An elderly woman is carried to a vehicle as they go to an evacuation center in Marawi city, southern Philippines on Thursday, June 8, 2017. Fighting in Marawi between government forces and Muslim militants, led by the so-called "Maute" group, is now…
An elderly woman is carried to a vehicle as they go to an evacuation center in Marawi city, southern Philippines on Thursday, June 8, 2017.

CLARK FIELD, PHILIPPINES - After John Ryder retired from teaching high school, he found himself running short of money to keep living in his apartment along the shores of San Francisco Bay, one of the most expensive parts of the United States. In 2015 he moved to the Philippines. Things could hardly be better.

“Once you’re here and get your feet wet a little bit, it’s not too bad,” said Ryder, 69, as he ate an American-style lunch at local prices at the Veterans of Foreign Wars restaurant near Clark Field, a former U.S. air base north of Manila.

“I couldn’t afford to live in California,” Ryder said. “I had a friend who gave me a break on the rent. When I told him I was going to retire he was, ‘well, I’m going have to raise your rent.’” 

Ryder’s story explains why the Philippines gave out a record number of visas, for a single year, in 2018. The total came to 6,437, including spouses and dependents. The 2018 figure marks a 10% increase over 2017. 

The Philippines has given out 63,538 visas to foreign retirees since it began issuing them in 1987, according to Philippine Retirement Authority figures.

Foreign retirees enjoy a lifestyle that's cheaper than what they would pay in their developed homelands, while the largely impoverished Philippines is getting a boost from the money they spend, from meals to investments.

Cheaper lifestyle

Around Clark Field -- now the site of a growing international airport -- a golfer can get course access and a caddy for $25, Ryder said.

Lunch around Clark costs no more than $10. A lot of expats near the base enjoy cheap beers, gym access and quick flights to the more modern city of Hong Kong, he said. The nearest beach is about an hour from Clark and some retirees live there. 

“If you want to go away anywhere, you can just go to that airport and get out,” Ryder said.

Arch Turner, 76, moved to the Philippines nine years ago despite his distaste for Asia after returning from the Vietnam War. He now enjoys living cheaply enough to ride a motorcycle every day, watch anything on television and donate money to poor Filipino children.

“About once a year I take one of these mobile flip flop carts down to the orphanage and the kids come out two at a time and they all select a pair of flip flops and it costs me less than 100 bucks,” Turner said.

Old, easy scheme

The Philippine visa program stands out over peers in Asia, such as Malaysia and Thailand, by keeping the minimum qualifying age at relatively low at 35 and the qualification process “not too complicated,” a retirement authority spokesperson told the VOA. 

A total of 25 countries, including a number in Latin America, offer retirement visas. They hope the visa holders will spend money on services, especially tourism.

Foreigners deposit from $10,000 to $50,000 in a Philippine bank account, with amounts depending on age, to sign up. Retirees get that money back if they leave the country permanently. 

“We’re also one of the cheapest options, even compared to our neighbors and competitors in Southeast Asia,” the spokesperson said.

The top source country for the Philippines last year was China, with 40% of the total, followed by South Korea at 21%. Americans ranked sixth at 4.7%.

Economic support

Retirees contribute heavily to the service sectors in a country where about one-fifth of the population lives in poverty, mainly for lack of jobs. The urban areas near Clark Field in turn draw people from poorer parts of the country for service jobs. 

Some retirees start businesses, pumping more money into the economy, the retirement authority spokesperson said. “The Philippines benefits…as these foreign retirees consume goods and services, pay tax that support public goods and services, and while they set-up their own businesses, they bring capital into the area that may be invested locally by banks,” the spokesperson said.

Around Clark Field, foreign retirees eat high-end European cuisine and drink in bars after hours. Many hire local cars for adventures outside town or trips to the Manila airport.

Analyn Matol, 26, moved to the city closest to Clark Field nine years ago from a poorer part of the country because her aunt was running a restaurant there. She now helps manage a restaurant herself. “As long as people have the work, that’s most important,” she said.