Less than 100km away from Metro Manila, Clark International Airport in Central Luzon is an alternative air hub to Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Pasay City. But there’s much more to Clark than its easy accessibility and cheaper airfares — from its charming American-era barn houses to its tree-dotted fields as well as recreational spots like casinos and water parks, the area offers an interesting mix of history, nature and fun. The opening of New Clark City in time for the Southeast Asian Games also provides an exciting glimpse into the city’s future.
What is known as “Clark” encompasses the Clark Freeport Zone and the Clark Special Economic Zone (CFEZ), spanning Angeles City and the provinces of Pampanga and Tarlac in the northern island of Luzon. “Clark is provincial, and yet it’s very modern,” says Elen Lorenzo, assistant manager of the Clark Development Corporation (CDC) Tourism and Promotions Division. “You still get an American feel here, as if you’ve warped into a different [time and place].”
This “American feel” comes from Clark’s roots as a US military air base from 1946 to 1991; it was a pocket of Americana in the midst of sprawling rice fields north of Metro Manila. Today, nearly three decades after the Americans left, Clark feels like a city that straddles the past and the future.
Raised, whitewashed bungalows — formerly US officers’ quarters — are nestled under leafy acacia trees, harking back to a different era. Time seems to slow down here: Families pursue simple weekend pleasures like a late-afternoon picnic on the Parade Grounds and there is a noticeable, and welcome, lack of vehicular traffic. But a steady infusion of investment has also turned Clark Freeport Zone into a burgeoning economic hub — setting up New Clark City as a business and residential center and the next administrative center of national government.
Rising From The Ashes
The changes are already beginning to be felt. Elen says that, owing to Clark’s location and improved roads, more families from nearby Quezon City are turning Clark into their weekend getaway spot. Just a two-hour drive along the North Luzon Expressway and onto the Subic-Clark- Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX) takes you to the Clark exit heading to the Freeport Zone in Pampanga; farther along the SCTEX is an exit leading to New Clark City in Tarlac (the two areas are linked by an access road and are currently about 40 minutes apart; new infrastructure will significantly cut travel time in the future).
In the 1980s and early 1990s, the area had already enjoyed a similar reputation as a weekend destination, with visitors mostly driven by the novelty of US military bases. Thanks to the Clark Air Base and to the nearby Subic Bay Naval Base, the area was full of restaurants, shops and entertainment spots catering to the Americans, and so Filipinos would make the drive to gawk at the bases, buy foreign goods on the gray market, and get milkshakes and burgers at diners.
The American presence in Clark stretches all the way back to 1899, in the aftermath of the Spanish- American War. With the US Senate having voted to annex the Philippines, the military set up Fort Stotsenburg in 1903, eventually expanding to cover much of what is now Clark.
After that, the area’s fortunes waxed and waned over the years. There was a three-year period during World War II where it fell into Japanese hands and became the launching pad for kamikaze pilots. The Americans recaptured the base as the war ended, and held on to it for the next 46 years. In 1991, the Filipino government voted against extending the agreement with the US government regarding their military bases in the country, effectively sending the Americans packing. The same year that the Philippines took full control of the base, disaster struck: Clark and its surrounding areas were devastated by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo.
The second-largest eruption in the 20th century was felt around the world, temporarily lowering global temperatures, causing untold damage and hundreds of deaths, displacing thousands of people for years and burying Clark in volcanic debris flow, known as lahar. The once-green landscape was covered in fine dust that rendered the entire base useless.
But even as the residents were still reeling from the eruption, volunteers arrived in Clark to start rehabilitation efforts. The Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA) was created in 1992, tasked to turn the former military bases into assets.
Today, having risen up literally from the ashes, Clark is a powerhouse for the Philippine economy. It’s now a flourishing district for both business and leisure: Alongside multinational companies like Texas Instruments and Yokohama Tires that have set up shop here, hotels, amusement parks and sporting facilities have also multiplied in recent years.
Are We Having Fun Yet?
Clark International Airport, which was built from the remnants of the air base, is helping spur the growth in the area. International flights out of the new hub are bringing in both investment and tourism into Clark, jump-starting a cycle that has meant that the place is also becoming a more attractive option for air travelers and even weekenders coming up from Metro Manila.
The Clark Freeport, which encompasses the airport, sits between Angeles and Mabalacat cities, and is a compact 4,400ha zone with attractions such as the Clark Museum and 4D Theater, located just 10 minutes from the airport on the Sergio Osmeña side of the Clark Parade Grounds. Its four galleries provide a useful overview of the region, beginning with geography and then the modern history of Clark. Just an hour or so spent wandering through the small museum is enough to give you a quick yet detailed perspective of the place.
