By Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman, Reporter
More than 1,400 kilometers away from the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) in Manila is a destination that offers surprises for beach bums and nature lovers. Mati City in Davao, Oriental might easily pass as a regular travel destination because it is not as famous as Boracay.
But like the internationally recognized island paradise, Mati also has a rich collection of sun, sea, and sand.
“It’s the kind of place we only see in postcards. The bounties of the sea are fresh, generous, and cheap,” said Gabbie Baniqued, a local traveler.
However, the similarity between Boracay and Mati ends there.
While traveling to Boracay has become relatively easier through the years, getting to Mati, the province’s capital city, may strain the patience of tourists.
After all, visitors will have to travel for four hours to get there upon arriving in Davao City, which is more than an hour’s flight away from Manila.
“It’s a surfer’s dream destination,” Ms. Baniqued said, adding that the place could easily be the La Union of the South. She visited Mati’s Dahican Beach sometime in April, and said would revisit it in a heartbeat.
“But the challenge is going there [to the beach]. Walang dumadaan na mga tricycle. (No tricycle was passing by). The inn we rented was approximately 20 minutes away from the beach.” But there are small beach resorts, she clarified.
The marketplace, she recounted, was on the National Highway and the neighborhood stores that dotted the beach areas sold goods at atrocious prices. She advised visitors to bring their own food. Those who fail to do so might be forced to pay hand over fist — that is, if they can catch a ride to the nearest food kiosk — just to grab some grub.
As a result, these and many other inconveniences have not only made it difficult for travelers to enjoy their trips, they have also discouraged new tourists from the get-go, no thanks to the lack of roads and other related tourism facilities.
But those days are over.
At least for Mati.
According to the Department of Tourism (DoT) Region XI director Roberto P. Alabado III, the department is working with the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) to ease the burden of traveling while helping underdeveloped tourist sites get their much-needed boost.
“Through the DoT-DPWH joint undertaking program called Tourism Road Infrastructure Program (TRIP), local road projects to tourist destinations are prioritized. Davao Oriental is one of the beneficiaries of this program with three major roads completed within 2010-2016 period,” he told BusinessWorld in an e-mail interview.
New roads have now been built to connect Mati, the capital city, to three newest tourism destinations in the province, which are the Pusan Point Ecopark, Mt. Hamiguitan Range, and Wildlife Sanctuary and Aliwagwag Falls Protective Landscape. Mati City is also accessible from Davao del Norte and Compostela Valley via Cateel and Boston.
Connecting the Philippines
Funded by a P60-billion allocation, the government’s tourism road program has completed an estimated 1,549 kilometers of roads, “complementing the country’s natural attractions and drawing local and foreign tourists,” the public works department said in an earlier statement.
The allotment, released over “the period of five years from FY 2011 to 2015 was utilized to finance 463 projects involving construction, upgrading, rehabilitation, and improvement of roads and bridges including slope protection works with a total length of 2,502 kilometers,” said the statement published on the Official Gazette.
Some of the completed projects include: the Junction Ilocos Norte-Abra Road, which is a gateway to Nueva Era in Ilocos Norte, which offers ecotourism activities; the 11-kilometer road to Ambangeg Junction National Road to Mount Pulag, the third highest mountain in the country known for its breathtaking view of sunrise and sunset; and the road widening in the town of Glan in Sarangani Province, which leads to its Gumasa beach, dubbed as “The Little Boracay of Southern Mindanao.”
For 2016 meanwhile, DoT Assistant Secretary for Tourism Planning Rolando T. Cañizal said, “P22.58 billion has been provided in the approved budget of the DPWH for the construction or improvement of access roads leading to tourism destinations.”
He said funds have been allocated, for instance, to Sta. Fe-Bantayan-Madredijos Provincial Road in Bantayan Island, Cebu, which is also a favorite tourist destination despite the challenge to get there.
“The DoT and DPWH are working closely to continue this convergence program under the National Tourism Development Plan for 2016-2022,” said Mr. Cañizal.
By then, the DoT might already be able provide information on how connected the country is.
“More tourists have been able to visit more places in the country since the national government has given attention to improving access to tourist destinations beginning in 2012 to the present,” he said.
The latest DoT data said the tourist arrivals reached two million from January to April 2016, which is a 14% increase from the same period last year. Our target for this year is 6.5 million tourist arrivals.
Tourism after Yolanda
Like Mati, Bantayan Island in Northern Cebu is a stunning destination that could easily draw local and foreign visitors. It boasts white sand beaches and clear waters reminiscent of Boracay’s, if not better.
To reach the island from the Mactan-Cebu International Airport, travelers have to go to the Cebu North Bus Terminal, and hop on a bus for a two-hour trip that will take them to Hagnaya Port. Upon reaching the port, the bus will get on a Roll-On, Roll-Off (RoRo) vessel and travel for another one and a half hours to reach the area.
But the island, known as Visayas’ “egg basket,” was hit by super-typhoon Haiyan in 2013, affecting its poultry industry and devastating 90% of its houses and structures, which has also dampened its growing tourist and investor enthusiasm.
Bantayan Island is among the nine tourism development areas aided by the Local Governance Support Program for Local Economic Development, a Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) program funded by the Canadian government. The other areas are Albay, Sorsogon, Davao del Norte, Antique, Guimaras, Siquijor, Negros Oriental and Occidental, and Northern Cebu and Palawan.
