Homegrown militants in the Philippines are increasingly turning their focus to holiday hot-spots, potentially spelling trouble for the tourist-dependent economy.
Tourism makes up around 10 percent of national gross domestic product and the sector is seen as a key growth driver for the country. But Western embassies have issued travel warnings for three of the country's most frequented destinations — resort islands Cebu and Bohol as well as the popular Palawan province — over the past month amid kidnapping risks to foreigners.
Philippine terror network Abu Sayyaf, whose name translates to 'bearer of the sword' in Arabic, is the primary suspect. Around 10 of its armed members infiltrated Bohol last month and unsuccessfully attempted to kidnap tourists, according to reports.
Map courtesy of the National Counterterrorism Center
No militants have been spotted in Palawan yet, and officials said they have deployed all assets to prevent terrorists from entering.
Despite a series of high-profile kidnappings targeting foreigners across its stronghold in the southern provinces, specifically Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago, Abu Sayyaf has yet to significantly hurt the number of foreign arrivals — the latest government data showed a 5.36 percent annual increase in visitors for February.
However, the group's recent activity presents a brewing threat to tourism, warned Eufracia Taylor, Asia analyst at political consulting firm Maplecroft. The majority of its ventures are around Mindanao and Sulu so pursuits outside of these regions are significant to the country's broader security environment, she noted.
The foiled raid in Bohol took Philippine officials by surprise, remarked Zachary Abuza, professor at the Washington-based National War College. "It was a shock that they targeted what was otherwise a very safe tourist destination."
If the organization successfully kidnap tourists in favored holiday destinations, tourism would certainly be affected, said Victor Manhit, managing director at the Philippines team of Bower Group Asia.