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Community immersion: Linking the gap between tourism and culture
by Rimaliza Opiña

Community immersion: Linking the gap between tourism and culture Incidents of an actor being declared unwanted in Baguio for a supposed slur against Igorots and the issuance of an apology by a diplomat to a group of Igorot students frequently end up as a news in both local and Manila media. Often, public condemnation against the person responsible for the slur happens, yet the cycle of "discrimination," continues.

Ignorance about the origins, customs, and traditions of the Igorots is said to be the primary reason why fellow Filipinos have stereotypes of "native" Filipinos in general. Minority vs majority.

According to L.P. Verora, author of the book "Unreached Peoples ‘82, Reaching the Igorots," cultural minorities were unheard of before the Spaniards invaded the Philippines. He said the natives crossed the islands freely. There was a free exchange of products with fellow Filipinos and with foreign merchants.

"Up north, the tribes honored and prayed to their gods, minded their own way of life, tended their subsistence, developed their folklore, and invented their literature and arts."

Verora said back then, the natives, even with the absence of a "republic" or a "commonwealth," established their own government.

"There were a few warrior tribes which raided weaker ones, taking captives but only to avenge personal encounters or appease gods but not to seize territories. Among the Igorots, there was the bodong (peace pact). In short, there was no so-called "minority" or a "majority."

Verora said Igorots being treated as "minority" began when Spain decided to conquer colonies. These colonies would bring in spices, gold, and other resources that would help rescue it from debts. The strategy employed was to establish galleons.

Verora said these galleons became a way for Spain to enter the Philippines. Using the divide and conquer strategy, they recruited fellow Filipinos in their military expeditions against the Igorots. Natives who worked for them were rewarded positions in the colonial government.

Unafraid of the Spaniard’s tactics, the Igorots, with the help of the terrains of the Cordillera mountain range, fought the conquerors. Hispanization however began to divide Filipinos.

Quoting historian William Scott’s account, Verora said "not only did colonialism bring about a cleavage between the elite minority and the majority of the natives, it also created a division between the tribal minorities and the Christian majority, the Igorots included."

Carry over to modernization
The stereotyping of Igorots has been carried for generations. But while some sectors resorted to demands for apology, Igorots many of whom are schooled, thought of other ways to assert their right as a people and preserve their customs and traditions.

With the discovery of the region’ tourism potential, community immersion has been devised as one way of educating the public about the Igorot’s way of life.

There is no documented or historical account of when community immersion, usually through homestay programs, began, but the entry of religious missionaries and American teachers in the Cordilleras could very well be the first documented exposure of "visitors" to the culture of Igorots.

Tourism Regional Director Purificacion Molintas said Ifugao province is one of the local governments that institutionalized the community immersion program.

"In efforts to preserve their culture, community immersion was adopted as an alternative form of promotion," Molintas said.

The defunct Ifugao Rice Terraces Commission, which later reformed to the Ifugao Rice Terraces Commission and Cultural Office, institutionalized the community immersion program primarily to educate the public, specifically students about the community and the local and national governments’ preservation efforts on the terraces that are slowly deteriorating due to wear and tear as well as lack of interest among the natives to continue farming. Preservation of culture is also incorporated in the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act.

Chapter VI of the IPRA gives credence to preservation of indigenous culture, traditions and institutions. Sections 31, 32, and 33 of the same chapter recognize cultural diversity, community intellectual rights, and rights to religious cultural sites and ceremonies.

SiTMo
Community immersion projects continued and were intensified particularly in Ifugao. The local government, in partnership with private entities, formed the Save the Ifugao Rice Terraces Movement or SiTMo.

Still venturing on community immersion, the group strengthened the program not only through homestays. In coordination with village leaders, the group arranged organized package tours, and scheduled these in time for the planting or harvest season.

Then governor and now Rep. Teddy Baguilat Jr. said the program not only helps enhance the tourism industry, it also inculcates among tourists the hard work put into building the terraces. As part of the immersion program, the villagers were made to become "foster parents" to tourists by offering all amenities of their home to the visitors.

Tourists were also exposed to the indigenous way of environmental preservation, commonly known as muyong. This way, their culture and traditions are taught and "accurately" explained to visitors. In 2008, when the Philippines hosted the biennial gathering of Igorots, expatriates and their children who barely know anything about their roots were made to stay in the villages for a number of days.

Incorporating tradition in fiestas
Even as the fiestas originated from Spain, even small towns in the Cordillera capitalized on these festivals to re-introduce indigenous culture.

In Barlig and Natonin, two of the remotest towns in Mountain Province, and in other town fiestas, indigenous games have also been incorporated as one way of preserving culture. The smaller towns may not have a big number of tourists compared to established and long-running festivals but these efforts help keep tradition alive.

Several towns in the region are also recipients of grants from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts for the establishment of schools of living tradition (SLTs). These SLTs aim to preserve traditions and culture enshrined in dances, songs, games, architecture, and arts, among other practices.

Ifugao for instance, has 19 SLTs that teach the traditional chant, Hudhud.

Challenges
Not all immersion programs, however, are successful.

Natonin Municipal Administrator Gilbert Bangilan said a culture of allowing guests to stay in the homes of some villagers has yet to be developed.

Homestay is promoted in this town due to lack of accommodations. Last year however, available accommodations could hardly contain the number of tourists who visited their locality.

He also admitted while there are efforts to preserve their culture, amenities that guests are used to should also be provided.

Bangilan said these are lessons they have learned and from these, they intend to improve in the coming years. Molintas said there is no survey or study to show if community immersion is effective in educating the public.

However she said the tourism department will continue promoting this brand of tourism especially in far-flung areas in the region to help convince tourists about the adventures they can encounter in a certain locality.

She said the testimony of tourists is enough proof that the community immersion program is working in bridging the gap between tourism and cultural sensitivity.

"Gone are the days when sightseeing was the fad. Physical activity gives experiential satisfaction," Molintas said.
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