I have been there a few times before, mostly when I was still young. I spent a couple of nights at Fontana. I remember that vacation well. It’s where I fell in love with the Beatles’ “Something”. But I digress.
Clark seemed like a very far place to me. You drove through congested highways in the high summer sun. You take the Angeles exit from NLEX and you still have to go through a few more roads before you cross the Friendship Gate. Once there, things feel very different. The sun is still bright, but the roads are quieter, and there seem to be more trees.
I felt that way when I went to Subic as a young boy, too. This time, you exit at San Fernando, and drive a pretty long distance before reaching your destination. You get to Subic and you get the same feeling. It seems much more different there.
Both destinations are not, by all means, the farthest I have gone to as a kid—my grandfather is Ilocano and we spent many Holy Weeks in Dingras, which means 18-hour drives punctuated by multiple stopovers. But in those cases, the trip was part of the vacation. Going to Clark meant sitting in a cramped car with all your clothes for the weekend for a long time.
A lot of things have changed. Travelling to Clark is now pretty fast—faster if you avoid the eternal rush hour of Metro Manila. I left Cavite at five in the morning and was at San Fernando two hours later. If I didn’t have to stop for breakfast, I could have gotten to Clark at half past seven. Such is the convenience afforded by recent infrastructure projects improving connectivity between Metro Manila and major regions in northern Luzon, notably the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway. Trips to Subic are much shorter, too. And a recent trip to Ilocos was dramatically shortened by SCTEX and the connecting, albeit still unfinished, Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway.
When I was young, I remember Subic and Clark for having all those facilities from foreign companies, those that I don’t see in and around Metro Manila. I was fascinated with seeing all those planes from FedEx at the airport in Subic. They may have exited in favor of Guangzhou, but the region remains attractive to major international firms. Clark, for instance, is now home to facilities from Yokohama Tires and Texas Instruments.
The transport hubs in both former American military bases have been upgraded, and are still being upgraded. People paid attention to Subic as an alternate shipping base after woes hit Manila’s ports. Same with Clark’s airport as NAIA steadily got more congested: back then only budget airlines operated out of Clark International Airport, but now international carriers such as Asiana, Emirates and Qatar Airways are serving it, alongside PAL and Cebu Pacific.
Both freeports are looking to enhance connectivity further with plans to build a cargo rail line linking the two. There is also increased investment in infrastructure and additional capacity for manufacturing, BPOs and tourism. Subic and Clark are no longer just exotic-looking weekend getaways: they are now an essential plank of our economy, and an important gateway to major economic hubs in the north of Luzon, like Baguio and Cabanatuan.
It is with this backdrop that SCMAP, last week, established a new chapter serving northern Luzon, based in Clark. This is in recognition of the region’s notable contribution to the national economy—and positive odds on its future.
Long-standing efforts to attract new investment (and decongest Manila) are bearing fruit—and who knows, we might see a new center of gravity, at least in Luzon, in our lifetimes. Now, all we need is to keep at it, to work with what we have and build on past successes—which reminds me of that unsolicited proposal to build an “aerotropolis” in Bulakan, Bulacan. Why can’t we just build on Clark? That already has some pieces of the puzzle.
Henrik Batallones is the marketing and communications executive of SCMAP. A former board director, he is also editor-in-chief of the organization’s official publication, Supply Chain Philippines.