Welcome to Manila
Manila houses roughly the same number of people as Manhattan, 1.6 million, in less than two-thirds the land area – at 111,000 residents per square mile, it is the most densely populated city in the world. Given the small size of the Philippines (not much larger in area than California, but spread across 7,107 islands) Manila is not only the capital city, but the center of almost everything. It is situated in the northern part of Philippines along sun-soaked Manila Bay, one of the finest natural harbors in the world.
Throughout its long history, Manila has come under the influence on many foreign cultures and powers. It first rose to prominence as a major force of trade in East and Southeast Asia under the Indianized Kingdom of Tondo, founded in the 10th century, and gained in influence when it became part of the Sultanate of Brunei around 1500. The Spanish Empire came knocking in 1565, bringing with it the Roman Catholic religion and many Latin cultural influences. Following the Spanish-American War, the island chain was ceded to the United States in 1898 as part of the Treaty of Paris. English became the common language during this time. Following WWII, during which Manila was all but completely destroyed in what became the bloodiest battle in the Pacific Theater, the United States ceded its sovereignty on July 4, 1946, giving birth to the modern Philippine nation. As part of the “Golden Age” that followed, Manila rebuilt and regained its reputation as “Pearl of the Orient” that it had before the war.
As few passenger ships sail into Manila Bay, you’ll almost certainly touch down at Ninoy Aquino International Airport just a few miles south of the city proper. The Manila Light Rail Transit System is only indirectly connected to the airport, so from there you might catch a bus, or better yet, a Jeepney. These unmistakable, flamboyantly decorated vehicles were originally improvised from surplus U.S. army jeeps left after WWII and have since become a symbol of Philippine culture. They’re also known for being suffocatingly crowded, but go ahead, that’s part of the fun. Don’t worry too much about losing your way – unlike almost all other Asian cities, almost everyone is fluent in English, which is the language of the national education system and the language of most business.
What Manila lacks in square footage, it more than makes up for in concentration of life and culture. Spanish colonial administrators did a haphazard job of laying out the city. Streets occasionally follow sensible right angles but quickly devolve into chaos as competing grids vie for directional dominance. This spider web takes a little getting used to – the best place to start is Rizal Park, also called Luneta Park, in the very heart of the city. The park contains both Chinese and Japanese gardens, the Manila Planetarium and the Rizal Monument, named for the Philippines’ national hero, the pacifist Dr. Jose Rizal. On the outskirts are the Museum of the Filipino People, the National Library of the Philippines and the National Museum of the Philippines. Abutting the park to the north is one of Manila’s most famous attractions, the Intramuros or “walled city.” With construction taking place intermittently since the 1500s, plus a restoration after the ravages of war, Intramuros is something of an architectural record of Manila’s history. Inside the walls you’ll find numerous historic churches, schools, convents and institutions in various states of repair from brand new to ruins.
Manila offers enough entertainment to suit the tastes of just about anyone. Nobody can resist Manila Ocean Park, opened in 2008. The world-class oceanarium hosts over 10,000 marine species native to the region, and boasts an 82’ underwater tunnel. It also includes the attached Hotel H₂0 – yes, you can book a suite with a giant aquarium for a wall. A little further inland you can catch a basketball game, the Philippines’ most popular sport, attend a show at one of Manila’s many theatres, or just hit the streets for some shopping. You could hit a standard mall, but it might be fun to explore Divisoria, the city’s massive, unbound, open-air street market. Almost every imaginable product can be found there, and usually at a low price. Finally, if grit is more your style, cockfighting is a popular local pastime, and there are a number of local fighting pits, but it might not be for everybody.
An Economic Beating Heart
Manila forms most of the core of the Philippine economy. It is the seat of the national government, the financial industry and the publishing industry, as well as a major manufacturing center. Metro Manila comprises 33% of the nation’s GDP, so it’s useful to think of their economic health together – things are going well for both. Although China and India steal all the headlines these days when it comes to economic growth, the Philippines is also a force to be reckoned with. The country bounced back impressively from the global economic downturn, recording 7.6% growth in 2010. A short period of decline in growth followed, but the country far outperformed world expectations in 2012, which has more than a few economists predicting a bright future. Today it is the world’s 44th largest economy, but it could leap to 16 by 2050 if recent trends continue. Goldman Sachs includes the Philippines in its list of the “Next Eleven Economies.”
A large and growing part of the economy is business-process outsourcing (think call centers) due to very strong English skills, cultural familiarity with the west and, the key factor, low wages – per capita GDP in Manila proper is under $14,000 USD, with the surrounding municipalities ranging from $3,000-$30,000. The industry was non-existent a decade ago, but raked in $11.25 billion USD in 2011. And there’s very real potential for it to double by 2015. Whether you’re looking to invest these enterprises, or take advantage of their affordable services, opportunities abound in this sector.
Manila is a major center for tourism, drawing the most foreign visitors of any city in the country, almost 1.5 million in 2010. Tourism is seen as a promising investment, and the national government has announced its goal to triple arrivals to the Philippines to 10 million people by just 2016. This is of course fueling a construction boom in hotels and other accommodations that has been giving the economy a noticeable boost in recent years.
None of this is meant to paint a rosy picture. Infrastructure in Manila is fairly good, but nationwide it is painfully underdeveloped and this will be a major hurdle for the country in the next decade. Another problem is income distribution: The national poverty rate is around 40%. Sustained high GDP growth will help alleviate this statistic, but it won’t fix things altogether, and social tensions arising from inequality could pose a major problem in the future.
Looking at the big picture, with its growing economy, English-speaking population and sunny disposition, Manila is a great place to visit and invest.