Tag archive for "Travel"

101 THINGS TO DO IN OUR 7,100 ISLANDS

Travel

101 THINGS TO DO IN OUR 7,100 ISLANDS

6 Comments 12 February 2010

By Pepper Marcelo

Experiencing the country in different ways. That is the mantra that local tour operators and the Department of Tourism (DOT) are conveying to foreign and domestic tourists interested in exploring the archipelago. The “Philippine Travel Mart,” was held recently to showcase prime destinations, special tour packages and other travel opportunities to prospective buyers and consumers. It was co-sponsored by the Philippine Tour Operators Association (PHILTOA) and the DOT.

Whether it be touring the city of Manila by boat on the Pasig River, or partaking in an exotic, culinary-themed tour of Pampanga, or engaging in more physically-oriented activities in typical relaxation areas such as Boracay, repeat clients and visitors are being offered a more adventurous, unique tourism experience.

Yung ganda ng bansa is everywhere,” says Tourism Secretary Joseph “Ace” Durano. “However, what has been happening in the last three years is that a lot new places have been developed. A lot of new places are part of the mainstream tourism traffic of the country already. People want to get new information before exploring, and this is the place.”

In 2008, the DOT and PHILTOA formulated a National Ecotourism Strategy Initiative to provide an assortment of new activities to entice tourists and to promote the protection and conservation of the environment as well.

“We’re proudly showing to the world that we’re taking care of the environment,” says Cesar Cruz, general manger of PHILTOA. “Eco-activities are nature based. You have to have good rivers, good forests and a good habitat for wild animals and flora and fauna.”

In 2009, the DOT and PHILTOA developed 24 adventure tour packages, also called modules, with specialized themes and concepts building on what each province and region can to offer. For example, for surfing and kayaking enthusiasts, there’s “Paddle & Surf” in Pangasinan’s Hundred Islands, as well as in La Union and Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte. On kayak boats, tourists could go explore coves and islets. And though the country is not known to be a premier destination for surfing, the coastal towns of La Union offer several spots promising consistent “waves and breaks.”

For those that want both a land and sea escapade, “Crawl & Row” offers spelunking (or cave exploring) at Nueva Vizcaya’s Capisanan Cave System, as well as whitewater rafting at the Chico River in the Cordilleras. Then there’s Sagada in Mountain Province with caves so deep they appear to extend down to the ends of the earth. Also up north in Tuguegarao is the famous Callao cave, and down south, in Palawan, there is the St. Paul National Park with its caves that can be explored through the underground river.

Also popular among trekkers and trail-hikers is Mt. Pinatubo, which traverses the provinces of Pampanga, Tarlac and Zambales, where one can view the spectacular landscape. The area is also very popular among 4X4 enthusiasts who enjoy riding through creeks, dunes and rocks.

For a more immersive, cultural experience, there’s “Every Island, an Adventure,” with a wide assortment of activities the whole family can enjoy. Unique activities include oyster gathering in Calamianes Group of Islands and a safari tour of Calauit Game Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary, both in Palawan.

Not for the faint-hearted, there’s “Tuna, Tubing & Tibolis” in Sarangani province with its local version of the bouncy, soaking, white-water rafting, called “tubing” (where instead of a traditional raft, the passengers sit on recycled rubber tires).

For its part, Cebu has a number of beautiful islands to explore. Famous beaches like those in Sumilon, Malapascua, Camotes and Bantayan islands present a variety of physically-oriented prospects, such as jet skiing, parasailing, snorkeling and banana boat riding. With ample attractions, beach front Cebu hotels, adventures and restaurants, Cebu invites travelers for enjoying a remarkable vacation.

Farther down south, Davao is a popular locale for extreme sports, with activities like hiking, trekking, snorkeling, diving, bungee-jumping, bird-watching, island-hopping and camping. There’s the “Highlands to Islands” tour, which consists of a tuna dinner, Philippine Eagle and wildlife tour, mountain biking and zip-­lining on the longest zipline in the region.

