the Philippines. Filipinos in most regions are not living in constant fear of terrorism, spare for the very few that close to the rural jungles and conflict areas.
Some long-standing conflict areas, especially in Mindanao region, are extremely beautiful. However, the local government either has advised tourists against going, or has taken steps to protect tourists (such as Sulu) who insist on going. Common terrorist schemes are kidnapping and bombing of public spaces, but it’s not like it happens frequently. They mostly occur indiscriminately but often sporadically.
Majority of the Philippines is terrorism-free. But for precaution, be sure to watch the news and look out for your government’s advise.
#2 Petty Crimes in the City
Terrorism may not be a problem. But to have a safe travel in the Philippines, it’s the petty crimes in the city that you should watch out for.
Crimes in cities all over the world are just generally higher because of the high concentration of people. Most of these petty crimes occur on the streets or within a mode of transportation. Better to keep your guards up. Plus, you might want to learn some common petty crimes in Manila:
Jeeps. When riding crowded jeeps in the city, thieves can slash the side of your bags using a cutter without you noticing. Your phone and wallet can fit through the small hole. Better to note where your seatmates’ hands are, and keep your arms close to your bag. If you sense something suspicious, don’t hesitate get down and take another jeep instead.
Taxis. Before the apps Uber and Grab became popular, a taxi modus we all watch out for was when taxi drivers would put chloroform-sprayed hankies on the taxi’s air conditioning system. It makes the passengers drowsy or unconscious, in which they can get robbed, or worse, raped. Keep observing your driver and lower your windows slightly. Better yet, just download the Uber and Grab app for your own safety.
Footbridges. Make sure that the footbridge you’re crossing with is well-lit. A predator might put their arms around you and point a sharp object at your ribs so you won’t make a scene. Some footbridges in Metro Manila have their own security guards. But for your own safety, walk fast, ignore suspicious strangers, and cross in groups.
Motorcycles. Keep your phones and bags close when you’re on the sidewalk. A popular modus has earned its own name: “Riding in Tandem”. It’s where the tandem on a motorcycle snatches your phone or bag and make an easy escape. Outside of bank ATMs and residential areas are common target areas.
Bars. Anywhere you go, someone might try to contaminate your drink to make you unconscious. I can’t really advise you to drink with only people you know since Manila nightlife can be spontaneous that way. But make sure to keep an eye on your drink, and buy your own. Better yet, bring a buddy when drinking with strangers. Know your limits and avoid getting too drunk alone with strangers.
#3 Travel Scams
Tourists Here are just some tricks that you might fall prey into. Thieves are getting smarter in coming up with new tricks to extract money from tourists and locals alike. These scams are not just found in the Philippines, but the rest of the world:
Broken taxi meters. In general, even Filipinos have an aversion towards riding taxis because some drivers can be dishonest. This can take in the form of not turning on their meter, not giving your change because they don’t have smaller bills, or charging you extra for traffic and rush hour. Make sure to establish that you’re paying according to the meter and that it’s turned on once your trip starts. Know also that there’s a law that they should always have change. Better yet, download Uber and Grab apps for your convenience.
Special Rides. If you’re going on a “special ride”, meaning renting the entire service vehicle, make sure to establish first the price before hopping in. Some rides might overcharge you just because you didn’t settle the price immediately. That’s universal, be it horse-drawn carriage rides or tricycle rides.
Ativan Scam. A common scam is having a member of a family approach you (typically a solo traveler), get to know you and lower your guard, and offer to tour you around Manila. At the end of the day, this friendly-looking family will offer you drinks like you think stereotypical hospitable Filipinos do, drug you unconscious, take your possessions, or worse, rape you. Know that Filipinos are generally shy and do not buy other people drinks.
Sob Stories. A vulnerable-looking person or a beggar will approach you and tell you stories usually related to poverty such as not having enough money to go home, buy medicine, or buy food. Then, they will ask for your money. While most of these stories may be true, sometimes it’s best not to talk to strangers to avoid further implication.
