EDITOR'S NOTE

Red Carpets and ASEAN Lanes: Are we ready to host these summits?

Red Carpets and ASEAN Lanes: Are we ready to host these summits? image

Vince Pornelos / AutoIndustriya.com, Atty. Karen Jimeno | November 14, 2017 15:30

Can the Philippines really stage these summits without declaring holidays?

If you clicked this thinking it's about that former beauty queen, well it's not. Sorry.

For the last few months (and more intensely, weeks) our government has been busy preparing for something known as the ASEAN Summit. The event is a major gathering of leaders and ministers of the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and dialogue countries like Canada, China, and the United States.

Red Carpets and ASEAN Lanes: Are we ready to host these summits?

What some may see as a lavish withdrawal from our taxes (an expensive bill amounts to about PhP 15 billion, according to various reports) over the short term is vital in the long run. Among the many other benefits to us as a member of ASEAN, the most apparent ones are the tariff-free (or near tariff-free) exports and imports within the free trade area, the diplomacy between regional and world leaders to strengthen ties and stave off state-level conflicts. And it's particularly convenient to travel with the visa-free status of the member states of ASEAN.

But the real issue with events like the ASEAN Summit being held here boils down to a rather simple reality: We are not ready.

As expected, most of the events are centered in Metro Manila, specifically the Philippine International Convention Center, or PICC. There was talk of having the meetings and other functions in far more decongested places like Clark, but the number of appropriate hotels are simply inadequate to accommodate many of the ministers and, most importantly, the heads of state coming over. That is, unless they wish to stay at the hotels along Friendship Highway.

So Manila will have to host it, prompting a logistical nightmare simply because our transport network is exclusively above ground: planes, trains, and automobiles. Scratch that; with the exception of the PNR and the LRT2, we don't have relevant trains in the metropolis, mostly they're woefully inadequate trams masquerading as trains.

The logistics are very familiar: the arrangements are similar to the Asia Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) held here in 2015. Airports were to be disrupted to make way for special flights like Air Force One. It's not much of a problem for a sprawling airport like Clark with parallel runways, but it's an issue for Manila's sole runway for take-offs and landings: Runway 06/24 (the shorter Runway 13/31 can't take landings). Make no mistake, Manila's primary air hub is at capacity. Or over it.

And then there's the urban road network; like the airports, we don't need to say that it's over congested given. You know it is. As expected, the immediate roads surrounding the function areas in Pasay City and Manila are fully or partially closed off. The APEC lanes -the left-most lanes of EDSA so designated by orange cones and/or barriers- became exclusive ASEAN Lanes for dignitaries and ministers. It also doesn't bode well that a lot of the roads are under construction, particularly the Skyway Stage 3 that links NLEX and SLEX and the Skyway; if it had been finished by the time the Summit started, well, they wouldn't have needed special lanes on EDSA. At least we can show off our new NAIA Expressway to returning dignitaries; they were supposed to have been riding over it when they arrived for APEC in 2015.

We can bend over backwards by rolling out the red carpets for the venues, the planning for additional special landings at our airports, marking and designating special lanes for foreign ministers and dignitaries, deploying police and other peace officers to the streets, declaring special holidays, and putting up new fiber-cement boards on parts of EDSA. It's like performing a frantic top-to-bottom clean up we would normally do a day before a major gathering of guests at our homes, but at some point we have to realize the Philippines -like our homes- cannot physically host a major summit without major consequences.

To illustrate my point, let's look at our unsuccessful bid for the 2019 FIBA World Cup. The bid of the Philippines had three major venues with the Philippine Arena, the Mall of Asia Arena, and the Araneta Coliseum, along with three proposed new stadiums. The bid of China? All the arenas were already built. Together with the lackluster infrastructure, it's not hard to see why China won the bid; not even the presence of Manny Pacquiao proved convincing. They had the infra and we didn't. And still don't. 

As much as the special non-working holiday is a welcome respite, people do lose productivity and in turn, income. The national government shouldn't have to call off work and classes in the metropolis to accommodate visiting heads of state and ministers. And students: while it's fun to stay home for a week, schools and colleges do have a tendency to extend classes to make up for it. Sorry.

Hosting a series of conferences of this level is great for the long term especially with the amount of projects already proposed (particularly with the DOTr and their Russian counterparts), but every indicator points to the hypothesis that we can't handle these events yet, despite our government's best efforts. Someday when all the new infrastructure like the subway, the new expressway link, additional trains become operational, we can. Maybe then we won't see closures of critical roads like EDSA or dedicated special lanes. 

And we won't be seeing a former beauty queen proudly violating them.