Other specialized-theme activities for tourists include, but are not limited to, “Rafting & Rappelling,” which encompasses whitewater rafting, zipline and cultural immersion in Cagayan de Oro and rappelling in Camiguin; “Hike & Wave,” which consist of wakeboarding in Camarines Sur and climbing Mt. Mayon in Albay; the “Bicol Xpress,” which also includes wakeboarding in Camarines Sur, but with the added bonus of a whale-shark interaction tour in Donsol; and “Rock & Surf,” which consists of rock-climbing in Atimonan and surfing in Daet.

Activities are not limited to sports. There are also special educational opportunities for visitors to interact with local residents and learn about indigenous cultures such as that of the T’boli tribe of Lake Sebu in Mindanao.

“Tourists can have the chance to do a cultural diversion, to live with the natives and learn from them,” says Cruz. “It’s a very educational and positive activity.”

Durano says he has sampled every tour adventure module and thoroughly enjoyed them. “I like being outdoors and experiencing nature in different ways. Whether it be spelunking, rappelling, or kayaking, I enjoy experiencing things with some physical activity.”

Cruz says that it’s not only foreigners that are getting into these activities, but the locals as well. “More and more of our countrymen are beginning to appreciate them. Even surfing, it used to be an unknown activity here. But now, you go to places like La Union, you see Filipinos conducting surfing clinics.”

With rural provinces and islands naturally getting most of the attention due to their exotic and relaxing atmosphere, Metro Manila has been gradually losing its appeal. To prop up its touristy draw, the government and the private sector have teamed up to introduce the Pasig River Travel Cruise, a unique way of touring the metropolis aboard air-conditioned boats that cruise the Pasig. Besides providing a different view of the city, peripheral tours corresponding to each station destination have been developed. At the Binondo station, for example, tourists can embark the boat and go on a culinary walking tour of Chinatown. In historic Sta. Ana, there’s the Heritage Tour, where visitors can explore archeological finds and heritage structures. On Lawton, there’s the “Manila Madness Tour,” where shoppers can visit the nearby tiangges and malls. Last, but not least, there’s the Walled City of Intramuros, with its own distinct historical walking tour.

No matter the location or one’s preference — whether to relax and simply enjoy the view and breeze, or engage in the most strenuous of physical adventures — the Philippines has it.

“A lot of our kababayans abroad, when they left the country, the tourism industry in the country was still in its infancy stage,” says Durano. “It’s not in their minds that if they want to have a good experience during a vacation, they can do it here in the Philippines. Today, they can do that. In the past, people would just come home to visit their friends and family. You can do that and at the same time have some ‘R and R.’ There are so many places and things you can do here.”

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GREAT CITIES OF MINDANAO

Travel

GREAT CITIES OF MINDANAO

3 Comments 24 January 2010

By Amadís Ma. Guerrero

Rich in history, its beginnings dating back to 320 A.D., Butuan is the capital of Agusan del Sur and the center as well of the Caraga region (which brings together the four Agusan and Surigao provinces in northeast Mindanao)

Your tour of Butuan should begin with the Butuan Regional Museum where you will see relics and artifacts, gold jewelry, including the Golden Tara of Agusan; and other archeological diggings. Nine ancient boats known as balangay are found at the Balangay Shrine Museum. Also check out the Diocesan Liturgical Museum.

Places to stay in Butuan include Balanghai Hotel & Convection Center, Almont Inland Resort, and Hotel Karaga.

Cagayan de Oro, regional center of Northern Mindanao, bills itself as “the City of Golden Friendship.” Although quite developed, it attracts adventure tourists because of its Mambuaya River, excellent for whitewater-rafting, the Macahambus Cave-Gorge, and Catanico Falls. Twelve kms from the city proper, overlooking Macajalar Bay, is the showpiece Gardens of Malasag Eco-Tourism Village, with its tribal architecture, trees and nurseries, tribal huts and cottages, amphitheater for performances, and indigenous artifacts and souvenirs.

Davao City was in the news again recently because of the death squads which kill petty criminals and sometimes innocent persons. The Commission on Human Rights has investigated and found human rights violations. There was even an independent film on these killings, Engkwentro, which won for its young director, Pepe Diokno, a major award at the recent Venice International Film Festival.

