Manila’s makeover

6 May 2024 by BusinessTraveller
Makati Skyline (Credit Nikada/iStock)

New infrastructure developments make it easier to navigate the bustling metropolis and discover the growing crop of creative districts.

It hasn’t always been the easiest city to explore, something Coldplay would attest to. In January 2024, when the band performed here, lead singer Chris Martin was so shocked by Manila’s traffic that he sang an impromptu ditty about its congested roads.

It’s true, Manila can seem chaotic, particularly in neighbourhoods like Binondo, the world’s oldest Chinatown – a place where jeepneys (beautifully painted buses cobbled together using leftover parts from vehicles abandoned by US soldiers) dodge wooden handcarts being pulled through its streets, but that’s part of its charm.

In reality, there are cities with worse traffic, and Manila is also becoming much more accessible these days. The Philippines Department of Tourism introduced Manila’s first Hop-On-Hop-Off (HOHO) bus in 2023. Stops include the National Museum, Binondo and Intramuros, and there’s a slick dedicated website (philippines-hoho.ph) and app. There are also plans for a new Philippine national railway service, which will connect downtown Manila with Laguna, Quezon and Camarines Sur, known for its palm-fringed beaches.

Greater connectivity is also occurring off-road. In October 2023, United Airlines launched new San Francisco to Manila flights, while in November, Hong Kong-based Greater Bay Airlines’ direct flights to Manila took to the skies. In late 2023, Cebu Pacific increased flights between Manila and Sydney to five times a week, and last month, Philippine Airlines added a third weekly flight between Manila and Toronto.

There’s a new international airport on the horizon, too – in 2028 the New Manila International Airport is scheduled to open in Bulacan, 30 kilometres north of the capital. It will have an initial capacity of 35 million passengers annually, with a target of 100 million passengers once complete, and is intended to provide a solution to the capital’s air traffic congestion.

By 2029, Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) will also be served by a new metro line. The Metro Manila Subway Project, an underground railway, will slash journey times between Valenzuela (north of Manila) and NAIA from 90 minutes to 35 minutes. A word of warning – transferring between NAIA’s terminals is somewhat stressful, although the decision in 2023 to start using Terminal 2 solely for domestic flights has eased congestion. All international flights now operate out of the (larger) Terminals 1 and 3.

Jeepney on route (Credit Marcus Lindstrom/iStock)

Accommodating change

These improved transport connections are long overdue given the size of Metro Manila, and have encouraged the development of new hotels. In Parañaque, to the south, the four-star 350-room Seda Manila Bay opened in August 2023. It’s a family-friendly property close to the Palacio de Memoria Mansion museum. Nearby, Banyan Tree’s first Philippines outpost, Banyan Tree Residences Manila Bay, is due to open in 2026. To the east, the 303-room Westin Manila opened in March 2023 in the Ortigas Central business district, while slightly further north, the 286-room Ibis Styles Manila Araneta City opened in Quezon City in March 2024, becoming Manila’s first Ibis property.

This particular hotel is next to one of Manila’s newest malls, the Gateway Mall 2, which opened in late 2023 and is an extension of the Gateway Mall, creating a retail, leisure and hotel mecca covering around 400,000 sqm. Malls of this size are nothing new in Manila – the largest one is Pasay’s SM Mall of Asia, with around 600 shops and restaurants, several cinemas (including an IMAX), a laser tag complex and an ice skating rink. It’s connected to the Conrad Manila, which has some 2,000 sqm of event space and was named the Philippines’ best MICE hotel 2023 at the World Mice Awards.

MICE is a growing priority here, and if the Department of Tourism’s plans come to fruition, Manila will have 171,000 sqm of exhibition space by 2030 (up from 71,000 sqm in 2017), while MICE arrivals are expected to grow by 3 per cent annually over the coming years.

Arnold Gonzales, who heads up the tourism board’s MICE team, is feeling confident. “Recent upgrades in transportation, including the modernisation of Ninoy Aquino International Airport and the expansion of the expressway, have improved access and mobility, making business travel smoother,” he says. “Additionally, there’s the development of state-of-the-art business districts, while the government’s dedication to fostering a pro-business environment through favourable incentives has been instrumental in attracting foreign investment.”

There’s also more emphasis on sustainability. At the new Westin Manila, for example, bed linens are made not from cotton polyester but from fast-growing bamboo and eucalyptus. At the Conrad Manila, executive sous chef Patricia Mesina tells me that hydroponically grown vegetables and herbs are now incorporated into almost every dish served at the hotel, and more ingredients are being sourced from local suppliers. Another reason these suppliers are in high demand relates to the evolution of Manila’s food scene and a growing pride in Filipino cuisine.

