Siquijor: Well-positioned on the tourism highway of Central Visayas

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MARIT STINUS-CABUGON

AROUND 10 in the evening of August 11, about 50 unidentified men aboard three motorized pump boats were sailing in the waters off the town of San Juan, Siquijor. A local fisherman told authorities that the strangers had asked if a patrol boat would be passing the area. Of course, such a report immediately put the police on red alert. (The Abu Sayyaf team that ended up in Inabanga last April 11 had made a brief stop-over in Lazi, the town next to San Juan, on its way to Inabanga, according to a confidential briefing by police and military officials last April 15.) Not far from Siquijor are some of the Philippines’ most visited tourist spots – Apo Island in Negros Oriental, Panglao Island in Bohol and whale shark watching in Oslob, Cebu.

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San Juan itself is a tourist destination with a number of beach resorts located on its white sand beach. The whole island of Siquijor is in fact a tourist destination. The island province is the third smallest in the Philippines (only Batanes and Camiguin are smaller). Comprising six towns, of which the biggest is Siquijor (population: 30,000), the province has only about 100,000 inhabitants—it’s as if everybody knows everybody else. The sense of community makes people vigilant, and suspicious-looking outsiders are usually reported to the local authorities immediately, as happened to the 50 boat-riding men. The local police, headed by Siquijor Provincial Police Director Senior Supt. Erson Digal, has few accomplishments to report, because there is practically no crime on the island. The gruesome double murder that occurred last April when two young women were stabbed to death by a man from Cebu, was an exception.

For a small, very rural province, Siquijor’s road network is well developed, and the conditions of the roads are generally good so getting around is fast, safe and easy. Foreign tourists, who like to escape the congestion, pollution and high prices of the cities, discover Siquijor through travel blogs and Facebook posts by friends. And from Siquijor, one can easily travel to nearby Negros Oriental, Bohol and southern Cebu. Tagbilaran City is one hour away by fast craft. The slower barge takes two hours to reach Santander, Cebu. From there, the famous whale shark watching in Oslob is about 30 minutes away.

Of course, Siquijor is not spared the storms and intrigues of politics. For almost 30 years, the Fua family had held all important elective positions in the province. In the 2013 elections, businessman Zaldy “Jecoy” Villa broke the political dominance of the Fuas, getting himself elected governor. Villa was reelected in 2016 and, unlike most other local politicians, has not joined the ruling PDP-Laban party. Not because he is an opposition politician, but simply because he has nothing to prove. Siquijor has been taking the progressive path since Villa’s gubernatorial win. House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, incidentally, flew in by helicopter last August 13 to preside at a PDP-Laban mass oath-taking. This was held at the Larena Triad Restaurant, located on top of a small mountain offering a spectacular view of the sea.

If one is looking for something unique, something that only Siquijor has, then Kanheron Ranch must be it. Located in Barangay Olo in the town of Siquijor, the ranch is a museum of art and history, a bar and restaurant. The owner and creator, Daryl “Ryl” Cuaresma, a good-looking, humble 50-year old whose family moved to the US when he was 10, conceptualized Kanheron which is described as “Exotic American Old West Experience” in its website (www.kanheron.org). Daryl brought barrels, cowboy boots, furniture, farm tools and more from the US. These items, and chain saws, even cars, old guns, snowshoes, wood burners and other big and small artefacts, give Kanheron its unique ambiance.

Daryl’s own artworks are images of animals and famous Western actors, burned and carved in wood. He wasn’t always an artist. Seven years ago, he lost his regular job. His wife encouraged him to pursue a more creative path. Daryl is self-taught; he says the ability to carve and burn depends on his moods.

Tourism has become the most important source of income and livelihood for the people of Siquijor. Thus, the province has to take care of its tourist attractions, which are primarily its beaches. Siquijor is not yet overrun like Boracay, El Nido and Panglao Island but this early the local government should make sure that resorts do not encroach on the beaches, that establishments install proper sewage systems and other measures to protect the still pristine environment in order to preserve Siquijor not only as a peaceful but also clean and green island paradise.

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