When it comes to major Asian metropolises, Manila tends to get overshadowed as a luxury travel destination. The competition is fierce. In Euromonitor International’s list of the most-visited cities in 2015, five spots in Asia made the top 10 (Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, Macau, Kuala Lumpur), yet Manila didn’t even crack the top 100. But that will soon change, as the world’s fourth-largest city finds its way to being a singular destination among the luxe places to visit this year.
The Philippines capital carved a new niche for itself as a glitzy gambling hub different from any other. Mega casino resorts like Solaire, City of Dreams and Okada Manila (which will have its grand opening in the summer) are helping the city rival Macau and Singapore. By 2019, Resorts World Bayshore, a fourth integrated resort — those sprawling complexes with luxury hotels, fine dining, gaming, entertainment and a host of other facilities — will make Manila its home, thus putting this underplayed city as a center of gaming in the region.
A Luxury Destination
As the city establishes itself as a luxury destination, Forbes Travel Guide unveiled its first ratings there. Manila debuted on our 2017 Star Awards list with a pair of Five-Star hotels (Marco Polo Ortigas Manila and Sky Tower at Solaire Resort and Casino), a quartet of Four-Star properties (Fairmont Makati, Hyatt City of Dreams Manila, Raffles Makati, Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila) and two Recommended hotels (Makati Shangri-La, Manila, Pan Pacific Manila).
“Manila is one of the fastest-growing cities with a lot of economic activities, and due to this, there is an increase in the number of high-end brands coming to the Philippines, be it retail, experiential travel, beach destinations, diving, etcetera,” says Rajesh Jhingon, senior vice president of resort operations at Five-Star Solaire Resort & Casino.
Frank Reichenbach, general manager of Five-Star Marco Polo in the Ortigas business district, also sees tourism on the rise. “Luxury travel has greatly evolved the past years with the arrival of more luxury brands and the improved economic situation in the country,” Reichenbach says. “For many years there has been luxury travel to some of the Philippines top island destinations, but now more are also staying in Manila.”
The newest hot spot attracting a number of those tourists to Manila is Entertainment City, where the integrated resorts are located.
“Solaire is the first premier integrated destination resort to open in the government-sponsored economic development zone known as Entertainment City,” Jhingon says. “Solaire has built a very impressive integrated resort with a high level of attention to the details of its interiors and facilities that has changed the way people view destination resorts in Manila.”
Beyond the casinos, Manila beckons with other attractions. Theater is a big one, with big-name shows coming to town. Wicked opened this month at Solaire’s 1,740-seat theater. City of Dreams caters to adults with CenterPlay, a theater stage in the middle of the casino that hosts live performances, and kids with DreamPlay, an interactive experience that lets children join activities inspired by movies like Kung Fu Panda and Shrek.
You’ll also find vast nightlife options. Vu’s provides wine, Mediterranean tapas and amazing skyline vistas from Marco Polo’s 45th floor. VIP gamblers can gain entry to the members-only Macallan Whisky Bar in Solaire for single malts and hand-rolled cigars. The Peninsula Manila’s unforgettable Salon de Ning serves Ning Slings (Belvedere Orange, lychee liqueur, passion fruit juice, orange juice) in a series of eclectic-chic spaces, like a boxing room in honor of champion Joe Louis, a shoe room with hundreds of pairs and a Zeppelin-themed alcove with Godzilla peeking through a window.
Of course, there are also the beaches. While Manila offers its own sandy shores, you can take easy day trips to sunny spots such as Laiya in Batangas, Puerto Galera in Oriental Mindero and Anawangin Cove in Zambales.
Manila’s standing as a Five-Star city goes beyond its sparkling new casinos and top-notch resorts. Filipinos have a well-earned reputation as warm and hospitable people. In fact, acerbic host Anthony Bourdain filmed a 2016 episode of his TV show Parts Unknown to find out “why so many Filipinos are so damn caring.”
“It is the genuine, warm, pleasing and professional service and welcome of the people that shines through and the fluency in English wherever you go,” Reichenbach says. (He’s not overstating it — the country’s official languages are both Tagalog and English.)
“Service from the heart delivered with a smile and with elements of dance, music, and fun thrown in is all part of the service culture,” Jhingon says. “With more than 7,000 islands, the country has developed its cuisine from different provinces and past influences. The love for song and dance, art, culture and family is universally imbibed in everything that they do, and all this reflects in the way the Filipinos approach the service business.”
Allaying Safety Questions
As the government works to elevate luxury tourism by developing infrastructure like highways, tourism and high-caliber entertainment, the country remains plagued by headlines of crime from the president’s anti-drug campaign.
“There seems to be a misconception about safety issues. Having lived the world over, I can say with confidence that Manila is no different from any city in the world,” Jhingon says.
“Every city has a few places that you want to avoid, but overall Manila is extremely safe. There are thousands of expats that work and live with their families and travel throughout the country, visiting its various islands, beaches and holiday spots. Some of the biggest musical concerts and conventions take place on a regular basis here.”
“There are very strong and visible actions being taken to maintain and improve safety and security in Manila,” Reichenbach adds. “Compared to other capital cities in the world, Manila is still safe and hosted without any incidents the APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in 2015], the Miss Universe and the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] conference in 2017. The high economic growth confirms the investors’ confidence in the Philippines.”
In short, Manila will earn its keep as a safe city, as it is far from those troubled areas you keep hearing about on the news.