“Many people consider the first ‘modern’ Filipino restaurant to be Toyo Eatery, which opened in Manila in 2016 and features regularly on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list,” says Alex Destriza, the Peninsula Manila’s executive sous chef. “Since then, there’s been a proliferation of similar concepts – restaurants like Hapag, Lampara and Metiz – run by chefs specialising in modern Filipino cuisine.”

Manila on two wheels

Manila is boosting its sustainability credentials in another way – by encouraging people to saddle up. Its first network of bicycle lanes recently appeared in Intramuros, Manila’s oldest district. Many of these lanes shadow ancient fortifications that surround Fort Santiago, built by the Spanish in the 1500s. Visitors unsure of where to cycle can do as I did and join a tour by Bambike, founded by Filipino-American Bryan McClelland. The bikes are made by employees of Gawad Kalinga, a Philippines-based NGO designed to help lift locals out of poverty. My guide, Steven, believes the tours are important when it comes to raising awareness of cyclists. “There are now bike paths in other areas, such as Makati,” he says. “There’s still a long way to go, but there’s definitely progress and we believe our tours can help because locals get used to seeing cyclists.”

The starting point for my ride is Bambike’s offices in the centre of Intramuros, a stone’s throw from the UNESCO-listed San Agustin Church, with its beautiful ceiling frescos. Another highlight is the Plaza San Luis Complex – nine townhouses rebuilt after the Second World War in the style of 19th-century properties built by the Spanish.

For most of the tour, we follow the city walls surrounding Fort Santiago. History lessons at ancient gateways, such as the cannon-topped Puerta Real, behind which are beautiful sunken gardens, provide fascinating insights into Manila’s past. At Plaza de Armas, a leafy public square inside Fort Santiago, we dismount and pause next to a statue of Filipino war hero Dr José P Rizal, imprisoned in Fort Santiago and accused of inciting rebellion by the Spanish. His execution in 1896 – seen as martyrdom by Filipinos – fuelled the fight for independence from Spanish colonial rule. The cell in which he spent his final days stands just a few metres away. Inside, another statue depicts a bowler-hatted José Rizal (a Filipino writer and polymath) clutching the notebook containing his final words – the poem Mi último adiós (“My last farewell”).

Bonifacio Global City (Credit Michael Edwards/iStock)

Cosmopolitan cool

It’s a long way from Bonifacio Global City (BGC), a business district on the other side of Manila, which I visit later that day. The spectacular transformation of this former US military base began in the 1990s, when the government set about transforming former bases into business districts and thriving communities. Thirty years later, BGC is threatening to steal nearby Makati’s crown as Manila’s foremost central business district – although BGC feels very different.

To start with, it’s walkable – a place where people can walk or use bike lanes that weave through pocket parks and leafy pedestrianised plazas such as One Bonifacio High Street. Here you’ll find art installations, independent boutiques and a branch of Because Coffee, a hip Filipino coffee brand. The plaza’s colourful guitar-shaped bicycle stands are another reminder of the growing popularity of cycling.

There are other features that prevent the area feeling like an identikit business district, too. At Shangri-La The Fort, for example, visitors are greeted by a seven-foot Boni the Bull character, inspired by the Philippines’ national animal – the carabao, or buffalo. The BGC Arts Center, which recently hosted the globetrotting ‘Van Gogh Alive’ exhibition, is another reminder of BGC’s diverse appeal. Business travellers aren’t just drawn here by gleaming malls and five-star hotels but the green space and nods to the country’s heritage. It might be one of Manila’s swankiest neighbourhoods, but it still feels distinctly Filipino.

It’s also just a short hop – five kilometres, to be precise – from Poblacion, the city’s hippest hood. Wander its leafy lanes to find Manila’s coolest restaurants, bars and coffee shops – places like Coffee Art Tea, where I sip peach tea and admire paintings of Manila by local artists. Or nearby Good Sh*t Coffee, with its Scandi décor and groups of local cyclists restoring energy levels with freshly baked pastries.

Coffee shops, bikes and a friendly bull called Boni? The new, improved Manila has truly won me over – Coldplay, you don’t know what you’re missing.

Words: Tamara Hinson

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The cover of the Business Traveller May 2024 edition
The cover of the Business Traveller May 2024 edition
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