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Over 35? Time to retire, says Philippines

The tropical western Pacific archipelago has attracted 25,000 foreign retirees since 1985.

ANGELES, Philippines — Arch Turner first came to the Philippines for vacation. He ate a lot of cheap food, visited several bars and returned to his home town near San Diego eight days later — only to sell off most of his possessions and do an about-face.

For the last three years, he has made his home in Angeles, a nightlife hub two hours north of the capital, Manila.

“I was living in Southern California and had no interest in it,” recalled Turner, 67, over an American-style bowl of chili at a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall. Behind him, two new friends are playing pool on a typical Sunday afternoon.

The tropical western Pacific archipelago has attracted 25,000 foreign retirees since 1985, according to the government’s retirement authority. It draws retirees the same way it does tourists — by being itself. A relatively new government campaign has helped grow the community as well.

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Like short-stay travelers, expatriates embrace the diving, golfing and opportunities to pilot small planes — for example, on short-hop flights to the long, white sand beach of Boracay island. Others play pool or ride motorcycles, finishing their days with beer that costs less than $1 per bottle — just one indicator of the inexpensive lifestyle.

“They can live here like kings,” said Christine Nunag, head of the Angeles City Tourism Office, which says many of the 400 local bars and restaurants cater largely to the city’s 1,200 foreign retirees. “Foreigners adapt pretty well here mainly because the Filipinos are pretty flexible.”

The Philippines stepped up recruitment of expatriate retirees in 2006 in an attempt to boost the economy. Retirees mean houses to clean and golf courses, or more jobs for the locals.

Like many countries in Southeast Asia, the relative extravagance of foreign visitors and expats contrasts with the poorer local population. According to the Asian Development Bank, one in four Filipinos lives below the poverty line.

Foreign visas holders have generated more than $365 million for the Philippine economy, the government said in a statement in early April. Half of that is invested in condominiums, county club shares and corporate stocks.

Foreign retirees in the country now include about 2,400 South Korean retirees and 3,000 mainland Chinese, the retirement authority says. Americans number about 1,000. Those with military connections often settle in Angeles, where the US Clark Air Base fed the club scene before its 1991 closure.

In order to become an official retiree, one must deposit at least $10,000 in a local bank or invest in the country by buying a condo or signing a 20-year lease, though sums have fallen over the years to woo more applicants. Visas require no work or study, leaving time for most to live like vacationers.

Retirees can be as young as 35, another condition to help bring in foreign investment. They need not explain their work histories, just put down the money required to get a visa.

Enclaves of foreigners have formed in the top-tier cities of Cebu, Davao and Manila. Another 800 retirees live along Subic Bay, near beach resorts and scuba diving sites known for World War II shipwrecks.

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Thailand and Indonesia also encourage foreign retirees, but the Philippines has recruited them more aggressively. For Westerners, the use of English and predominance of Christianity put the Philippines above any rivals.

In Angeles, retirement authority official Carlo Zialcita approaches tourists in the bar district to coax them into extending vacations for a lifetime. He leaves fliers at some of the clubs, which fill by day and night with foreigners.

With 3.9 million tourist arrivals in 2011 nationwide, up 11 percent over the previous year, the retirement authority figures visa applications will rise, though it has no specific target. With its goal of using travel as a lure for retirement, in 2006 the authority merged with the Department of Tourism.

“You know our slogan, ‘it’s more fun in the Philippines,'” Zialcita said. “Well, it’s also more fun to retire in the Philippines.” 

But retirement is no fun when paying for health-care bills. Expats say the level of health care usually meets their standards, though some complained about late or inadequate insurance payments, especially from overseas. And almost every retiree named a friend whose health worsened from drinking too much in the Philippines, where bar tabs are alluringly low.

Some retirees have died naturally from old age or have returned home after learning that their health insurance does not cover care in the Philippines without a fight. Of the total visas issued since the scheme’s 1985 launch, just over half are now in use, according to the retirement authority.

Retiree Cliff Wilsey expects his vacation to last a lifetime. He settled in Angeles in 1982 and lives on a retired US military captain’s pension of $4,000 per month.

“I’ve got a big, beautiful house,” said Wilsey, 73, as he drank one of his five daily beers. “My wife is happy. I just bought her a brand new car. Life is good. I can get everything here.”

Fellow American and army vet Arch Turner lives in sunny Angeles on a military disability pension of about $3,000 per month. He estimates that half of that goes toward eating out — a focus of his retirement. He pays $450 a month for a home with balcony that seats 30 people.

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He left $10,000 in a Philippine bank in exchange for a retirement visa to come and go as he wishes, for as long as he wants.

But while the night life initially beckoned him, Turner has found that being retired in the Philippines is far from a party a minute, though he says the food, friendships and lifestyle have been more rewarding than what he faced in the US.

“The big exciting thing for me to do was, on Thursday, stale bread day at the senior center,” Turner said of his new life in Angeles. “If you get there early, you sometimes get some stale donuts.”