Despite this negative image, Davao remains an interesting place for domestic and foreign tourists. It is a large, sprawling city with modern malls (you can skip these if you’re tired of malls), convection facilities, and fine hotels like Malagos Garden Resort, Apo View, Durian Hotel, and many more recently established.

Davao is also a feast for the lover of sea food, especially tuna. Check out restaurant row along Florentino Torres St. and get your fill of broiled giant tuna (bariles), panga, (head), buntot (tail), tungol (walls of intestines), bihod (eggs) and obol-obol (throat). Perfect when eaten with steaming rice and washed down with beer, as you exchange jokes and tall stories with your hosts and friends.

The same can be said for General Santos City (known as GenSan to its residents), which faces Sarangani Bay in South Coatabato. It thrives on tuna for domestic and export markets. The giant tuna and marlins arrive by fishing boats in front of the public market in the morning, and you can see local and foreign (mostly Japanese) traders buy these by the ton.

While in GenSan you can stay at Sydney Hotel, Sansu or Anchor; and dine out at Fiesta as Barrio, Lola Sisay or Ribs N’ Jazz. Resorts within the city include London Beach, Olaer, and South Sea Tropical.

 The well-maintained Shrine City of Dapitan in Zamboanga is for the lover of Philippine history, notably the admirer of National Hero Jose Rizal. Everywhere you see reminders of Rizal’s exile here, including a park with replicas of his clinic and residence. A gem is the Church of St. James, constructed by the Jesuits in the 1870’s, where Rizal heard Mass. In front of the church is a relief map of Mindanao said to have carved out by Rizal who was, among other accomplishments, a sculptor.

A 15-minute drive away from the city proper is the upscale Dakak Park Beach Resort, with its towering cliffs, palm trees, well-manicured lawns, hidden cottages, and white-sand beach cove.

Include Iligan in your discovery or rediscovery of Mindanao, if only because it is “the city of waterfalls.” You can start with the spectacular Ma. Christina Falls, which can only be viewed during weekends (and you cannot swim here). But there are over 20 waterfalls within the city.

There’s the smaller Mimbalut Falls, with a lot of boulders nearby and shallow but ever flowing waters. Move awesome is Tinago Falls, accessible downward through 315-step stairway of stone. The waters fall into a deep, natural swimming, and there is a raft attached to a rope overhead, plus other smaller falls. And if you get tired of cold spring waters, there’s always the Timoga de la Mar Swimming Pools, another popular destination.

If Iligan is the city of waterfalls, Islamic Marawi, only an hour’s drive away, is the city of mosques. There are over 70 of these places of worship, some of them grand and majestic. Also visit the King Faisal Mosque and Center for Islamic Studies, and the Mindanao State University and its attractive campus overlooking Lake Lanao.

The place to stay in Marawi is the elegant Marawi Resort Hotel, located within the MSU campus.

When in Zamboanga City, be sure to be a pilgrim and visit Holy Hill, trekking (or even riding) up the paved zigzag and the Fourteen Stations of the Cross, which leads to the mountain summit and its giant cross. There you will be rewarded by a grand view of all of the city, Santa Cruz Island and, separated by the bay, the mountains of Basilan province.

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DIVING HAVEN

Travel

DIVING HAVEN

No Comments 23 January 2010

By Amadís Ma. Guerrero

“THE Philippines is a smorgasbord of world-class dive sites, being the center of the coral triangle around 400 types of corals which highlight the most diverse and marine-rich waters on earth. We have 2,000 species of marine life. We are Asia’s dive capital.”

The rousing assessment is from Dr. Ted T. Esguerra, diver, wilderness physician, and a ranking official of the Philippine Coast Guard, in an interview with Planet Philippines. He added, “We are encouraging resorts, divers, dive shops owners and instructors to practice responsible diving protocols.”

Esguerra, Doc Ted to associates and subordinates, also spoke during a seminar on safe diving at Camp Crame. Participants were taught how to prevent decompressing illness, perforated eardrums, stings and sharp bites from poisonous marine animals, minimizing risks in diving, and organizing local search and rescue operations for missing divers.

“A sting from a jellyfish (dikya) may be harmless but it can also be extremely dangerous,” he noted.

