Tuesday, 13 April 2010

OFWs can lead in domestic tourism

By Dr. Bernardo M. Villegas

MANILA, Philippines—Filipino overseas workers could constitute a significant part of the booming domestic tourism that has been given a big boost by improved infrastructures in the Philippine countryside.

There must be a more concerted effort to sell the Philippines as a tourism delight to our very own OFWs. This article is meant to do just that.

Square meter by square meter, there are many more attractions for foreign tourists in the Philippines than in our neighboring countries like Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam. With more than 7,100 islands, there is an almost infinite number of sites for scuba diving, surfing, beach combing, bird watching, "finding Nemo," cliff hanging, dolphin sighting, jet skiing, etc., etc. Probably Indonesia, with 14,000 islands, is the only archipelago that can surpass the number of these tourist attractions.

Then, why are we so behind countries like Thailand and Malaysia in the number of foreign tourists that we attract every year? The main explanation I can give is the very same for our high poverty rate. We have criminally neglected countryside infrastructures, especially farm-to-market roads. Our beautiful sites have been hidden, except to a few local tourists, from the world because they are totally inaccessible. A glaring proof of this is that even our so-called "jewel," Boracay, is so difficult to reach.

Fortunately, in the last ten years or so, there has been a significant improvement in infrastructures in the countryside, the most notable of which is the so-called Philippine nautical highway. There are more and more destinations that are accessible to both foreign and domestic tourists, e.g. Coron in Palawan, Panglao in Bohol, Camarines Sur, Dumaguete, Siquijor, Camiguin, etc. There was a noticeable increase in domestic tourism in crisis-ridden 2009 that compensated for the smaller number of foreign tourists who visited the country. Domestic tourists are literally blazing the trail in discovering what I call the hidden paradises.

Well, let me tell you about one of them, the town of Bani in Western Pangasinan. I recently visited this small town of 45,000 individuals and could not believe what I saw. Name any tourist attraction found in other places of the Philippines and Bani has it: beaches with fine sand; corals (which can be seen even without goggles); scuba diving sites; dolphins; tuna; migratory and indigenous birds (Bani has been included among the major sites for bird-watching); caves; water falls; mountains for trekking and biking; abundant sea food; lush mangrove forest which is a marine protected area; and a version of Calvary Hill with 1,000-step "Via Crucis" leading to a gigantic Cross. As in all Philippine villages, Bani's most important assets are its ever-smiling and hospitable people.

I venture to predict that this hidden paradise will not remain hidden for too long. Thanks to improved infrastructures, it is being slowly discovered by domestic tourists. In 2008, for example, some 8,000 Catholic devotees trooped to the Pilgrimage Site on Tuesday of Holy Week as an act of penance and to enjoy the serene atmosphere that is very conducive to prayer. Thanks to a very dynamic mayor, who spends all his waking hours thinking of and implementing programs to improve the welfare of his constituents, Bani is surely going to be one of the greenest municipalities in the country. It already was awarded the prestigious Galing Pook prize from the Office of the President for its trailblazing program of coastal resource management. In the next three years, this small municipality will have three sources of sustainable energy: wind power, biomass, and a small dam for irrigation and hydroelectric power.

Part of the vision of Mayor Marcelo Navarro Jr. (a former PNP general) is to transform Bani also into an educational center. It is the first municipality to take advantage of the University of the Philippines' Open University system. There are plans to put up a fisheries version of the Family Farm School system in which the children of small fishermen will be trained in more productive methods of fishing. The fishermen of Bani are especially lucky because, through a housing program of the local government, they are being relocated from their present dwellings which are precariously situated along the shore, to a higher area where a hundred Gawad Kalinga-type houses designed by famous Green Architect Miguel Guerrero III will constitute an Ecology Village that can become another tourist attraction of the municipality.

I do not exaggerate when I dream with Mayor Navarro and the other local leaders that in the next ten years, Bani can be a combination of Boracay, Anilao, and Punta Fuego in the amenities that it can provide to both domestic and foreign tourists. I won't be surprised if some selected foreigners will choose this municipality to spend their retirement years, as is already happening in places like Dumaguete and Camarines Sur. Together with my colleagues at the University of Asia and the Pacific, we will help Mayor Navarro and his community attract more attention from the foreign and domestic investment communities so that private capital can be poured into this hidden paradise. When that happens, Bani will not remain hidden for too long.

I hope that some of the OFWs who read this will decide to bring their families and friends to a hidden paradise like Bani. It is a four-hour car ride from Manila going through NLEX and SCTEX, heading towards Camiling, Tarlac and Alaminos, Pangasinan, where there are lodging and bed-and-breakfast facilities. Filipinos should be the first ones to benefit from the attractions of nature, culture and hospitable people of the Philippines.

For comments, my email address is bvillegas@uap.edu.ph.

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