• COMMENTARY

    A challenging job for Raul Lambino

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    For years, news that came out of the Cagayan Special Economic Zone and Freeport (CSEZFP) in Casambalangan village in Santa Ana, Cagayan province was mostly about Port Irene. It was about second-hand Japanese- and Korean-made cars that were periodically shipped there as imports. When throngs of people descended there, the hustle and bustle never seemed to end.

    But the Cagayan Economic Zone Authority (CEZA) is not all about Port Irene, or the trade of second-hand cars, which has ceased. As an economic zone, it has tremendous potential to host North Luzon’s biggest industrial park, complete with a township, serviced by an international seaport, and fully enabled by technology to transact business online with Asia and the rest of the world.

    Only a few days into the job, CEZA Administrator and CEO Raul L. Lambino is excited by the zone’s potential. He speaks about turning CEZA into a bustling economic hub—and perhaps even an eco-tourism haven of the north. That was his core message on July 24, when he took over the reins from Jose Mari Ponce.

    For those unfamiliar with CEZA operation, for years its online-based offshore gaming made it the first regulated interactive gaming jurisdiction in Asia. It was purely a regulator, unlike the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor), an operator. No actual bets or gambling transactions are done in the country. No bets from the United States and Singapore are allowed to enter the Philippines since they are barred through IP blocking.

    Because of its pioneering jurisdiction in Asia, CEZA cornered about P74 billion of the P136 billion (roughly 55 percent) Asian and Middle East online gaming (offshore) market in 2015. The remaining 45 percent, as shown by the H2 Gambling Capital, the gaming industry’s leading market data, was shared by Cambodia, Vietnam, Malta, Isle of Man, Latin America and other areas.

    But Lambino has ditched this market in support of Executive Order No. 13 which streamlines gaming operations in the country under Pagcor. This meant the cancellation of the permits of all its erstwhile-accredited gaming locators operating outside of CEZA, based mostly in Makati and at the former US Air Base in Clark.

    Interestingly, CEZA only got one percent of the two-percent shares of P1.496 billion hosting fee, the other one percent having gone to First Cagayan Leisure & Resort Corporation (FCLRC) as a master licensor, authorizing it to issue ‘interactive gaming” licenses.

    Lambino has already in mind a recovery plan. CEZA, he says, will shift its attention to labor-intensive, long-term investments in tourism-related ventures, real estate and power development and the propagation of agri-business.

    CEZA will expand its Cyber Park Techno Hub and Internet Data Center in support of its burgeoning BPO industry, the operation of the Cagayan North International Airport, and the Sta. Ana Regional Agro-Industrial Growth Center. The upgrades will keep it in pace with its advanced Asian neighbors.

    The Economic Zone and Freeport occupies the north-easternmost tip of Cagayan, cradled in the northern terminus of the Sierra Madre range. Its territorial jurisdiction of 54,000 hectares encompasses Sta. Ana, home of Port Irene, and Palaui island as well as Fuga, Barit and Mabbag islands in Aparri town.

    Immediately to the north are international shipping lanes pointing towards the major ports of Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, and the eastern seaboard of China. The Pacific Ocean to the east means open international sea routes to the South Pacific, Australia and New Zealand and the West Coast of North America.

    From Port Irene, going southwest, one could travel by car over a well-paved two-lane highway to the nearest airport, about 45 minutes away, in the town of Lal-lo. Called the Cagayan North International Airport, it has a new 2,100-meter-long, 45-meter-wide airstrip, which can accommodate single-aisle passenger carriers such as the Airbus A320 and Boeing aircraft of comparable size. The maiden flight is scheduled on August 23.

    The two access points, Port Irene and Lal-lo airport, are of extreme value in Lambino’s vision for CEZA. “It is critical that they are assigned the highest priority for development,” Lambino said, “in order to spur development of the eco-zone.”

    Port Irene is where he plans to begin the rebuilding process. Protected by a 1,000-meter breakwater, it will undergo repairs, like the dredging of its silted navigational canal. And it will have additional wharves to expand its capacity.

    Lambino is keenly aware of the reinforcing potentials of these areas in the development of CEZA. For this reason, to the mix he plans to include a new railway alignment originating from Tuguegarao City to Lal-lo and Sta. Ana and linking them to the rest of Luzon for both commuter and cargo services.

    Being the Zone’s fifth administrator, Lambino wants an investment-driven growth. “With due consideration to the existing partners that we have, I wish to add more local and foreign investors to participate in the development process,” he said.

    “We intend to expand the current CEZA 2017-2022 Medium-Term Development Plan by infusing bigger infrastructure projects and investments in different areas through an extensive investment and marketing campaign,” he added.

    The infrastructure projects are an expansion, he says, of the “Build, Build, Build” program under President Rodrigo Duterte’s 10-Point Socio-Economic Agenda.

    “I am positive that we can live up to the primary mandate of CEZA and make it the heart of economic activities in Northern Luzon, particularly Regions 1, 2 and the Cordilleras,” Lambino said.

    (The author is a native of Santa Ana, Cagayan. He is a Public Relations practitioner.)

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