Doc Ted also warned divers against going up rapidly, and competing with the bubbles. “The gas may induce stroke-like symptoms, signs,” he said. “The gas may go out of your blood vessels into the tissues of the body. This is life-threatening, marami ang namamatay (many have died) due to barotraumas related to diving. There is a growing incidence of this.”

He hastened to add, however, that “diving is not really that dangerous. It’s wholesome fun as long as you go by the rules.”

From Anilao, Batangas down, the Philippines is a haven for domestic as well as foreign divers.

Anilao is recommended by tourism authorities because the small marine creatures are among the most diverse in the world. Puerto Galera in Oriental Mindoro is for deeper dives and big reef fish. Another famous getaway, Boracay Island, is ideal for beginner divers, and promises to be a fun-learning experience.

Only for experienced scuba divers is Tubbataha Reef off Palawan, which is the Philippine showpiece as far as diving is concerned. Tubbataha is, in fact, a World Heritage destination, and a candidate for the new Seven Wonders of the World along with Palawan’s Underground River.

There’s also Apo Reef Natural Park off Occidental Mindoro and Apo Island near Negros Oriental. Moalboal is the best known diving destination in Cebu, and has attracted little communities of international divers. Also in Cebu is Mactan Island, a major tourist destination with many five-star hotels.

For this travel writer, there is no more attractive place in the country than Northern Palawan. There are many dive sites, along with splendid natural scenery and upscale beach resorts, in El Nido, Taytay and Coron.

In Puerto Galera, the recommended dive sites are Escareo Point (Lighthouse Point), the Canyons, and Shark Cave. The Canyons start from “the hole in the wall” at a shallow 40 feet (12 meters) and you descend to an awesome 90 feet (27 meters). Here, migrating large fish abound, divers report.

The Shark Caves consist of a series of caves which go down to 80 feet, and whose dark crevices are the homes and breeding grounds of white-tip sharks. Medio Point, on the other hand, offers a lot of flora and fauna.

The major dive sites of Balicasag (90 minutes by boat from Tagbilaran City) are the Cathedral, Black Forest, and Diver’s Haven.

The Cathedral is actually a cave with soft corals and sand formations- which look like flowers- on top. From about 20 feet down, the cave drops off to a depth of 60 feet.

The Black Forest is filled with corals which look black from a distance and has a natural garden of sea ferns almost six feet tall. Divers’ Haven has three currents which crisscross one another. When we were there, the dive master was instructing neophyte divers not to go against the current, but just to drift from one current to another, as these are not really that strong.

The island can be enjoyed even if you are not a diver (and I’m not), as it is a picturesque area in a province known for its ecotourist attractions. Within Balicasay live a local community, and they can be persuaded to perform some native dances for visitors.

Anilao in Batangas is another divers’ delight, and is very popular as it is only three hours away from Manila.

There are many resorts here, including Eagle Point and Vistamar Beach Resort. At the latter resort, the dive master was telling us anybody can be a diver as long as he or she is healthy, a good swimmer who doesn’t panic easily (some say you don’t even have to be a good swimmer), knows how to follow the rules, and is aged 13 up.

There are actually more than 50 diving sites off the Anilao-Mabini-San Jose coast, and one of these is also known as the Cathedral because many years a diving team placed a cross there. The marine life at Anilao boasts of “multitudes of fishes, thousands of them,” said Vistamar owner-diver C.B. Leobrera. “Lots of coral, shells, flowers. There is so much life, there are so many beautiful things under the sea.”

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GET WELL, SAVE MONEY AND ENJOY THE BEACH

Travel

GET WELL, SAVE MONEY AND ENJOY THE BEACH

1 Comment 23 January 2010

By Pepper Marcelo

Amidst the global recession, medical tourism is one of the few bright spots in the gloomy Philippine economic landscape. Government officials are hoping the Medical Tourism sector will help alleviate poor investment climate and offset the depressed overseas employment market that has provided jobs to millions of Filipinos.

The Deloitte Center for Health Solutions defines medical tourism as the process of leaving home for treatments and care abroad.

