20 May, 2024

Q&A with Secretary Katrina Ponce Enrile, Cagayan Economic Zone Authority CEO and Administrator: Making a difference

Secretary Katrina Ponce Enrile, Administrator and CEO of the Cagayan Economic Zone Authority in the Philippines, speaks exclusively to Gambling Insider about her career to date, day-to-day duties and the biggest issues that face her in the regulation of Philippine gaming

Could you walk us through your career journey to where you are?

From managing our family business to accepting bigger responsibilities and role as the Administrator and CEO of the Cagayan Economic Zone Authority, the first thing I asked myself was: what should I do to unlock unseen potential and further develop the Cagayan Special Economic Zone and Freeport located in Santa Ana, Cagayan?

The Cagayan Freeport holds a special place in my heart due to its historic significance; our charter, Republic Act 7922, also known as the Cagayan Special Economic Zone Act of 1995, was authored by my father, then senator and now Chief Presidential Legal Counsel of the Philippines, Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile. In just a short span of time, I have taken steps to continue the development and transformation of the ecozone, to convert the whole area into an agro-industrial growth zone, a major transshipment Port, a tourist and eco-tourism haven, serving as a vibrant hub of economic activity in East and Southeast Asia.

When I assumed office, I embarked on a thorough review of existing policies and regulations of the organisation. Our goal is to enhance the value of our licences by offering a superior product grounded in integrity. This involved streamlining the licensing process, pragmatic compliance supervision and establishing a competitive rate structure. As the Administrator and CEO of CEZA, my mission is clear: to develop a future-proof special economic zone and freeport within the crossroads of the Asia- Pacific Region.

What do your day-to-day duties involve?

As the A/CEO of CEZA, I actively embark on exciting initiatives that have the potential to make the Cagayan Freeport a major logistics hub, a new manufacturing centre of the Asia- Pacific, a premier gaming and leisure destination and a city of the future. I review and approve new online gaming licence applications, ensuring strict compliance with CEZA’s regulatory framework, oversee the monitoring and compliance of existing online gaming operators within the zone, and address whether there is any issue or regulatory breaches.

It is CEZA’s role as regulator and supervisor to ensure that our operators are not functioning above the law and are set to the highest standards of business practices. We collaborate closely with law enforcement authorities, as well as protect our licensees, because we are certain they are not doing anything illegal. Furthermore, we have intensified our marketing efforts while actively participating in various gaming events with the opportunity to showcase CEZA’s gaming industry and highlight its strategic location.

I recognise the significance of building strong ties with prospective foreign investors to promote economic growth and ensure mutual benefits. That is why I make sure to meet with top ranking business conglomerates and highlight CEZA’s value proposition as a gaming and fintech hub, a manufacturing hub, and logistics hub. I also negotiate and finalise investment agreements, ensuring the zone’s interests are well-protected while offering competitive rates. And, as the organisation prepares for its promising future, I actively seek partners to provide sustainable energy solutions for CEZA, which has the power to undertake the establishment, operation and maintenance of public utilities, services, and infrastructure.

What else does your role entail?

I believe participating in International Investment Forums and Outbound Missions are good venues to promote CEZA extensively and intensively in the international market, hence attracting foreign investors who may want to do business in the Cagayan Freeport. As a businesswoman, I strongly encourage CEZA’s membership to the different chambers of commerce and industries that will bring positive outcomes, such as broad networking opportunities and collaboration, partnerships and even a go-to resource information on business directories, business opportunities and of course, the business credibility of CEZA.

Our operations and internal processes remain efficient and smooth, as we keep our focus and stay productive while fulfilling our mandate. I fervently urge my CEZA employees to continue to strive for excellence in their respective areas. I make sure to oversee the implementation of CEZA’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) framework, ensuring that all our industries contribute to the sustainable development of our local communities. I make time to engage with community leaders, non-government and environmental organisations to design and execute impactful CSR initiatives that address the needs and challenges to stakeholders and monitor the adherence to CEZA’s sustainability guidelines and environmental regulations.

Could you give us a full breakdown of how gaming in the Philippines is regulated? There is CEZA but also PAGCOR. How do you differ?

