Tourism is as diverse and bustling a year after the earthquake
On October 15, 2013, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake rocked Bohol leaving death and devastation in the beautiful Visayan island. Of the 47 towns in the province, only three were spared with homes, buildings and centuries-old churches damaged, and even one of the famed Chocolate Hills split in half. Worst of all, over 200 Boholanons perished from the natural disaster.
With the aftermath reported internationally through heartbreaking images, Bohol’s previously robust tourism industry expectedly took a blow—but not for long.
Contrary to estimates that it would take years before the province could recover from one of its most difficult ordeals, The Sunday Times Magazine became a first-hand witness to Bohol’s speedy resurgence.
As part of a familiarization tour organized by the Department of Tourism (DOT) from October 1 to 3—two weeks before the earthquake’s first anniversary on October 15—it was both moving and marvelous to see the province rise again to its former beauty.
From October to December 2013, only 22,634 local and international tourists visited the province compared to 27,170 in 2012, equating to a 15.25-percent decline. The challenge continued for a good half of 2014 with only 29,318 tourist arrivals recorded.
“The strength of the earthquake, the destruction it brought about, and the occurrence of aftershocks somehow instilled fear in many people. It definitely kept tourists away during the first quarter of 2014,” acknowledged Judilyn Quiachon, senior tourism operations officer of DOT-Central Visayas.
As early as July this year, however, Bohol Governor Edgar Chatto declared that tourism had been “picking up” in an interview with GMANetwork.com. Three months since, the media group’s tour guide, a proud Boholano by the name of Joshue Hinay, concurred, “We have not yet reached our average tourist arrivals but we are well on our way.”
A native of the municipality of Cortes, Hinay has worked as a tour guide for 15 years, and can attest to the importance of tourism for Boholanons. He said, “It is one of our prime economic drivers and an important poverty alleviator as it creates jobs for locals like me.”
For her part, Quiachon elaborated, “Tourism encourages investments for accommodation facilities, resorts tourism attractions, restaurants, shops and transport for land, sea and air. The industry has also employed thousands of Boholanos for all these businesses. Lastly, it stimulates growth of other industries such as infrastructure, agriculture, and trade.”
In figures, tourism makes up about 20 percent of Bohol’s economy and generates as much as P50 million annually.
With tourism as top priority in Bohol, public and private sectors from around the Philippines and abroad wasted no time in rebuilding the province as best they can.
Efforts began with a partnership between the DOT and the provincial government, whose plans were generously supported by the United States Agency for International Development for the Advancing Philippine Competitiveness (Compete) Project. This in turn opened the door for more concerned organizations to offer help, among them the United Nations World Tourism Organization and the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), which lent their own experts in the crafting the “Bohol Tourism Recovery Plan.”
“Several activities have also been conducted to remove negative images and perceptions about Bohol following the earthquake. We at the DOT continue to work in positioning the province as one of the most attractive eco-cultural destinations in the region. Media and travel trade representatives are consistently invited to Bohol on familiarization tours,” she continued.
Just this September, Gov. Chatto together with six representatives from the accommodation and travel trade sectors participated at the PATA Travel Mart to sell Bohol as a tourist destination.
Even Hinay does his share in boosting Bohol’s tourism by developing new packages that will entice previous visitors to return to the province for a second or even a third time. By November, he will complete a six-day trek tour package that will surely appeal to adventure seekers with hills and river explorations.
Bohol is home to some of the Philippines’ oldest and most important churches, which unfortunately were damaged severely. A few were even completely fallen to the ground.
Considered as heritage sites and national treasures by the National Commission on Culture and the Arts, these churches have long contributed to the diverse tourism attractions of the province.
But as the Boholano spirit seeks to “turn the bad into good,” the churches under reconstruction as well as the ruins have since been incorporated into tourist itineraries.
As part of CCT.168 Travel and Tours Corporation’s “Countryside Travel Package,” Hinay, ever proud, takes his tour groups to the famed Baclayon Church of Bohol.
Officially called the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, Baclayon is the site where Christianity was first established on the island by Spanish missionaries who arrived in 1595.
Today, the church’s entrance and bell tower remains damaged but, thankfully, the rest of the Jesuit-turned-Augustinian church is left standing, including its old rectory.
Part of the rectory remains to be the museum that houses the church’s old relics, statues and paraphernalia. The other half now serves as a school to enable students whose classrooms were damaged to continue their education.
Currently, the Baclayon community hears mass in a makeshift area just outside their church.
Hinay said that Baclayon Church, along with other churches that are awaiting restoration have to undergo data-gathering and digital-mapping by their respective diocese and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines.
Also part of the tour is the Church of San Pedro in Loboc, the second oldest church in Bohol originally built in 1602, whose roof and walls caved in; and the Sta. Monica Church in Alburquerque, which was saved from severe damage as it was being restored even before the earthquake.
According to Hinay, the 17th-century churches of Loon and Maribojoc were both turned into rubble.
On October 15, every church that remains standing in Bohol rang their bell at 8:12 a.m. for 33 seconds in remembrance of the exact time and length of the earthquake in 2013.
The Chocolate Hills and the Philippine tarsiers are always included in the “must-see” checklist for Bohol first-timers. This is why in presenting his province’s most famous stars, Hinay is at his best and most creative.
