Northern exposure


The decision to go to Laoag Ilocos Norte was born of one thing: cheap flights. We figured we could get on a plane to Laoag, spend a day there, and then get on a bus to Vigan, Ilocos Sur—the more tourist-famous of the Ilocos provinces—where we imagined we would want to stay. Heritage! Culture! Empanada! Vigan was the way to go.

But there we were, two days in Laoag and already thinking of stretching it another day. We hit the beaches of Pagudpud and thought we’d stay there the rest of the week, but found ourselves on a bus back to Laoag after a day, and then onto a bus to Batac for some Marcos nostalgia, empanada, and lomi. There was the option of doing another Museo Ilocos Norte visit, though walking the city one last time—or getting on those kalesas that rule the streets—would’ve been good enough, too.

As it turns out, Ilocos Norte is not simply the place you pass through to get to Vigan. It’s a destination in itself, one that has everything to do with the Marcoses.

The tourism trap

I loathe the idea of tourism, and absolutely abhor the kind of tourism that this country has engaged in since time immemorial. The current  It’s More Fun in the Philippines campaign of the Department of Tourism (DOT) is not new or extraordinary, hewn as it is from the same cloth of tourism campaigns since forever: profit is all, people be damned.

As such, these picture perfect scenes, women and children smiling widely, headdresses and giant paper maché sculptures, dancing and partying, these to me are images as old as prostitution. The latter is what I think of tourism really, and that is because there is prostitution. Tourism might not be the reason for its existence, but tourism sure fans its flames, selling as it always does our women, even when it’s just that DOT poster with smiling Filipinas inviting the world to come for our hospitalities.

And then there is this: if you travel this country at all, you will find that tourism’s promise of better lives and improved local economies remains unfulfilled. One only needs to see the poverty that riddles the beautiful white sands and breathtaking seascapes, the hunger that is in those heritage sites uncared for and unfunded for far too long. There is also a clear disconnect between the roles locals play in tourism, doing the underground economy and service sector jobs; and the fact of big business without controls, one that the DOT encourages as well because look! development! adventure! shopping! FUN.

It is culture that we sell when we talk about tourism. And yet it is culture that we do not fund, that we fail to support, that is the last on the list of things that government considers when putting up a tourism program.

Not in Ilocos Norte.

Doing right by locals

Landing in Laoag in the middle of the night, there is not much of the city to see. But oh my goodness, there was food to be had. Thinking only of cheap accommodations with wifi (because work), we ended up in Balai de Blas and the restaurant Saramsam adjoining it. We were in Ilocos food heaven, with the usual suspects of longganisa and bagnet, but also pizza topped with dinuguan, or fondue of bilo-bilo, kamote and saba to be dipped in molasses.

The restaurant and Balai de Blas had a smattering of Marcos family and Imelda images, but none that felt too loyalist for comfort. There was a t-shirt being sold that had Ferdinand’s face on it, under which was written “The Real Macoy.” The humor was surprising.

So was the lack of tacky displays of the Marcos name on every waiting shed or sidewalk, every public school or complex. In fact, save for the tourism installation right in front of the provincial capitol, one that had a bust of Macoy and lifesize cardboard cutouts of Bongbong, Imee and Imelda against a backdrop of windmills and a foreground of Antonio Luna’s moustache, there is no sense here that Imee is in charge, or that the provincial myths are filled with that of the Marcos story.

Of course it might be said that they don’t need to have their faces plastered on every wall imaginable: the locals were doing right by their leaders. There’s the kalesa driver in Laoag who is thankful that he and his horse continue to ply the streets, and remain as viable livelihood no matter the city’s development; who talks about being taught and helped to care for his horse and the streets, too. There’s the tindera of beads all the way in Pagudpud who, without any prompting, talks about how Gov had allowed her to learn to do this and fend for family in the process; how they were brought to Bulacan for free so they might learn from experienced experts  how livelihood projects are done there. There was the tour guide of the Juan Luna Shrine in Badoc, excited about the possibility of exhibiting original Luna paintings in the house where the artist and national hero grew up.

There was a sense that everyone was in on the projects of the local and provincial governments. From the Laoag City information officer Monching Formantes (whom we met when we went to the city hall to find a map to guide us through the city), to every tricycle driver we talked to; from the manager at Saramsam to the one at Casa Victoria in Pagudpud; from the museum guide in the Malacañang of the North in Paoay to the manang who owns a salt factory in Pasuquin. None of these people spoke as mere pawns or workers of tourism, as they did speak as crucial players in the grand scheme that the Governor was pushing for, one that is also so well-grounded in culture and heritage, it could only but rub off on the locals.

Doing right by heritage

There is heritage preservation here that speaks of the Marcos kids’ cultural maturity, and dare I say it … class.

Museo Ilocos Norte is the first provincial museum I’ve seen that’s so well curated, it would put even that Ayala Museum diorama of Philippine history to shame – okay, that’s too easy. A transformed 1878 Tabacalera warehouse, the Museo stands right beside the provincial capitol, its structure and heritage conserved, what is built within it so well conceptualized, you’d think you were not in a province in this country. There’s an archeological digging that’s been preserved, and artifacts line the stretch of museum. It leads to a reconstruction of a traditional Ilocos home, from living area to dining room and bedroom, to kitchen and weaving areas. The largeness of this exhibit is not its size, as it is its scope and vision. There is a sense here that the museum was not some government project done because it had funding; there is a sense that it was done because it was important, and it was important enough to do properly.

Stepping out of the Museo, one is treated to the kind of heritage conservation that we do not see in this country – not even Manila. The city hall of Laoag is housed in an old city hall constructed out of brick and molasses, the provincial capitol was constructed in 1917, nearby are the Church of Laoag or St. William’s Cathedral (that’s not been painted some atrocious peach color!) and its Sinking Bell Tower circa 1612. At the center, right in front of the Provincial Capitol is the Tobacco Monopoly Monument surrounded by a park that fills with people in the evenings and on weekends.

This is not to say that the city is without its developments. There is a sense of control here though, where the SM Hypermart is forced to blend into the provincial cityscape. Here, it is a stark white building that is no higher than the old shops and structures that surround it, an insistence on keeping small businesses going as well despite SM.

That is the thing with Ilocos Norte. It is not so much that it is well-structured and controlled; it’s that it is well thought out. The task of tourism seems to have begun by preparing the province for it, where people are self-sufficient, the city streets are clean, heritage is protected, and culture is preserved. They built infrastructure (highways, public toilets), educated people, licensed them to be tourist guides (in Laoag) and home-stay hosts (in Pagudpud) if needed.

Back in Manila after a week (and a horrible bus ride courtesy of those old Partas buses), I happened upon a new DOT Award for Tourism Star Philippines. It was clear to me which province, which people, would win that hands down, based on any set of criteria plus heritage and cultural maturity, and environmentalism, to boot.

Yet it was also clear to me why it would never be given to Ilocos Norte. Denying the Marcos children their due has become a national sport in itself, hasn’t it.


Please follow our commenting guidelines.


  1. the love for the province and the desire for the development of the place and its people is ingrained in the marcos clan members character and values. the people has nothing but admiration for the marcos siblings!!!!