A piece for The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi from my recent book-research trip to the Philippines, where the home town of “Dirty Duterte” has become an unexpected tourist hit
DAVAO, PHILIPPINES // From trekking and surfing through to orchid gardens and tribal art museums, the city of Davao in the southern Philippines boasts no shortage of tourist attractions.
Yet as well as the delights of traditional tribal culture, it now offers a heritage trail of an altogether grittier kind. As the former power base of the country’s new strongman leader, Rodrigo “Dirty” Duterte, the city is cashing in on its past as the test-ground for his hardline law and order policies.
Visitor numbers have surged since Mr Duterte, who openly boasts of killing drug dealers while serving as Davao’s mayor, was elected as president last May. While his policies may have outraged human rights groups and the wider world, the story of how he turned Davao from a crime-plagued slum into the Philippines’ safest city is something many Filipinos want to see for themselves.
For some, the thrill is taking a walk through the litter-free downtown streets at 2am — a pastime not best advised in other Filipino cities. For others, it’s the chance to marvel at by-laws like the 30 kph speed limit and smoking ban in public places — both all the more novel in the Philippines by dint of actually being enforced. Indeed, for fans of the president, an on-the-spot ticket for speeding or lighting up is the ultimate souvenir.
First stop on the trail for many is the city tourism office, where a cardboard cut-out of Davao’s most famous son stands next to racks of teeshirts saying “I love Davao”. Originally made for the elections, the cut-out is now a must for tourist selfies.
“I came here for a vacation partly because I wanted to see how things are here under Mr Duterte,” said Roi Javillo, mimicking Mr Duterte’s famous “iron fist” salute as friends photographed him alongside the cut-out. “It’s strict here, but it also feels safe. I like Duterte — he has the guts to make effective laws.”
In the tourism office, manager Regina Tecson reels off statistics showing the effect of the “Duterte factor”. Last year, there were 1.8 million visitors — an increase of 20 per cent on 2015 — and figures so far this year suggest a similar rise again. While some are passing backpackers doing a spot of so-called “dark tourism”, most are ordinary Filipinos.
“I’d say half those people are here because this is ‘Duterte-land’,” she said. “He is promising to make the rest of the Philippines safe too, and people want to see if what he did down here lives up to the hype.”
As far as Ms Tecson is concerned, the answer to that question is a firm “Yes”.
A Davao native, she remembers the bad old days of the 1980s, when the city was plagued by banditry and attacks from the Communist-backed New People’s Army guerrilla group. So frequent were gun battles that it was nicknamed “Nicaragdao” after the civil war then raging in Nicaragua.
“I had very good friends who were kidnapped and robbed, and once I saw someone shot dead in front of me on my way to school,” said Ms Tecson, who wears a “No to Terror” badge round her neck. “When Mr Duterte first became mayor in the late 1980s, the first thing he did was sort out law and order. We Filipinos need a strong hand, and he brought discipline.”
The nuts and bolts of how he did so are now part of the tourist trail.
One of his main innovations was a network of CCTV cameras around the city — standard crime-fighting practice in many western capitals these days, but new to the Philippines at the time. The Public Safety and Security Command Centre, as it is known, now has open days for visitors, including dignitaries from other cities who want to copy it.
True, tourists are well aware of the dark side of the Duterte legend. Ms Tecson admitted that at the Davao Crocodile Park, another major attraction, jokes were occasionally made about “how fat” the crocodiles were — a reference to a recent Senate inquiry into the alleged “Davao Death Squads”, where one self-confessed hitman claimed to have fed a suspected kidnapper to a crocodile pond.
But most tourists come to celebrate Mr Duterte rather than criticise him. Shops selling bumper stickers, key fobs and badges are all doing a roaring trade.
And so too is Sana’s Carinderia, a modest cafe that he first frequented as an up-and-coming Davao prosecutor.
Proprietor Porferia Valles, who has photos of the young Mr Duterte on the wall, now gets several hundred extra customers a week, all ordering his favourite carabao beef tapa, a dish of spicy shredded beef.
“Before he became mayor, it was very troublesome round here — we got robbed twice in this restaurant,” said Ms Valles, as a dozen-strong church group posed for the obligatory clenched-first photos. “He was brave enough to get them out of our city, and now that he’s president too, I feel I’m flying on clouds.”
Finally, no Duterte tour would be complete without a nightcap at the plush Marco Polo Hotel, where he still occasionally sings in the piano bar. Visitors cannot linger too late though — as mayor, Mr Duterte banned nightspots from opening beyond midnight.