Monday, 4 January 2010

Bohol on the fast lane

Raul V. Fabella

It took 30 hours on a "superferry" to reach Bohol from Manila. Unlike our interisland transport that seems to have retrograded, however, Bohol appears in some hurry to the future. Once synonymous with a promenade into the past, you hear a lot more about Bohol these days. The province in general and Panglao Island is giving Boracay a run for its tourist money.

Bea Zobel’s missionary effort in its behalf is beginning to deliver a ringing harvest of delicately appointed spots to visit and savor. The Dauis Church chancery renovation and transformation has the clawmarks of high-minded discernment and solicitude. Smallish Amarella, easily a favorite of well-heeled family vacationers wanting privacy, fascinates with its manicured floral landscape, stunning panoramic view, and its celebration of local artistic talents. One will be hard put finding anywhere else in the Philippines the equal in delicacy of cuisine and elegance of ambiance on offer at Old Heidelberg Restaurant owned by resident German Hans Hoff and located in Baclayon town. Startler number one is the sudden apparition of Peacock Garden, a vast menagerie of manicured walks, coiffured mango trees and flowerbeds, and top-caliber accommodations at the end of a nondescript suggestion of a road. Just when you thought your quota for wonder exhausted, you enter a restaurant having the appointment of a mini-museum and featuring a rich private collection of German cultural memorabilia that transports visitors to Heidelberg, Germany. No tacky imitations here; just pure authentic delights! Foremost among these: the sofa that our hero, Dr Jose Rizal, used while visiting Heidelberg, Germany. These and other "pleasant shockers" give the impression that Bohol has come of age and has begun to set the standard.

The development most promising as regards economic prospects is the completion of the Bohol Circumferential Road, which now rings the province with a uniformly specified all-weather concrete highway, a tribute to outgoing Governor Erico Aumentado. The Bohol road system of 10 years ago was just a patchwork of gravel and sprinkled asphalt that wash away with the rains. Back then, Bohol’s claims to fame included "Loboc’s half-a-bridge," a legendary homage to incompetence (corruption some claim) located at Loboc town. The bridge was started without the right of way being secured: the right of way, believe it or not, called for relocating the whole Loboc Church! As if to signal the new "can do" mood, this eyesore has been magically transformed into a stage for the famous Loboc Children’s Choir. Now you can view two humming tributes, one to human audacity and the other to human folly, in one evening. Talk about turning adversity into opportunity!

The speedy road system now means that whole province will begin to share the fruits of the burgeoning tourist trade. Farther flung attractions such the Loay-Loboc River Cruise and Firefly Watching and the Peacock Garden will host more than just hardy adventurers as the time and inconvenience cost of travel falls. And jobs will follow in their wake. Not that Bohol will lose its appetite for OCW jobs anytime soon. Everyone agrees that a very high proportion of families here has a foreign exchange lifeline.

The boon as expected is not without its cost and its detractors. Locals grumble that land prices have become prohibitive. Tourists come, get captivated, and decide to convert their romance into a long-term investment. As the cost of transport falls, local products once locked in for local demand now beckon buyers from far afield. Fish landed in Bongamar, Jagna, routinely get snapped up by buyers from Cebu or Tagbilaran. The well-heeled tourists of Panglao Island will pay unheard of premia for a rack of fresh "isdang bato." No wonder that townspeople everywhere demur as one the high fish prices. Our taxi driver, otherwise a wholly sensible fellow, declared for restricting local fish catch to local markets! Seems like common sense at first blush. Except that that would harm the fisher folk and the fish industry employing a good portion of the poor population in this sea-hugged island. No matter, he returned with true Boholano grit, the fishpond owners are outsiders. Such restrictions remind one of Ramon Magsaysay’s famous directive: "Repeal the law of supply and demand!" However well-meaning, they are quixotic but don’t count on common sense to vanish them. With the 2010 elections knocking, quick-fix remedies are being trafficked. Picturesque Bohol is not immune from bouts of hubris. The soon-to-begin construction of an international airport on Panglao Island is an example. Being just 20 minutes away by air from Mactan International Airport suggests awful waste! Perhaps Bohol Republic sometimes feels the urge to punctuate its autonomy from imperial Cebu.

That disputes germane to economic progress hug public discourse only point out that Bohol is generally headed in the right direction. Here’s hoping that the New Year will usher in a new crop of elected officials who will stay the course through the next decade.

Raul V. Fabella is the vice chairman of the Institute for Development and Econometric Analysis, a professor at the UP School of Economics, and a member of the National Academy of Science and Technology.

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