Government officials and industry leaders expect this phenomenon to register “explosive growth” in the country in the next few years. They base their optimism on two factors: first, the safety and quality of care in many offshore settings like the Philippines is no longer an issue; and second, rising health care costs in western developed countries. Increasing numbers of western patients have realized that the same medical care available in countries like the United Sates could be had in other countries for a fraction of the cost.

In 2007 alone, some 750,000 Americans traveled abroad and spent $2.1 billion for medical care. By 2017, more than 15 million Americans will seek medical services in other countries and spend between $30 billion and $79 billion.

By next year, global medical tourism is projected to be worth $100 billion, up from $60 billion in 2007.

Since 2006, the Department of Tourism (DOT), in conjunction with the Department of Health (DOH), has been heavily promoting the country as Asia’s premier medical and wellness hub.

“Going to the hospital is very expensive. If you’re in a medical crisis, you will start looking at places that offer quality service for your money,” DOT Undersecretary Cynthia Carrion tells Planet Philippines in an interview. Carrion is in charge of Sports Tourism and Wellness.

Main attraction

The main attraction for foreigners to come to the Philippines is affordability of quality medical care in the country, which is only a fraction of what foreigners would pay in their home countries.

“The price comparison is really big. Cheap is not the word. It’s just that we do good value for the money,” says Carrion.

For example a rhinoplasty, or noselift, that would cost $8,000 in the US would only be about $1,200 in the Philippines.

“People are realizing now that it’s very safe and very good quality. Sometimes it’s one-eighth the cost,” adds Megan Collins, advisor and consultant to the Office of the Undersecretary for Sports Tourism and Wellness.

Another factor for the country is the competence and compassion of Philippine medical practitioners. We have many doctors who have received the best medical training at home and abroad, while our nurses and caregivers are renowned and in-demand worldwide for their caring and friendly attitude.  

One-stop shop

A concept that Medical Tourism has created which provides another added enticement to visitors is the “one-stop shop” model. After an operation or medical service, the patient can proceed to enjoy the local leisure amenities such as beaches, spas and resorts.

Carrion empathizes, however, that servicing medical needs is the first priority. “I never even talk about the beaches,” she says. “It’s an added attraction. They come here first because of our technology, second our doctors, third our wonderful nurses.”

Adds Collins: “People when they come here, they do cosmetic surgery, then come back for more complex healthcare events, or if they come for a complex healthcare event, they return for tourism, so it’s a win-win.”

Collins, a Canadian, came to the Philippines several years ago on vacation. While here, she was stricken with appendicitis and hospitalized. She was very impressed by the process and care of the doctors and nurses that helped in her recovery.

“They not only did a superb job on my medical needs, but took care of my emotional needs,” she says. She is currently helping the DOT to promote the Philippines and providing testimony all over the world.

Wellness centers

Another added attraction is the proliferation of spas and wellness centers. Many establishments are fast cropping up to give foreign clients the best in relaxation therapy, with services such as the popular traditional massage, hilot, and local curative herbs offering a safe medical alternative.

“We are the only country in Asia that has a Traditional and Alternative Medicine Act,” says Carrion. “We’re allowed to work on alternative medicine.”

The DOT is also pushing to make the Philippines a retirement haven. There are over 150 million people of retirement age all over the world. The high cost of living in their home countries is driving them to move to developing countries where the cost of living is significantly cheaper. As of February 2008, the Philippines has attracted around 17,000 retirees. But that number represents just a tip of the iceberg.

“In two to four years, 17 million Americans will be retiring in the US,” says carrion. “This is the time for Filipinos to invest in retirement homes. We could be doing so well.”

Since its official launch, the Medical Tourism industry has earned more than $350 million.

Statistics show a 10 percent increase in the first quarter of 2009 compared to the period last year. This is attributed to the 200,000 documented tourists that have sought medical services here from January to March. By the end of 2009, that number is estimated to reach 600,000.

Each medical and wellness tourist that comes to the Philippines spends approximately $3,500 during his or her stay. Thus, the expected 600,000 visitors would spend around $2.1 billion.

