Plantation Bay founder apologizes—but is trouble in paradise over? 2
Six-year-old Fin at Plantation Bay, after his mother moved him from the lagoon. Photo courtesy of Mai Pages

Plantation Bay founder apologizes—but is trouble in paradise over?

While Gonzalez says Pages’ “physical account” of what happened in the resort is accurate, he tells ANCX she failed to mention important details before and after the incident
JEROME GOMEZ | Dec 09 2020

The founder of Plantation Bay Resort and Spa has issued an apology on social media yesterday for offending parents with autistic children. This follows the Cebu resort’s response on TripAdvisor to the review posted by resort guest Mai Pages relating her dismay over how her child with special needs was repeatedly told to keep quiet while on the resort’s lagoon. 

While Emmanuel “Manny” Gonzalez, resident shareholder of the resort, tells ANCX that Pages’ “physical account” of the incident is accurate, it fails to mention important details before and after the incident. “Specifically, she inquired, booked, checked in, and went a whole day without ever mentioning that her child was special. If the child had special needs, wouldn't a mother have advised or clarified before booking?” 

Gonzalez confirms to ANCX that it was him who wrote the response to Pages on TripAdvisor and not the resort GM Efren Belarmino whose name appears on top of the post going around social media. Gonzalez says he also accepts “the responsibility for the offense it caused to the community of parents with special-needs children.” 

The man also goes on to say that Pages' child did not "give any impression by appearance or behavior of being autistic. It was only when our lifeguards approached her a third time that she put forth the claim that the child was autistic. Nonetheless she complied, the child quieted down, and we thought the matter was settled. Perhaps half a day later, she decided that we had offended her, and posted on social media.”


How it started

It all started with a review on TripAdvisor entitled “Not an ideal place for a child with special needs.” Written by Pages, it talks about her experience at Plantation Bay early this month. “It could’ve been the perfect getaway for Fin, my child with special needs,” the review begins. 

The Cebu-based Pages was vacationing with Fin, 6 years old, at the resort famous for its sprawling man-made lagoon. When Fin is happy or when something excites him, says Pages in the post, he expresses it by “squealing with delight.” And Fin was clearly happy. Mother and son had just finished breakfast and Fin was looking forward to a morning of swimming. 

All seemed well and good until Pages was told from afar by a lifeguard that it wasn’t. She was told to ask her son to be quiet.

Plantation Bay founder apologizes—but is trouble in paradise over? 3
Gonzalez points out to ANCX that Plantation Bay is a "very large resort, with 10 times more water area than any other hotel on Mactan,” and they did the standard procedure to ensure the safety of their guests. Photo from @plantation_bay on Instagram

“As a mother, your initial action would be directed to your child. So I told him not to squeal because it wasn’t allowed,” writes the mother in her post. “Quite frankly it was a difficult moment.” She tells ANCX over Facebook Messenger that Fin “was too happy.. swimming laughing.. jumping. He didn’t have a meltdown or was crazy screaming.” 

And then another lifeguard came and told Pages  the same thing—to quiet down Fin. “I had to explain that he is a child with needs,” says Mai in the post. “Every time Fin jumps in the water he’d be so happy that he’d laugh and squeal again. I tried hushing him and at one point tried to cover his mouth. But then I realized this is so wrong! This isn’t right at all!” 

Because Fin refused to keep quiet, his mother decided they move to the beach. Not long after, however, they retreated back to their room. “The plan to swim the whole morning came to a halt,” writes Pages. “I asked Fin if we could go back to the room because we weren’t allowed to squeal and be merry the special way.” 

The Cebuana mom says she felt discriminated against. “We often get this a lot. When normal people who are ignorant of people with special needs, give us that stare of please control your child,” she explains in her review. “My Fin is a happy child. He has autism. He is special. Very special! I will never consider staying here ever again. No luxury of this proportion can make this experience okay because that is not what we need. We need a friendly and empathetic environment for kids and families with special needs.” 


Google ‘autism’

Pages’ review and Facebook post drew sympathy and support from the online community, especially from parents with special needs children and support groups for children with autism. Plantation Bay’s response to the review, however, drew the ire of many. Addressed to TripAdvisor readers, it said “uncontrolled shouting is not a symptom of autism,” and that “this parent”—meaning Pages—“is most likely deliberately lying, or has been given an incorrect diagnosis of autism, when what the child more likely has is a lack of discipline due to simple parental neglect.” 

The response has since been taken down, but not before netizens were able to get a screen cap. On Twitter, broadcast journalist Karen Davila who has a child with autism, said, “Shame on you Manny Gonzalez of Plantation Bay for trying to school the parent of a child with autism on what the symptoms are. You are a disgrace to the tourism industry.” Meanwhile, Senator Joel Villanueva, also on Twitter, said the response was “uncalled for.” He added, “If I call on you to a senate inquiry you should not be bringing facts coming from Google alone,” referring to the line in the Plantation Bay response that says, “Google ‘Autism’ and verify this for yourself.” 

Gonzalez has already issued an apology dated December 8, which he says is a response to his “poor handling” of Pages’ complaint. “I was wrong to question the mother’s motives, and deeply regret leaving the impression that we are not supportive of the community of parents with children who have special needs.” He adds that the resort’s policy on keeping the noise level to a minimum in their establishment is for the relaxation and safety of all their guests. 

At the end of his apology, Gonzalez reiterates he handled the matter of the complaint poorly and apologized again to the parents he offended. When asked to comment on the criticisms thrown at him and his response online, particularly on his attempt to explain autism, he tells ANCX, “I would rather not address the other points now, as in due course there may be a better forum for doing so.” 

Gonzalez told ANCX that insofar as asking  Pages’ child to quiet down, “this is standard procedure which we apply to all guests who are starting to scream too much, regardless of nationality. That is to ensure safety for all guests in this very large resort, with 10 times more water area than any other hotel on Mactan, yet has never had a drowning fatality. It is essential that our lifeguards not be distracted by repeated screaming. Insofar as her being offended, she did not appear to be offended at the swimming pool, so I am puzzled by her delayed response, but again reserve a full answer for a different forum.” 

Gonzalez told ANCX that the Department of Tourism has asked both him and Ms. Pages to submit their accounts of what happened at the resort. Asked what he thought about the calls online to boycott Plantation Bay, he replied, “Of course such efforts are always concerning, but we will just have to see what happens. We have been in business almost 25 years and have weathered many difficulties. Over the years we have built up a loyal cadre of customers both in the Philippines and abroad.”