The Glory Days of the CEBOOM Era

Remember the unbridled optimism and Cebuano pride during the glory days of the CEBOOM era?

As someone who considered oneself a "90's kid," I grew up in a time when Cebu was emerging as the Philippines' fastest-growing metropolis in terms of its political, economic, and cultural clout. Although it always considered itself a distinct and unique region, it has been treated as a secondary city as compared with other cities up north.

It was a time when the city was leading the charge for greater regional pride in the Cebuano-speaking demographic of Visayas and Mindanao. There was a newfound belief that the people in the region can stand on their own without the greater control of the Manila-centric political and economic elites.

Origin Story

The emergence of CEBOOM in our lexicon can be attributed to a portmanteau of "Cebu" and "Boom" referring to the rapid economic development of the city during the early 1990s. It also coincided with the growth of globalization in the Philippines and other emerging economies of Southeast Asia as a whole. By this time, our country has shifted its focus towards manufacturing and exporting goods to the global market. This was facilitated by the reduction of trade barriers and the liberalization of markets, which allowed us to access new markets and attract foreign investments.

Although established earlier in 1979, the Mactan Export Processing Zone (MEPZ) was expanded further during the early 1990s as demand for manufacturing output grew. During its height, the MEPZ generated over 35,000 jobs thanks to foreign investors, especially the Japanese, who built metal processing, camera manufacturing, and semiconductor factories. The entry of foreign capital can be seen as a contributing factor that saw the growth of CEBOOM.

If we backtrack centuries back, Cebu has always been a center of trade even before the Spanish established Manila as the capital of its colonial possession. We can even say that there was an economic boom before CEBOOM as the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 saw the city opening itself to world trade by then. Soon British, American, and other European traders established their own warehouses and trading posts. It served as a trading depot for all the export crops from the Visayas and Mindanao.

Owing to its rich mercantile history, Cebu has created a 'self-reliant culture' that is 'psychologically independent' of Manila. The ethnolinguistic differences with the people up north established a clear separation and defiance from the former. After the end of World War II, Cebu has to pick up the pieces from the destruction and further lagged behind in terms of development, infrastructure, and economic output as compared with other major cities. What was seen as the Queen City of the South in the past, has become a shadow of its former self.

Phoenix Rising

What made it worse is when the Philippines suffered some of the most destructive and deadliest natural disasters in history - Super Typhoon Mike (locally known "Ruping") on November 13, 1990. It destroyed a lot of houses, sunk ships at the harbor, and worse, left the entire Metro Cebu without electricity and drinking water not to mention the countless lives lost. The entire province was placed under a state of emergency, and many local leaders requested the national government for humanitarian assistance but were turned down as it prioritized other areas instead.

Just like the mythical phoenix that rose up from the ashes, Cebu channelled its collective 'self-reliant and can-do attitude' again to get itself going and rise up from the challenges. Soon, it has become the fast-growing city in the country as shopping malls popped up (SM City and Ayala Center), office buildings rose (Cebu Business Park and IT Park), new roads spread out (Cebu Transcentral Highway), and the population grew. The crowning glory of that era was when the Second Mandaue-Mactan Bridge (Marcelo Fernan Bridge) was finally completed to accommodate greater traffic volume with people going to work at the expanded MEPZ facility and the previously-upgraded Mactan Cebu International Airport (under the Republic Act No. 6958 on July 31, 1990, which saw the transfer of existing assets and operations from the old Lahug Airport).

Political Rennaisance

Not to be treated as a political backwater, Cebu saw the rise of popular national figures with the likes of Cebu governor Emilio "Lito" Osmeña and Chief Justice Marcelo H. Fernan.

The era saw Osmeña's popular presidential bids in 1992 and 1998 saw him advocate for greater decentralization with Cebu gaining autonomy under the PROMDI banner. That means local officials should be able to use that new political powers to produce a strategy that would attract greater foreign investments. President Fidel Ramos' ambitious "Philippines 2000" development plan was met with great protest and opposition as it aimed to further integrate the country into the global capitalist economy.

As the only Filipino to serve as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and Senate President, Fernan was the running mate of Speaker Ramon V. Mitra when the latter ran for president in the 1991 presidential elections. However, both of them lost. 

The rise to prominence of these leaders also coincides with the thought of seeing Cebu as a separate country going as far as entertaining the idea of Cebu leaving as an independent state. They even saw 2020 as the time when CEBOOM would bear fruits in the emergence of investment opportunities and growing global exports with the dream of fulfilling to become another Singapore.

"We have developed a more myopic vision. We take care of our own first," says then-Cebu City Mayor Tomas Osmeña. "Even during the Marcos years, Cebu was able to hold its own" while most of the country's economy deteriorated. This strategy includes signing separate agreements with foreign governments as well as turning a blind eye to illegal businesses that flourish without paying taxes so that the cash keeps flowing in Cebu and tax receipts don't reach the cash-strapped central government in Manila.