Carrion estimates that by 2012, the Medical Tourism industry will earn $3 billion, surpassing the early projection of $1 billion. “The worse the economic crisis is abroad, the better for this industry,” adds Collins.

Unfriendly competition

A major deterrent in the attainment of DOT’s goal is the growing competition among neighboring Asian countries, primarily Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia. Carrion laments that some of these countries spread gross misinformation about the Philippines to gain an advantage.

“In Singapore, they announced that we only had 1,200 patients come in. I was shocked. Somebody is trying to put us down, especially Singapore. They’re saying the Philippines should have nothing to do with Medical Tourism, they should send nurses all over the world. That’s not correct. They’re afraid of us,” says Carrion.

The best way to counter that, she says, is to make the Philippines’ presence felt. Thus, the DOT is spending millions to send Carrion, Collins and other officials to medical trade shows all over the world to spread awareness and showcase what the country can offer.

During the 2008 First Annual World Medical Tourism and Global Health Congress in San Francisco, Carrion confronted Alex Piper, President of One World Global Healthcare Solutions, who during his speech omitted the Philippines as one of the Asian countries offering Medical Tourism. 

“I got mad at him. I told him he was missing the most important country,” she says. “He went to my presentation, saw what the Philippines could offer, and he was surprised. From then on, he mentioned us.”

Another obstacle could possibly be the 2010 presidential elections, wherein the new administration’s prioritizes might shift to other economic pursuits. Despite the earnings Medical Tourism has attained, Carrion is apprehensive about its future. “Who knows, [newly-elected government officials] might not want to touch Medical Tourism,” she says. “Sometimes they don’t understand. That would be painful for the Philippines. We have to tell them to continue.”

Carrion stresses that Medical Tourism is not only for foreigners. She is appealing to Filipinos abroad to come home for their healthcare needs. “I’m begging on bended knees to make them realize that their country is number one in Medical Tourism. We have good doctors, good system, good technologies, and you save a lot of money. We’re not a Third World country.”

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TAAL: HERITAGE TOWN

Travel

TAAL: HERITAGE TOWN

No Comments 23 January 2010

By Amadís Ma. Guerrero

At C-5 Road in Taguig City, Metro Manila, near my residence, the car bearing friends Odette and Binggirl of the Earth Day Philippines Network hove into view, and we were on our way. It was to be ecotourist tour, with equal emphasis on the environment; and our destination was the heritage town of Taal in Batangas, its Pansipit River, and nearby Lake Taal, the historic body of water and ecological wonder.

We took the Tagaytay route, less traffic and more scenic. Tagaytay the ridge city remains a prime piece of real estate for entrepreneurs and Manila residents seeking to build a resthouse in that cool hideaway. There are now a bewildering number of restaurants, hotels and inns, mansions and subdivisions. But from time to time along the ridge, there were views of Taal Volcano and the lake, as beautiful as ever from a distance.

Odette was enchanted; she hadn’t passed this way for some time. The problems concerning the lake were not evident from here.

Then we reached Batangas and the highway curved downward towards the lowlands, passing through San Nicolas and Agoncillo, with a lot of greenery still around. Then came bustling Lemery and finally, after a relatively brief ride of more than two hours, Taal, with its stairway dedicated to the first Filipino saint Lorenzo Ruiz, miraculous Our Lady of Casaysay Church along the Pansipit River, and row of 19th century ancestral homes leading to the plaza, where stands the mighty San Martin de Tours Basilica, its majesty now marred by a new belfry which looks like an infant formula bottle (biberon, as one resident irreverently told me during a previous visit).

Taal has a rich history and, during the Spanish regime, was the capital of the province, also named Taal (now Batangas). The area it covered stretched from the lake-volcano to Balayan Bay. It was a progressive area, Taaleños (Batangueños) being hardworking. But a catastrophic eruption of Taal Volcano in 1849 wrought havoc upon the lakeshore districts, followed by a severe earthquake in 1849.

The sitios and barrios – Lemery, Bauan, San Nicolas, Santa Teresita, San Luis and Alitagtag – became towns. And Taal itself was transformed into a sleepy, quiet little town overlooking Balayan Bay. It is a living museum town, not quite on the scale of Vigan in the North but still an important reminder of what is worth preserving from the past.

