Rejected (Philippine Star)

There’s no denying it: the rejection of the Philippines’ bid to host the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup was made more heartbreaking by the fact that the country lost to China.

The winners were gracious in victory, saying the Philippines proved to be a worthy opponent. FIBA officials also said it was a difficult choice, but only one country could host the games.

By most accounts, the quality of infrastructure was a decisive factor: our lack, and China’s abundance. China plans to hold the Basketball World Cup in the cities of Beijing, Nanjing, Suzhou, Guangzhou and Shenzhen already renowned tourist and investment destinations plus the lesser known cities of Wuhan, Foshan and Dongguan.

We can expect the three cities to invest heavily in better infrastructure in preparation for the international event. China does this extremely well, as we saw in the Beijing Olympics and the World Expo in Shanghai. Its track record in this department gives some credence to apocryphal tales going around that the Chinese scoffed at the quality of Philippine infrastructure, starting with our airports, for hosting a global sporting event.

FIBA officials praised the Philippine delegation for a persuasive presentation, but we simply couldn’t compete with China’s world class sporting facilities that were built for its coming-out party, the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.

This is like our tourism executives doing a great job at marketing “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” to the world, only to see the country falling short when it comes to hotel accommodations, transportation facilities and other tourism infrastructure.

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The jab at the quality of our airports can be particularly painful, coming from a country where, not too long ago, I was stranded for several hours in a suffocating, crowded, dirty, noisy airport. I was taken by bus with other plane passengers to an equally crowded no-star hotel near the airport so we could catch a few hours of sleep. I had to share a room with a Chinese woman with whom I communicated by hand gestures.

Beijing has since been on an airport upgrading and construction spree even in its tribal areas, which are tourism draws.

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In our case, Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez has no say in airport operations, which are under the Department of Transportation and Communications, strictly the turf of the administration Liberal Party.

These days, with the NAIA Terminal 3 fully operational, the original Terminal 1 is looking better with less congestion. But there’s still heavy runway traffic, because the lack of night landing capability in our secondary airports forces our gateways to allow only daytime flights. The NAIA also lacks a flight management system that is used in other countries such as the UK that can speed up takeoffs and landings even with limited runway capability.

Earlier this year, I had to stay buckled to my seat for two hours as my flight sat on the runway waiting to be cleared for departure. Passengers aren’t allowed to leave their seats and move around the plane when the doors have been closed and the aircraft is preparing for takeoff. This made the grueling long-haul flight even longer.

The flight crew kept apologizing, saying airport management wanted additional documents that had to be obtained from the airline’s hub in another time zone. But I believe it was a case of what several people in the aviation industry have told me that airlines stuck in traffic at the NAIA are ordered to tell passengers any reason other than the truth that there’s a long waiting line for takeoff and landing because of limited airport capability.

For 2016, Malacaaang is proposing to allocate P10.2 billion for the improvement and construction of airports and seaports. That’s not a lot, considering the amounts poured by other Asian countries into similar projects. Filipinos have to pay about P1,700 to travel overseas. Earlier this month, when I checked in at the NAIA 3 for my flight to Indonesia, there were long lines at the travel tax desk. Where does the money go?

From the airport, World Cup participants will have to battle Metro Manila’s traffic on heavily polluted streets. The mass transportation system is unreliable, and there’s a high risk of being mugged or losing personal stuff to snatchers and pickpockets. Participants will have to be sternly advised against taking the light railway services.

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Smog can still make you sick in Beijing, and the Olympics were held in the shadow of the melamine and other tainted food scandals. But sustained economic growth and strong Communist Party control have allowed the country to rapidly modernize its infrastructure.

The first time I visited China, Beijing was still dominated by drab gray communist-industrial architecture, the equally drab Mao apparel was still common, bicycles ruled the streets, and Shanghai’s Pudong district was still largely flatland.

My fellow tourists (mostly Tsinoys) fortunately brought their own instant coffee sachets as there was no coffee to be had except in a handful of hotels, which were also the only place where I could get Western-style desserts. I couldn’t believe how wonderful a bar of Dove chocolate could taste after two weeks of steamed Chinese rice cakes and sweet potatoes (the best I’ve ever tasted) for my sugar fix.

Today Starbucks are ubiquitous in China. The bicycles have been replaced by BMWs, Mercedes Benzes, VW Touaregs and Audis. Pudong has an impressive modern international airport. There are French patisseries in many cities. Roads continue to be built and more airports are coming up.

In our case, it took four years, from approval by the National Economic and Development Authority, to build a four-lane, four-kilometer road linking the South Luzon Expressway to Daang Hari in Las Piaas. The connector road’s entry near the Susana Heights interchange is still not open.

Efforts to decongest Metro Manila have moved at snail’s pace because of the cost to the public. A middle-class family has to spend a hefty amount for daily toll on principal thoroughfares, with more toll roads soon to crisscross the capital and surrounding areas. Those who want to avoid traffic must also pay up to P1,000 a year per car for the use of roads in gated subdivisions.

For those without private vehicles, moving away from the heart of Metro Manila means about four hours of daily commute in horrendous traffic plus of course higher fare expenses.

Overcrowding takes its toll on already inadequate infrastructure and public services. Our rejection by the FIBA is just the latest wakeup call on what must be done.