Free Charms. It usually occurs near places of worship where a stranger will offer you a bracelet or charm “free of charge”, put it on your wrist or hang around your neck, and then demand money. Better to avoid them or say no immediately.
Spit on your shoulder. You might be sitting next to two scammers who will say you have some a spit on your shoulder. They’ll offer to help you clean up, while the accomplice will get your phone and wallet inside your bag. Say no and get down immediately.
Is it safe to travel the Philippines… alone?
A short answer is yes. The only concern is that it’s generally more economical and safe to travel in groups.
Solo traveling in the most basic sense is common among locals, but seeing foreigners do the same may be surprising to some of us. Don’t be surprised that a lot of Filipinos will warn you of the dangers and ask you why you’re vacationing alone, especially if you’re a woman. It’s not because we’re a highly patriarchal society that thinks women can’t travel solo (in fact, most Overseas Filipino Workers are women). It’s also not because we we live in constant fear and worry.
I guess it’s that we have seen much more crime here than you have locally and may be more suspicious of each other than you are. Add the fact that We also love doing things together with our family and friends, especially if it’s something as exciting and potentially expensive for a Third World country as travel.
So please don’t be like some tourists who get annoyed by the warnings and caution.
Is it safe to travel the Philippines… with President Duterte in power?
One of the greater concerns of foreign nationals when visiting the country is our new president. There are well-published documentation on extra-judicial killings on drug-related crimes. Not to mention, some alarming statements against international organizations and even countries. The recent death of a Korean national, too, may have worsened our touristic and safety reputation worldwide.
Again, without delving into the political debates, I would generally say that you will have a safe travel in the Philippines even with President Rodrigo Duterte as our president. There are more undocumented cases of tourists enjoying their trip harm-free and without a sense of fear. Unless it’s drug- or sovereignty-related, the President leaves traveling foreigners alone.
How to have a safe travel in the Philippines
Now that you have been forewarned of the local terrorism and criminal situation, you’re ready to move to the next step. To ensure you’ll have a safe travel in the Philippines, keep this common sense tips in mind:
Arm yourself. Keep your batteries charged and always bring cash (preferably, smaller bills). Should you get lost, GPS and offline maps can come in handy.
Communicate. As a general rule, make sure someone is aware of your whereabouts and how to contact you. Give them bread crumbs to trace you with, such as the name of the hostel you’re staying in, your itinerary for the day, the WiFi/phone signal status of the place, and your expected time of arrival. Someone should know when and how to notify the authorities during emergencies.
Talk to (the right) locals. You might want to connect with local Couchsurfers or travel bloggers who can provide you helpful information about safe travel in the Philippines. While Filipinos are known for being hospitable and excellent in the English language, talking to complete strangers on the streets might have some risk.
Watch the news. Know our current affairs before flying in. While you’re here, keep your ears peeled for relevant news about the places you’re visiting. Watch the news, read the papers, and observe. It’s better to be forewarned.
Maintain vigilance. Traveling in the Philippines will take your breath away. But that doesn’t mean you should throw caution in the air. Follow your guts, find a Plan B, and leave some space for skepticism whenever you’re out and about. When in doubt, research and ask questions to the right people.
No doubt, you will hear various advice on traveling the Philippines. You’ll hear horror stories about terrorism, street crimes, and tourist scams. But you’ll also here ones that say, “Not at all threatened here!”
The thing about travel is to get to discover a place on your own pace and way. I hope you don’t let other people’s stories become your own. I’m not downplaying the acts terrorism, the risk of crime, or the losses of life and possession in the Philippines. The risks and threats are there.
But chances are if you believe that sensational crimes happen daily and worldwide, you probably will be too scared to even leave your house. So take this guide on safe travel in the Philippines. Know it by heart and enjoy your trip!