There are many landmarks in Taal, among them the Agoncillo ancestral home, or the Marcella Agoncillo Historical Landmark which is run by the National Historical Institute.

Marcela Agoncillo’s claim to fame in Philippine history is that she sewed the Philippine flag which was displayed during the inauguration of the First Philippine Republic on June 12, 1898. This was at the request of President Emilio Aguinaldo. Marcela and her husband Felipe were also in exile then in Hong Kong.

The museum, restored and well maintained, has antiques, mementoes and artifacts associated with ancestral homes. But what caught my eye were old books in Tagalog, English and French; the latter were acquired while the couple was in the Crown Colony.

Near the Agoncillo home is another architectural gem, an ancestral home built in the late 19th century, and now oddly named Villa Tortuga as a tribute to the marine turtle (pawikan) which can occasionally be seen in the nearby river.

The house still reeks of elegant, bygone days and has original planks for floors, capiz-shell windows, long table, vintage photographs, chandeliers, family piano, a mural depicting the countryside, paintings, staircase, multimedia artworks, and santo. The designer who rents the house has added antiques from his own collection.

And it was to this house that we repaired to for lunch cum briefing on the ecological state of Lake Taal. Our host for the delicious meal (which included tawilis fish, a delicacy from the lake) was renowned glass sculptor Ramon Orlina, who is a favorite son of Taal.

Also present were staffers from the local and regional DENR (Department of Environment & Natural Resources) and consultants.

The consensus was that Lake Taal, which is a prime ecotourist attraction in Southern Tagalog, is in a lamentable condition ecologically (tagilid) due to pollution, overfishing, and proliferation of fish cages. The prized fish maliputo is becoming an endangered specie.

 Talks are ongoing with the mayors of the surrounding towns, and most are cooperating, submitting the names of owners of fishpens which have to be dismantled. These cages have to be reduced to a tolerable level. One mayor, however, seems to be protecting the fishpen owners. Koreans are believed to be the investors/ silent partners in these ventures.

Later we chatted with Peter Capotosto of Sail Philippines, an Italian-American who is a longtime resident of Batangas, and an ecological consultant/coordinator.

“The pollution comes from residents and businesses like the resorts,” Capotosto said. “They are dumping sewage directly into the lake. Taal is a living lake but it is dying. A lot of people also dump their garbage into the rivers that flow down to the lake, including the Pansipit, which is the only river that drains out into the sea.” Pansipit runs through four towns- Taal, Lemery, Agoncillo and Balayan.

 Another source of pollution is fish feed, which is actually chicken waste (s–t). “You see piles and piles of this chicken feed,” the environmental specialist said. “There is a simple solution. Just classify fish feed as solid waste, and you are not allowed to dump solid waste into the lake.” But pollution, he added, is worse in the area of the fish cages.

“The lake used to be very clear but it is now murky,” Capotosto concluded. “You cannot see a fellow diver only several feet away. And this is a tourist zone!”

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THERE IS MORE TO THE PHILIPPINES THAN BORACAY

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THERE IS MORE TO THE PHILIPPINES THAN BORACAY

2 Comments 23 January 2010

 Although the Philippines brands itself as a destination of more than 7,000 islands, tourism industry investors have until recently focused most of their energy on the tropical island paradise of Boracay.

 Discovered by backpackers in the 1980s, the small island in the Western Visayas that boasts long stretches of spectacular white-sandy beaches has become the country’s most developed tourism location, attracting more than 60 percent of the country’s foreign leisure travelers. In 2007 it attracted more than 600,000 visitors, 8 percent more than in 2006.

 In contrast to the rest of the country, Boracay, with a capacity of over 2,000 rooms, caters to both luxury and budget segment travelers, and is well served by local airlines.

 However, there is now consensus among local tourism insiders that Boracay has reached its saturation point and may lose its paradise appeal if it tries to accommodate larger volumes of visitors.

