Kidnapping Danger in the Southern Philippines

Even the most experienced travelers ignore warnings about the risk of kidnap in the south of The Philippines at their own peril.

Traveler in Philippines

It might seem like a big adventure to go to less-travelled parts of The Philippines, but be warned, you'll be taking a big risk if you ignore warnings about the kidnapping of foreigners.

When Does a Philippines Adventure Become Too Risky?

Back in February 2012 three foreign nationals on an adventure trip in the far south of the country were kidnapped by Abu Sayaf. Kidnappings by this criminal/terror outfit often do not end well.

Ransom is one of the methods used by Abu Sayaf to fund their long-running campaign for an independent Muslim state in this part of the predominantly Christian country, and they don't care how long they have to hold their captive until they get paid. Australian man Warren Rodwell, who was not a tourist but lived in the region with his Filipina wife, was taken just before Christmas 2011. He was finally released in June 2013. There's been no comment on whether the $2million ransom was paid in full, in part, or not at all.

Back to the foreign travellers in February 2012. According to local authorities the men were travelling between remote islands in the Tawi-Tawi group to capture images of rare birds. They were spotted by gang members in a passing motorboat. They stopped them and took them captive at gun point. An unlucky encounter, or a calculated risk gone bad?

The danger to foreigners in this region is well known. Most governments tell their citizens not to go there under any circumstances.

(British Foreign Office map of travel advice for Philippines, with our arrow added)

There‘s evidence they were also warned about the risk by local authorities. Tawi-Tawi Governor Sadikul Sahali told The Associated Press he sent along a town council member and an off-duty police officer because the foreigners had refused an armed escort.

There must have been a big incentive to go to this notoriously dangerous region, maybe bragging rights at the bird watching club, or more likely, big money from wildlife magazines for shots of a rare Sulu Hornbill? Maybe they calculated they didn‘t want an armed escort because a Marlboro-smoking goon with an AK-47 scares the birds away just before you press the shutter button.

Avoiding Danger & Unacceptable Risk in the Philippines

It might seem like a big adventure to go to less-travelled parts, but it is important not to let your sense of adventure blind you to the real risks. Those travel warnings are in place for a reason. Plus, local knowledge is always best, if the provincial governor wants you to take an armed escort, listen to him.

But in the end it‘s up to each person to make their own call on the level of risk they‘re prepared to accept. These photographers deliberately put themselves in harm‘s way, went to a region where kidnapping is a real risk, where they know it will be extremely unlikely they‘ll be able to get emergency assistance of any kind. Would you be surprised to learn there‘s no way a regular travel insurance policy would cover them, and their home governments are powerless to help? No, me neither.

There are some amazing things to lure the adventurous to this region. Whether it's a pristine beach surrounded by clear blue waters, or a rare Sulu Hornbill bird.... but you have to ask yourself is it worth the risk?

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6 Comments

  • William said

    Phil,

    Your article is quite informative, thank you.

    I have a question, I will be travelling to the Philippines in December going to the Cebu area and possibly the island of Siquijor, since they are close to northern Mindanao and Zamboanga Peninsula, do you know of any instances of problems for tourists (ie: kidnapping, terrorism) in those areas? There is a ferry that goes to Siquijor and was wondering if you heard of know of any issues in regards to pirates in that area. The Australian gov’t posted ‘Recent attacks have also created concerns that these groups have the capability to target locations frequented by tourists in southern Palawan, southern Negros or Siquijor’ . I am aware of the risks when travelling and of course nothing can be guaranteed but wanted your opinion.

    Thank you.

  • PhilSylvester said

    Hi William,
    sorry for taking so long to get back to you.
    We have a Q&A forum where these questions get answered more quickly and by more people than just me. go to http://answers.worldnomads.com/
    I haven't seen any reports about pirates or kidnapping there. All the reports say it's a pretty safe place. But that's only anecdotal evidence. I've got nothing hard evidence-wise.
    Go over to answers, there's bound to be someone who's been there recently.

  • karl pyatt said

    Hello i am traveling to manila and laguna and aklan province in november are these places safe also is zamboanga safe too .thankyou in advance for your advice

  • Mike said

    From UK. Have visited Mindanao a few times. At Kidapawan bus terminal, waiting for a van to Davao, had to wait for the next one. The dispatcher made a phone call; a plain-clothed policeman turned up, hurriedly. Chatted to me most of the way; obviously assigned for security. He jumped out at first Police station in Davao, just after we crossed the security screening, on the road, at the city border force. Kidapawan also has checkpoints, Police and Military, on the highway.

  • Lyn said

    Are Digos and Davao safe places to go?

  • Aaron said

    Wife's family is in Isabela City, Basilan. We want to visit but...

    My Filipina wife's family lives in Isabela City, Basilan. We want to visit but we are very concerned about the risks involved. Any recommendations on the travel to Basilan, getting around the city, and hopefully staying as unnoticed as possible would be great.

    Would it just be safer to fly her entire family out to see us in another like Cebu?

    (FYI - recaptcha is not working on your Q/A page.)

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