The Parade Grounds fronting the museum are becoming quite a popular hotspot for sporting activities, like fun runs or ultimate Frisbee tournaments (which it has hosted numerous times). In 2015, the former military grounds underwent a renovation that modernized the facilities, attracting both athletes and spectators to its many events.
Clark has long been known internationally as a destination for sports. “During winter in South Korea, many Koreans who play baseball and soccer come to utilize our open spaces for their practice [sessions],” says Elen.
Visitors come for other kinds of sports too — the area’s numerous golf courses are a big draw. Sun Valley, for example, built into hilly terrain on the west side of Clark, has 36 holes and offers scenic views of Mount Pinatubo and the Sacobia River. Likewise, the Fontana & Apollon Korea Country Club bills itself as a world-class golf club with its signature 441-yard 16th hole designed in the shape of Korea. Obviously, the golf courses are especially popular among Korean tourists, some of whom stay for months (if you need any proof of just how popular Clark is, you only need to visit Koreatown in Angeles City, on the other side of the SCTEX).
The wide-open spaces built into Clark have also been a godsend for other family-friendly establishments. Aqua Planet in Mabalacat is a 10ha water park featuring no less than 30 slides of varying heights, a 3,500m2 pool that simulates eight types of waves and shallow pools and sprinklers for the little ones. Seven kilometers away, within the Clark Picnic Grounds, Dinosaurs Island features lifesized animatronic dinosaurs in a Jurassic Park-like setting. Kids can learn about the prehistoric giants through a forest trail and museum. For an encounter with more modern creatures, the El Kabayo Stables in Subic Bay, just a kilometer away from Dinosaurs Island, mimics the American Wild West. Take the children horseback riding or hop on a carriage or trail ride before checking out the mockup general store — you’ll half-expect John Wayne to walk out of it.
The Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) are the biggest news in Clark this year, centering around New Clark City in Capas, Tarlac. About 20km north of the Freeport area, New Clark City is a 9,450ha development that will one day accommodate up to 1.2 million people. For now, only the sporting facilities and a couple of government offices — the first phase — has been completed.
The newly built amenities will play host to the two biggest sports of the SEA Games: athletics and aquatics. The Php4 billion New Clark City Athletics Stadium, which just opened in September, will be the venue for the SEA Games’ closing ceremony.
Designed by renowned Filipino architecture firm Budji+Royal Architecture+Design, the Athletics Stadium takes inspiration from Mount Pinatubo itself. Its roofline resembles the volcano’s crater, while its posts and façade are made from lahar. The pillars are also said to be inspired by the traditional parol Christmas lanterns.
Beyond the SEA Games, however, New Clark City is an exciting development that aims to decongest Metro Manila — inspired by the success of the Putrajaya development, which was built 25km outside Kuala Lumpur. The vast New Clark City will be nearly as big as the cities of Pasig, Makati, Pasay, San Juan and Taguig combined, and will be connected to Manila via high-speed rail by 2025.
“New Clark City is being built primarily for the people,” says Arrey Anthony Perez, vice-president for business development of the BCDA and deputy director general of the Philippine SEA Games committee. By this, he means there is a strong emphasis on creating a walkable city that has open spaces and an efficient mass transport system.
The BCDA is taking the lessons it has learned from its previous projects and using them to create their best development yet. About 60% of New Clark City is earmarked for green spaces, in a conscious effort to avoid overbuilding. “That’s the kind of city we envision, creating economic opportunities for everyone — providing jobs, contributing to the economic growth of the country — but at the same time, this city should be something that we could be proud of,” says Arrey.
The city of the future is well on its way, and it’s looking a lot brighter — and greener — than we imagined.
Where To Stay
Clark Marriott Hotel — If you’re after luxury, then book a stay at the first five-star hotel in the area. The Clark Marriott in Mabalacat has 260 rooms and suites, plus five restaurants serving a variety of cuisines. marriott.com
Quest Plus Conference Center — This hotel offers access to a 36-hole golf course and an all-day dining buffet with nine live stations. End the day in a deluxe villa that comes with a private pool — the perfect romantic getaway. questhotelsandresorts.com/clark
The Mansion at The Villages — The Mansion is a 28-room boutique hotel with plantation-style interiors. Thanks to its close proximity to sports facilities at The Villages, guests will have easy access to sports events. themansionatthevillages.com
Fontana Leisure Parks — Fontana offers a range of villas for families who want a place all to themselves, from the more modest two-bedroom villas to a spacious five-bedroom villa with its own swimming pool. fontana.com.ph