Economic Flexing

We can't help but when money is flowing in, we tend to splurge a bit more to reward ourselves with the fruits of that labor. That's what happened in Cebu during that decade as political and economic leaders wanted to invest its newfound economic prominence into the city's rapid growth. The Chinese diaspora in the late 19th century and established old Mestizo families helped grew the entrepreneurial class so that most of the richest personalities in the Philippines can trace their roots back to Cebu - the likes of the Gos, Gotianuns, Aboitizes, Lhuilliers, Gokongweis, etc.

There was great optimism at that time and it's perfectly shown in this classic San Miguel TV commercial.

Yet the impressive economic indicators hide the widening income gap between the rich elites and the dirt-poor locals and migrant workers. Nevertheless, the establishment of mega shopping centers like SM City, Robinsons, and Ayala Center fuelled further economic growth and urbanization. More gated subdivisions and high-rise condominiums were built to cater to the growing middle class and families of OFWs looking to move up the social ladder.

Cultural Clout

Have you ever remembered the time when our teachers taught us to sing the national anthem in Cebuano? Remember "Yutang Tabunon"? It was the time when we shout out to the world that we are proud to talk and write in our very own language.

There was a resurgence of the idea that being 'promdi' (from the province) is cool and a badge of honor. We saw people speaking like us and doing things we're familiar with as Cebuano-speaking soap operas are shown on regional TV with the likes of "Si Goot the Wanderpol" and "Milionaryong Mini." Not only that, Cebuano language programming on the radio popularized the local news and dramas to a new audience. Meanwhile, "Bisaya" magazine became a fad as people wanted to grow their fluency. Soon many of these staples were eventually adapted on screen for widescreen release, often with non-Cebuano-speaking actors.

End of an Era

In boom times, we always thought that the good times will never end. Well, that's never been the case throughout history. We have seen some boom and bust countless times in the past and Cebu is not a stranger to that. We saw the rise of globalization bringing great advancement to the city and standards of living improved yet no one heard the alarm bells ringing of impending doom that lies ahead.

The Asian Economic Crisis of 1997 brought an end to that rapid growth due to overvalued currencies, high levels of foreign debt, and weak financial regulations. The crisis resulted in a sharp economic downturn and caused widespread social and political unrest. What soon followed was a series of bad public policies that saw unfettered development and excessive public spending that saw some overpriced infrastructure and abandoned white elephants like the Cebu International Convention Center, mockingly called the "Cebu Megadome."

It may come as a surprise for some, but the crisis serves as a wake-up call for Cebu and the country as a whole as economic growth has come to an end. It calls for a re-evaluation of the economic policies and a move towards greater financial regulation. Cebu can't depend too much on certain industries and foreign investments, it has to diversify its local economy in order to regain its lost gains.

The Legacy

The CEBOOM of the late 1990s had a lasting legacy on the city of Cebu and the Philippines as a whole. Here are some of the most significant impacts:

Economic Growth and Development

CEBOOM led to the rapid growth and development of Cebu's economy, making it one of the most important economic centers in the Philippines. The growth was driven by the influx of foreign investments, the expansion of the BPO industry, and the development of infrastructure.

Job Creation

The growth of various industries during the CEBOOM created numerous job opportunities for the local workforce, particularly in the BPO sector. This not only helped reduce unemployment but also improved the quality of life for many people in the region.

Modernization of Infrastructure

It led to the development of modern infrastructure, including the Mactan-Cebu International Airport Terminal 1, the Cebu South Coastal Road, and the Cebu IT Park. These projects not only improved transportation but also boosted tourism and commerce.


It was a period of globalization in the Philippines, marked by the influx of foreign investment, trade, and commerce thereby integrating the local economy into the global market and paving the way for future economic growth.


CEBOOM has led to the urbanization of Cebu, with the development of high-rise buildings, shopping malls, and other modern facilities. This helped transform the city into a modern metropolis.

All these long-term benefits laid the groundwork for future developments with new real estate projects, infrastructures, mass transportation, and other big-ticket projects. Cebu is still poised for growth in the post-CEBOOM era as many opportunities are in store for everyone.

As it is already home to various industries, there is still room to diversify and develop new industries like renewable energy, biotechnology, and logistics. Despite significant improvements in infrastructure like the expansion of the airport, completion of the third Mactan bridge, and the establishment of the BRT, there is still a need for greater connectivity province-wide with new highways and hopefully, the revival of the railway. With greater connectivity, more towns will fully develop a comprehensive tourism plan to link everyone on the island.

Greater investments in technology will transform Cebu into an innovation hub with the development of artificial intelligence, blockchain, and the Internet of Things. Finally, Cebu has to balance economic growth with sustainability with the introduction of eco-tourism, the development of renewable energy, and the adoption of green technologies to create a more circular and resilient economy.




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Istoryadista | History Blog | Cebu Blogger: The Glory Days of the CEBOOM Era
The Glory Days of the CEBOOM Era
Remember the unbridled optimism and Cebuano pride during the glory days of the CEBOOM era?
Istoryadista | History Blog | Cebu Blogger
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