Embedded into the charter that my father penned is the creation of a Freeport administrative area, with the power to issue business licences and generate tourism-related activities such as amusement, recreation and sports facilities, gaming, and related sectors such as but not limited to jai alai, horseracing, dog racing and casinos. With that, CEZA established itself as the first interactive gaming jurisdiction in Asia and stands at the forefront of regulatory innovation. Since 2001, we have been issuing Interactive Gaming Licenses. We created a formula that worked and still continues to provide our operators with the proper regulatory framework that allows them to grow their businesses. Our key difference in CEZA is that our online casinos do not handle bets. We are purely regulators, not operators – as it should be.

From pioneering interactive gaming regulation in Asia to contracting a central audit platform for both gaming and fintech that utilises blockchain technology for enhanced security and transparency, CEZA has consistently remained at the forefront of technological innovation. We at CEZA are continuously committed to support, promote, and regulate IT-BPO and iGaming-related activities. Our regulatory framework, coupled with a strong institutional reputation, has earned the trust and confidence of gaming operators and consumers alike. We at CEZA envision a future where innovation and sound regulatory framework go hand in hand.

With a forward-thinking approach, a business- friendly environment and an unwavering dedication to integrity sets us apart as a premier destination for companies seeking success in the interactive gaming industry. I am confident our efforts to extensively promote the growth of the online gaming industry will make substantial contributions to increase capital investments, direct and indirect income for CEZA and for abundant employment opportunities.

What are the biggest regulatory issues within the Philippines right now?

The biggest regulatory issue in the Philippines right now is the proliferation of illegal POGOs, which are linked to increased criminal activities in the country. With the crimes related to POGOs, the Government has been contemplating banning such activities in the country since policymakers think the social costs are greater than the economic cost. As such, PAGCOR has been focusing on improving its regulations and gaming oversights through issuance of a new regulatory framework.

How would you describe the overall state of the Philippines market?

The online gaming industry is expected to surpass $107bn by this year and soar to $154bn by 2030. The Asia-Pacific region, in particular, is poised for exponential growth, driven by factors such as increased smartphone usage, an emerging population of digital users and the progressive legalisation of online gambling. With these, the Asia-Pacific region is anticipated to register a compound annual growth rate of over 12% through 2030 and will witness 333 million new mobile internet subscribers by 2025. We also cannot ignore the shift towards mobile gambling. As online casinos and sportsbooks invest heavily in their mobile platforms, CEZA remains at the forefront, adapting to meet the evolving needs of gaming operators and consumers, while upholding the highest standards of quality and security.

Furthermore, the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) into online gambling represents a paradigm shift in the way operators engage with customers. AI holds the key to unlocking new levels of innovation and efficiency. CEZA remains vigilant in our commitment to responsible gambling, ensuring consumers are protected from harm as we harness the potential of these new technologies.

What are your future goals, both for the rest of 2024 and beyond?

In my stint, CEZA will be actively pursuing the diversification of its investment portfolio, exploring new sectors beyond gaming and fintech such as industrial park development for advanced manufacturing, logistics, power generation, food security, defence, health and wellness, agriculture, tourism, and eco-tourism.We cannot afford to maintain a stagnant portfolio, as this will hinder our ability to solidify Cagayan Freeport’s position as a future-proof special economic zone and freeport in the crossroads of the Asia-Pacific region.I recognise the importance of work-life balance, thus CEZA will be investing in the development of world-class residential, recreational and leisure facilities within the zone.

These amenities, coupled with the natural beauty of the sceneries within the zone, will create a vibrant and attractive lifestyle destination for CEZA employees, their families and locals. Along with strategic investments, we are focused on the empowerment of our people. Only by creating a culture of collaboration and communication will I be able to unlock the full potential of my CEZA personnel. As their leader, I must inspire and motivate them to do their best, creating an environment where everyone feels valued and included thus, making a difference for the organisation.

On 23 May 2023, President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. appointed Sec. Katrina Ponce Enrile as Administrator and CEO of the Cagayan Economic Zone Authority (CEZA), making her the first woman to head CEZA. With prior involvement as a distinguished CEZA Board Member and Vice Chairman, she brings extensive experience dating back to 1999 introducing new business and development opportunities to the organisation.