Thursday, April 13, 2017

[Second Opinion] Holy Week's pilgrimage of tourists

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

This week is significant not just for Christianity, but also for tourism; it is the peak season of travel for many Filipinos. This shouldn’t be a surprise: Unlike Europeans who get five or six full weeks of annual vacation, most employees in our part of the world have very limited leave benefits. For many, Holy Week is a once-in-a-year opportunity to see a part of the country—or the world.

Holy Week, moreover, takes place during the dry season—the perfect time to visit beaches, climb mountains, or even just do a road trip without the risk of storms that come later in the year. For the religious, a trip to the Ilocos can have Manaoag as a side trip; a visit to Sorsogon and Mayon can include a stop for Pe├▒afrancia.

The Lenten pilgrimage of tourists has been around for a long time, but it has swelled in recent years, spurred by cheap flights, better roads, and unprecedented access to information online.

All these developments have opened up various destinations around the country, beyond the traditional attractions like Baguio, Bohol and Boracay. In fact, some folks are aiming to reach all of our country’s 81 provinces.

And ecotourism is growing: Climbing Mount Pulag, canyoneering in Cebu, and swimming in the Enchanted River in Hinatuan have become part of many people’s ever-lengthening “bucket list”—and so has the trek in Buscalan to see Whang-Od.

Overall, I think this is a good development. Ecotourism can form part of a “green economy” that can provide alternatives to more impactful activities like mining and logging. (Donsol and Oslob are good examples: Locals have realized that they can earn more by letting the whale sharks live, instead of hunting them.) Additionally, by having many destinations to choose from, we can “spread the impact” of tourism and therefore lessen the burden on each destination, while distributing the benefits to many.

But the growth of tourism also poses numerous challenges. More and more destinations—old ones like Sagada and Boracay and new ones like the mountains of Rizal—are getting overwhelmed by the sheer number of visitors. Carrying capacity and sustainability—the “eco” before “tourism”—are often left out of the equation.

Then there’s also the question of accountability. Mount Apo’s reopening this week has raised eyebrows not just because of its timing (just a year after the devastating forest fires), but also because of the imposition of a P2,000 fee per visitor—which translates to millions of pesos every year. How will this money be spent? Tourism is good, but we should also be critical of how it is executed and regulated—and vigilant lest it harm the local communities and the environment.

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Filipinos are traveling abroad, too, and Japan has emerged as a crowd favorite, especially at this time of the year—the season of cherry blossoms. Our intrepid kabayan are also hiking in the Himalayas, diving in the Indian Ocean, and going to far corners of Europe and South America. Wherever they go, I hope they can show our country in a better light.

But what of foreign visitors to the Philippines? According to Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo, reportage on the EJKs has made it difficult to “sell” the country (I think it’s the killings more than the reportage).

But while it will turn off some people, I think tourists will come as long as there’s good infrastructure and facilities—including decent airports. For better or for worse—as a recent Inquirer editorial pointed out—most tourists don’t really care about the politics of the country they’re visiting. And the places they visit rarely reflect the country’s social realities: When you are strolling along the beaches of Palawan, or hiking through the mossy forests of Bukidnon, it’s hard to imagine the Philippines other than as a blissful paradise.

In a way, this is understandable. Traveling, after all, is as much an escape as it is a pursuit. For the vacationer, politics can wait, especially when the mere thought of it has become wearisome.
Which is probably why, for many Filipinos jittery about our nation’s future, this week comes as a most welcome break—a respite before the storm.


Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer: http://opinion.inquirer.net/103180/holy-weeks-pilgrimage-tourists

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