Together with the Philippine Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the goal of the project is the revival of investor interest after the typhoon, which will eventually result in more visitors.
According to the data from BusinessWorld-Research, tourism arrivals in these regions have started regaining momentum. For instance, Sorsogon and Albay have increased tourist arrivals by an average of 32.18% between 2011 and 2015. Thanks to an overspill of Boracay Island tourists, its neighbor, Antique, grew its tourist arrivals by 44.12% between 2011 and 2015.
In addition, Central Visayas, which includes Cebu and thus, Bantayan Island, “has the absorptive capacity with the influx of local and foreign tourists. We have the most number of rooms outside the National Capital Region, and other necessary services that tourists needed,” said Mr. Cañizal.
‘Software’ readiness and millennials’ bucket list
But in the absence of road networks and hotels, the community needs to appear as a strong player in propagating its growing tourism industry, including, ingenious offerings like homestays and tent rentals.
“You also need the ‘software’ or the people and its strong sense of community empowerment. They should be at the frontline. Sometimes, even in absence of infrastructure, they will come [as a key source of tourism strategy],” Clang Garcia told BusinessWorld in a phone interview.
Ms. Garcia is the founder of Jeepney Tours, a city tour that roams Manila via air-conditioned jeepneys (with karaoke inside); and is a member of the Philippine Tour Operators Association, (PHILTOA) Inc., a private organization of 999, and growing, travel agencies, hotels, resorts, handicraft stores, transport groups, and other tourism related companies.
PHILTOA has partnerships with the regional DoTs and LGUs in “search for promising destinations — not necessarily those with ample hotels — but the ones that are ready to start, if not starting.”
“We scour the country in search for a tourism-ready destination,” she said, “but we will not push it in the absence of the locals’ initiatives and go signal. We are only the conduit.”
When asked for samples of underdeveloped tourism sites, she mentioned Siquijor, which is part of Central Visayas region. “It still needs improvement, probably more hotels and properties. But it is promising.”
A province veiled in mystique, Siquijor is often associated with superstition and sorcery. But according to the It’s More Fun in the Philippines Web site, the island is a treasure trove waiting to be unearthed because it is replete with natural wonders like beaches, caves, and waterfalls, among others.
PHILTOA said it has identified six other tourist destinations that may be underdeveloped yet they form part of millennials’ 2016 bucket list: Romblon, Catanduanes, Marinduque, Iloilo’s Gigantes Islands, Real in Quezon, and Tanay and Antipolo in Rizal. The provinces are part of PHILTOA’s annual Philippine Travel Mart fair in September.
These sites are underdeveloped because they are “separate islands that are hard to reach, without regular visitors, and with no direct and daily flight schedules but RoRo,” said Ramon F. Mariñas, PHILTOA product development in charge and board member, in a phone interview.
“The millennials are group of people who are really interested in other places than the mainstream,” he said. They are game for adventures and mostly backpackers who are unfussy and over-particular.
Sites off the beaten path
Mr. Mariñas said the group has just finished its nine-day immersion in Romblon to see and discover what it still has to offer.
An archipelagic region in Mimaropa, Romblon is primarily known for its marble. But beyond its metamorphic rock products, Mimaropa is a collection of islands with majestic views of the underwater world, including Sibuyan, which is dubbed as “The Galapagos of Asia.” Its Carabao Island, meanwhile, is a good alternative for Boracay Island and its party-ready atmosphere.
“It benefits from the tourist spill in Boracay,” said Mr. Mariñas. He said the LGU they have worked with has implemented a master plan development to maintain its immaculate beauty
“Perhaps in 10 years time we’ll see its development,” he added.
One hundred fifty nine kilometers south of Romblon, meanwhile, is another underdeveloped destination: Iloilo’s Gigantes Islands.
“Part of its charm is an overnight stay in one of the islands via cottage or tent. It [offers] total relaxation because the place almost has no cellular signal,” said Kenneth M. Dulla, 23, who visited Gigantes Islands last summer. He added that the areas have rotating electricity schedules.
Gigantes Islands is a remote group of islands in Northeastern Iloilo. From Iloilo City, it takes five hours of land travel to Estancia town and two hours more of boat travel to reach the isolated islands blessed with a bounty of beaches, rock formations, and fresh seafood.
According to the Iloilo government Web site (www.iloilo.gov.ph), the tourist arrivals in the province increased in 2015 reached 206,204, compared with 2014’s 159,398 visitors.
Most of the island hopping activities in Gigantes Islands have no entrance fee. Mr. Dulla and his friends paid P2,000 each for a travel package that covered their tent, food, and transportation.
“It is true when they say that ‘It’s More Fun in the Philippines’ because we have a lot to offer and to discover,” said Mr. Dulla.
Ms. Garcia agreed and added that sometimes, even established tourist sites, more so the underdeveloped destinations, could offer sites located off the beaten paths — only if you know how to find them.
“The underdeveloped tourist sites have not yet fully embraced the tourism culture. The resources are there but they do not know how to maximize it,” added Mr. Mariñas, saying that PHILTOA works with regional DoTs and LGUs in “product development” ideas, or steps on how to package a potential or underdeveloped tourist destination.
“What’s important is to create noise,” he said.
Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman (@nickkydg on Twitter) likes cheap airfares and secondhand books. She is reading The Light Between Oceans before it hits cinemas in September.