In my earlier post, I listed 5 reasons why travellers should put Tawi-Tawi on their bucket lists. The province is a paradise but it has suffered a negative stigma due to decades of conflicts and insurgencies in nearby provinces.
Add to this stigma news reports about tourists getting kidnapped, and you have a province struggling to promote its tourism, despite its richness in culture and natural resources.
Because of these, safety and security are still the top concerns for foreign and Filipino tourists planning to visit Tawi-Tawi.
When I went to the province on the first week of June, I had a great time talking to the youth, interviewing locals for my stories, and giving talks about social media. Never in my 3 full days there did I ever fear for my safety.
Maybe it was because I was traveling with Philippine Marine soldiers who helped us organize our event, or because we stayed in the congresswoman’s resort. But even if I was travelling alone, I would not have been afraid.
I don’t claim that Tawi-Tawi is 100% safe because it’s neighboring province of Sulu certainly is not. I’m just saying that the Tawi-Tawi I saw is different from how the media has portrayed it for the past decades. There weren’t sounds of gunfires at night or armed men walking in the streets. I saw a peace-loving people with so many stories to tell.
So, to answer the most enduring question about travelling to the province – “Is it safe to go to Tawi-Tawi?” – here are some tips about safety and security based on my first hand experience in the southern most tip of the Philippines.
1) Coordinate with the tourism office
Upon disembarking from the plane, you’ll see the Tawi-Tawi Tourism Council office beside the arrival area. I highly encourage you to consult them about your plans in the province. Aside from giving you the best suggestions on where to stay, they’ll be able to advise you which areas you should not go to.
You can even ask them for a suggested itinerary depending on the length of your stay. They can help you arrange everything – the speed boats you’ll use if you want to go island hopping, your hotel bookings, and even your tour guide should you need one.
One very important tip though: stay in your suggested itinerary and heed the tourism office’s advise. The kidnapping cases in the province in the past happened because the tourists deviated from their itinerary without advising the tourism office. Tawi-Tawi is safe but like many unexplored places, it’s not a travel destination where you can just take a spontaneous trip to one island.
Ask help from the tourism office and follow their advice. This will make your trip in Tawi-Tawi safe and fun!
2) Respect the religion
Tawi-Tawi is a part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Thus, most of its inhabitants are Muslims. Islam is also the province’s greatest heritage! So it’s a matter of courtesy to respect the religion while you’re there.
Unlike other Islamic provinces in the Philippines, Tawi-Tawi is more liberal so to speak. Non-Muslim women are not required to wear a hijab except when entering the province’s mosques.
Yes, you can enter the mosques of Tawi-Tawi and even talk to the local imams about the way of life in the province. They are very friendly and willing to share their stories. When visiting Tawi-Tawi, you need to visit the Sheik Makhdoum mosque in Simunul Island, the first every mosque and cradle of Islam in the Philippines, and the Grand Mosque in the town of Panglima Sugala.
Don’t expect a colorful nightlife in Tawi-Tawi, too. Though you can buy alcohol in the market, they don’t have bars or clubs you can go to. Locals here live a simple and peaceful life so this is expected. But you can consume alcohol in public and it won’t be frowned upon. Bring alcohol when you visit Tawi-Tawi’s pristine beaches like what we did!
Just be respectful anywhere you go and you’ll have no problems.
3) Don’t insult local tradition
Aside from the Muslim majority, Tawi-Tawi is also home to many tribes. Thus, they uphold many centuries-old traditions.
It’s not really a big deal because the tribes are peaceful but you don’t want to insult them when you visit their communities. This is where meeting with the tourism council becomes useful as you can ask them about the traditions that you should know about before setting out on your adventures in the province.
In every community we visited, we were served fresh seafood and rice delicacies. Though I got full during our first stop, I made sure to eat whatever was served to me. This is because it’s considered disrespectful not to eat whatever the Samah communities serve. Though some of these communities are poor, they’ll make every preparation to make sure your visit is worthwhile.
Also, it’s considered disrespectful to shake people’s hand using your left hand. Always use your right hand when shaking people’s hands then touch your chest using the same hand afterwards with a slight bow. This is a very beautiful gesture of respect that I also saw in Brunei.
4) Don’t flaunt your stuff. Bring only necessities.
This is a very basic rule when traveling, right?
Unless you’re there for business, I don’t suggest bringing a laptop or other gadgets to the province. Just enjoy the treasures of Tawi-Tawi and disconnect from the busy city life. You won’t have use for them anyway since Internet connection in the province is horrible.
Also, don’t bring too much money when you visit. The people of Tawi-Tawi are very amicable so you don’t want to tempt them into committing crimes just because you flaunt too much of your stuff. As I said, life in the province is simple and we want to keep it that way to preserve the culture of Tawi-Tawi. A P10,000 to P15,000 budget is more than enough for 3-4 days in the province.
When you go to Tawi-Tawi, it will change all your notions and biases against the province. You’ll meet very friendly people who follow traditions that are both intricate and beautiful. You’ll fall in love with its natural wonders that play a big part in the people’s lives. Most importantly, you’ll realize that it’s safe in the southern most tip of the Philippines.
Tawi-Tawi has a big potential to being the next best travel destination. Go there while it’s still undiscovered!
After visiting the province, do your share and spread the word about this wonderful province. You’ll help the tourism council and the locals a lot by doing so.