Is The Philippines Safe? The Places Travelers Should Avoid

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Find out which provinces in the Philippines you should avoid before you book your trip. From military areas to kidnapping hotspots, here is everything travelers need to know.


A soldier in camouflage in the Philippines Photo © iStock/suc

The Philippines is a spectacular and engaging country but also has a higher crime rate than most Asian destinations. This is why it’s important to understand which areas of the country pose the most risk to tourists.

Exercise caution throughout the Philippines

The majestic seas, dense rainforest, delicious food, and warm people of the Philippines make it an alluring travel destination. But it must be noted that it is one of the least safe countries in the Asia-Pacific region, according to a recent report by German research company Statista.

On that company’s order and security index, the Philippines ranked above only Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India, and Bangladesh. It found that the Philippines had higher rates of murder, theft, robbery and assault than most countries in the region. This doesn’t mean the Philippines should be avoided, only that tourists need to be cautious.

Security situations here are fluid, so before you visit be sure to check the travel advice offered by your home Government. Typically, these authorities advise it is relatively safe to travel in the northern part of the Philippines, but that far greater danger abounds in its south.

Manila is both safe and dangerous

Most international tourists land in the Philippines in Manila, the colossal national capital, home to more than 15 million people. Like so many of the world’s big cities, Manila has areas that range from very safe to genuinely dangerous. But few metropolises have such a stark disparity between wealthy and poor areas, which sometimes exist almost side by side.

For example, the Ayala Triangle area of Manila is so modern, clean and safe you could easily think you’re in downtown Sydney or Toronto. Yet just a mile west are rundown neighborhoods where houses are protected by barbed wire and windows covered in metal bars.

The most crime-riddled areas of Manila are its slums, which include parts of Tondo and San Andres. The former is just north of the city’s best attraction, the ancient Spanish citadel of Intramuros. The latter, meanwhile, is only a mile or two east of touristy Manila Baywalk, where many upmarket hotels are located. Both Tondo and San Andres should be avoided by tourists.

These giant slums provide residents with inadequate housing, health, education and employment services. As a result, crime flourishes. Some of Manila’s slums are controlled by gangs, and these criminals typically are armed, because the Philippines is awash with hundreds of thousands of unregistered guns, according to research by the University of Sydney.

Tourists in Manila should avoid public displays of their wealth. Keep your cash, jewelry and mobile phones hidden from view whenever possible. Manila is a fascinating city with wonderful people. But it’s also a dangerous place for naïve travelers or tourists who wander into the wrong neighborhood.

A street basketball match in Manila
A street basketball match in Manila. Photo credit: Flickr/Marcin Gabruk

Mindanao is a complicated destination

Tourists who seek Philippines travel advice online will encounter endless websites advising against all travel to Mindanao. Not that I would contradict them, rather I would note that its security situation is complex. The US State Department’s advice on Mindanao is level three, which means “reconsider travel”. But both it and the UK Government advise against all travel to the western part of this island.

They explain that terrorist and militia groups in this area carry out bombings, kidnappings and other violent attacks, sometimes specifically targeting foreigners. Rather chillingly, the State Department warns that “the U.S. government has limited ability to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in Mindanao, as U.S. government employees must obtain special authorization to travel there”.

The second-largest island in the Philippines, Mindanao has for decades been a haven for Islamic extremists. In recent years, hundreds of people were killed as Marawi City was under siege by terrorists for five months. That city is in western Mindanao, which traditionally has had greater security problems than the island’s east.

The complexity I foreshadowed relates to Mindanao’s capital, Davao, and its renowned tourist attraction Siargao. Davao, in the island’s southeast, is widely considered one of the safest cities in the Philippines. Tourists are less likely to face trouble here than in many other metropolises in the Philippines. Davao’s low crime rate is because the city is crawling with police and soldiers. That extreme security presence is necessary because of the dangers elsewhere on the island.

Meanwhile, tourists are also quite safe on Siargao, the magnificent tropical island in the northeast of Mindanao. Surrounded by a flawless coastline, Siargao is revered for its diving and surfing opportunities. It is isolated from the civil unrest in western Mindanao, which is 300km away.

Barbed wire at Mendiola Street, a thoroughfare in the district of San Miguel, Manila
Barbed wire at Mendiola Street, a thoroughfare in the district of San Miguel, Manila. Photo credit: Wikimedia/Ramon FVelasquez

The Sulu Sea is magnificent but riddled with pirates

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbataha Reef is a massive marine park with some of the best diving spots in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, this popular tourist attraction is also in the dead center of the Sulu Sea, one of the world’s piracy hotspots.

Although this sea, west of Mindanao, is patrolled by the Philippines navy, it’s so large that pirates still run amok. Each year, dozens of tourist boats, cargo ships and fishing trawlers are targeted by pirates, many of whom are linked to violent Islamic extremists, the Abu Sayyaf Group.

These seafaring criminals also occasionally kidnap passengers they perceive to be of high value, particularly foreigners. Tourists should carefully consider any boat excursion in the Sulu Sea. Fortunately, there are many other marine wonderlands across the Philippines that are safer, including Coron, Anilao, Verde Island, and Malapascua Island.

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