 “Boracay is not like Bali in Indonesia. It is quite a small island that cannot expand to accommodate large numbers of visitors,” a local tour operator told OBG. The focus of tourism authorities is now on diversifying the country’s hospitality product range in order to reach the declared target of 5 million visitors by 2010. Although efforts have been made to promote alternative destinations, Boracay nevertheless continues to dominate the Philippine tourism industry.

Only Cebu has arguably managed to compete with Boracay. Established as the new gateway to the Visayas, the island enjoys a strategic geographical location, offering both an international airport and an array of small virgin islands off its coast The island hosted nearly 1.5 million visitors in 2007, 19 percent more than in 2006. However, it is important to note that most of these were business travelers. Cebu’s product range is much more limited than Boracay’s, as it is focused primarily on the high-end segment epitomized by such lavish international accommodation as Shangri-La’s Mactan Resort & Spa. It has also marketed itself successfully as a new destination for convention, diving and heritage tourism.

Budget travelers

The new wave of travelers to the Philippines is most likely to come from mid-range budget travelers, supported by aggressive expansion of low-cost airlines; rising incomes in Asian countries, such as China; and an increase in long-haul travelers from Scandinavia, Germany and, most recently, Russia.

Indeed, the Philippines has been experiencing high growth in travelers from all over the globe. Most significantly, visitors from China rose by 194 percent from 2006 to 2007, as well as by 34 percent for visitors from Europe and 28 percent from the US. Overall growth has remained in the high single digits throughout 2008.

Yet, this falls short of some 600,000 new arrivals the country needs to attract to stay on track for its 2010 arrival target.

The industry as a whole shares the common problem of a lack of transport connectivity and local infrastructure that can cater to new arrivals. In the absence of prerequisite infrastructure guarantees, investors hesitate to put their money in new tourism destinations.

The World Economic Forum Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report released in 2008 ranked the Philippines 86th in the world behind its regional rivals Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, due to low marks for infrastructure and business environment. This is in spite of its ninth ranking in terms of price competitiveness and high potential in human resources for the hospitality sector.

While there is no lack of recognition that the country urgently needs to upgrade its infrastructure, opinion seems to diverge on which tourist areas should be prioritized. Big-ticket spending has so far been limited to expanding the capacity of Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, expected to become the main gateway for the country as a whole. However, this will not necessarily improve access to regional islands, the primary destination for foreign travelers. A majority of regional airports that are key to tourism expansion are still unable to accept larger international aircrafts, thus constraining growth and further investment.

Palawan beckons

A case in point is Palawan, which in 2007 was rated the best island destination in Southeast Asia by National Geographic Traveler magazine. It has long been considered the hottest new alternative to Boracay, offering pristine tropical nature, unique World War II shipwreck dives and white sandy beaches.

Palawan’s attractiveness as a new tourism investment destination was confirmed by Singapore-based Banyan Tree Holdings, which announced earlier in 2008 that it will invest approximately $70 million in two new resorts in Palawan. A number of local investors who have succeeded in Boracay are also targeting Palawan as the next big destination in the Philippines.

However, Palawan’s most attractive location, Coron—which has some of the best scuba diving in the world and is the site of one of Banyan Tree’s new resorts—is still served only by a handful of small low-cost airlines that fly between Manila and Coron’s Busuanga airport.

Thanks to active investment interest and help from regional authorities, the airport has recently seen its basic infrastructure upgraded in order to accommodate larger aircrafts. Yet international connectivity will remain limited as long as the airport is unable to handle a larger volume of traffic. Seats on smaller aircrafts often sell out, and flight schedules are not necessarily convenient for international visitors coming through Manila.

Even the popular Boracay, which enjoys several daily flights and more convenient flight schedules, is limited to smaller aircraft, constraining its flow of visitors.

As one local tour operator told OBG, “The development of the Philippine tourism industry is currently driven not by demand, but by capacity. If you remove the transport and infrastructure bottlenecks, investors will come and visitors will come.”

In particular, the country needs to further the growth in regional tourism from countries such as China, Japan and South Korea, which accounted for around 50 percent of visitors in 2007.

The onus is therefore on central and regional authorities to upgrade the Philippines’ infrastructure so as to diversify its tourism sector. This is necessary if the country is to break into the fast lane of the growing regional tourism market.

By Oxford Business Group

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