For an encounter with the tarsiers—the world’s smallest prosimian (a sub-order specie of the primates)—Hinay brings his tourists to the eight-hectare Philippine Tarsier and Wildlife Sanctuary in the town of Corella.
Carlito “Lito” Pizarras welcomed the media group to the sanctuary where he expertly talked about the Philippines tarsiers, which he had closely studied since he was 13 years old.
Now 60, Pizarras serves as field supervisor at the sanctuary and is known to all as the “Tarsier Man” not only for knowledge about the prized animal but also because his name had been added to the scientific name of the Philippine tarsier—Tarsius Carlito syrichta.
According to Pizarras, measuring a maximum of four centimeters in height, the tarsier is a solitary and territorial animal that lives within a 50-square meter area, and hunts within a one-hectare zone. A nocturnal animal, it sleeps by day and hunts by night for insects.
In visiting the resting tarsiers in their natural habitat, touching is prohibited while noise levels are asked to be kept at a minimum in order not to stress or disturb them. Photography is allowed but without the flash.
In parting, Pizarras shared his hopes to further increase the population of Philippine tarsiers in Bohol, which now number to just over a hundred.
Meanwhile, in experiencing the Chocolate Hills, Hinay takes his tour groups to a lesser-known viewing area that offers a more breathtaking perspective of the famed tourist site. This is the Chocolate Hills Adventure Park, (CHAP) located in the first barangay of Carmen town, near Tagbilaran City.
“Situated in the most scenic of sites, CHAP offers a fresh angle on the panorama of the hills through its adrenaline-pumping thrills and scenic nature trails,” shared Jing Velasco, the property’s managing director.
Indeed, visitors of the eco-park—just like some of the more adventurous members of the media tour—can get their “high” from The Rush, a 550-meter bike zip hanging 150-feet above the ground with a the magnificent view of the Chocolate Hills.
Other rope activities are also available such as the canopy walk, Burma planks, and a mini version for kids, among others.
To completely experience nature after viewing the Chocolate Hills, visitors are further enticed to go on hike trails, check out the Serpentarium, an animal interaction area, and go camping in the forrest.
Opened only in April 2013, CHAP is owned and operated by Manila-based investors who want to “complement and not compete with what Bohol already has.”
Future plans include the construction of accommodations in the property.
More of nature
Of course, a trip to Bohol must include a cruise on the famed Loboc River—a scenic 11-kilometer stretch of deep green freshwater reflecting the lush forests surrounding of the province.
Tourists can do so on several floating restaurants, including one that features a boodle fight of humba, grilled seafood, sotanghon guisado (sautéed noodles), chicken inasal, grilled vegetables and hefty servings of rice.
During the cruise a quick stop to see the Cotozan Balsa Performers Association to sing and dance is also a must.
Now while the Loboc River is best experienced by day, its counterpart, the Abatan River is magical by night. Running along the towns of Cortes, Maribojoc, Balilihan, Antequera and Catigbian, Abatan is Bohol’s third largest watershed. It is famous for thousands of fireflies that live in mangroves. Every night, a bandong or a small boat, carries tourists to parts of the river for firefly watching.
Bohol’s tourism industry has indeed come a long way since becoming a favorite diving spot for Europeans as early as the 1980s. By the ‘90s, the province became a stable side trip for visitors to nearby Cebu. Then as the year 2000 stepped in, Bohol became an attractive destination all on its own.
Easily accessible today through regular flights, there are also endless choices for accommodations in the province for every budget.
For the DOT media familiarization tour, the participants were billeted at the Bluewater Panglao Beach Resort in Panglao Island, situated at the southwestern tip of the main island.
Unlike those situated along the island’s famous “Little Boracay” or Alona Beach, Bluewater Panglao offers privacy in a tropical paradise. Each one of its 54 rooms further reflect the artistry of the Filipino with the traditional yet world-class designs of Benjie Reyes.
Complementing the overall experience is a restaurant offering international and local fare, a poolside bar, the hotel chain’s famed Amuma Spa, and beautiful swimming pools.
The resort is run by a warm and caring staff that easily makes Panglao Beach Resort a “home-away-from-home” in Bohol.
According to Hinay, staying in Panglao is advisable for tourists because of proximity to Bohol’s countryside destinations, like the Loboc and Abatan Rivers. Connected by two bridges to the mainland, it takes about 30 minutes by private or public transport to get to Tagbilaran City, and one to two hours to reach such attractions like the Chocolate Hills.
Panglao is also the best starting point to go explore the famous diving spots for underwater adventures. One can go hopping from one island to the next, including Pamilacan, Balicasag, and Virgin islands.
A sweet ending
To conclude the three-day Bohol visit, hosts from DOT together with Hinay brought the media group to a day tour at the Bohol Bee Farm, also in Panglao.
Opened in early the 2000s the popular destination serves as a guesthouse-cum-restaurant for owner Vicky Wallace’s delicious home cooked meals. Today, the Bohol Bee Farm stands as a 4-hectare property with villas, swimming pools, organic greenhouses, and a livelihood and pasalubong centers.
Despite all these developments, Bohol Bee Farm’s main attraction still remains to be Wallace’s honey dips that are a delicious take home of the province.