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2017
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Tourism in BLISTT: What matters most?
by Hanna Lacsamana

The Cordillera region – the Baguio, La Trinidad, Itogon, Sablan, Tuba, and Tublay (BLISTT) area in particular – without a doubt is one of the most viable areas in the country for tourism. Replete with mountainous settings that provide the most picturesque of views and interesting horizons, its attractions range from places for leisure, business, and therapy that allow one to simply appreciate and connect with nature; its people, unique customs, and products that spawn the most interesting stories and experiences; to the most challenging sports activities and adventures that cannot be matched elsewhere in the Philippines.

More promising BLISTT tourist sites are now being discovered in the usual and unexpected ways. So, for the locals and millions who have been in these areas, saying it’s more fun and cooler in the Cordillera would not be an exaggeration.

Going haywire

Issues on preparedness, limitations, and community and political wills of stakeholders, however, have come to fore. We all have strategized and capitalized on capturing the market, and captured the tourists we did. Recently, the way tourism is handled in some BLISTT areas has been receiving criticisms, particularly when a huge volume of tourists have not been managed well. Residents’ hospitality and patience were tested, and at some point, discouraged and appealed to visitors to go somewhere else, as coming to an already jam-packed place would only defeat the purpose of a visit or vacation.

In Tuba, things are going haywire, as tourism’s ensuing circumstances have touched on the commercial, environmental, cultural, and leadership aspects in the area.

That place called La Presa, a fictional name for a teleserye setting based on an actual Tuba sitio that has recently exploded into our consciousness, is not trying to send the message that tourism does not bode well in that area; instead, it tells stakeholders in the BLISTT that the process of building a strong foundation for a sustainable tourism industry is not a lot of fun, but this should come later if crucial aspects such as a carefully planned and implemented tourism plan, and ability to rise from glitches are considered.

It is just a matter of time before other promising spots in BLISTT are discovered. If sustainable tourism is among its goals, the La Presa phenomenon should be taken as an eye opener and should galvanize concerned sectors into action, to be prepared when the turn of other La Presas in the limelight comes.

Sustaining the BLISTT tourism

Benguet Gov. Nestor Fongwan, Baguio City Mayor and BLISTT Chair Mauricio Domogan, Benguet Provincial Tourism Officer Clarita Prudencio, and travel and tours sector’s Cathy dela Rosa, agree on the crucial role of tourism in the cohesive development of BLISTT. All agree as well that a solid foundation must be laid out by the stakeholders, and this includes crafting a tourism plan and regulatory measures that take into consideration all the aspects to make tourism work, without compromising the environment and culture.

Fongwan recognizes the opportunities brought by tourism to the BLISTT communities. “Tourism triggers economy. When people with resources come and visit, it is an opportunity for income for the communities and we should take advantage of that. More importantly, tourism allows our farmers to market their products directly when people come to their area,” he said.

With its potentials and the expansion of opportunities offered through the promotion of the BLISTT, Fongwan emphasized the need for local government officials to regulate the activities through the formulation of policies in its promotion, management, and protection of the tourist site, the community, and its environs; as well as guidelines in the handling of tourist arrivals and ensuing commercial activities. 

For Baguio City, Domogan said the goal is to continue to make it the main tourist destination north of Manila alongside the adjoining towns of LISTT, as aspired in the BLISTT framework.

To sustain, it is mandatory for the BLISTT to continue improving the provision of basic services and tourism infrastructure like access roads and facilities for tourists’ convenience.

He said it is important to maintain and continue to improve the peace and order situation, minimize the inconvenience caused by traffic, and the hospitability of the host communities, especially the frontliners.

“We want to distribute the destinations of the tourists in the adjoining towns, because there are other worth visiting areas aside from those seen in Baguio.”

Domogan said promotion should also be a continuing effort, reason why the BLISTT governing council has been working on coming up with a consolidated tourism brochure of the towns that will feature its best and contain information tourists required.

Benguet officials emphasized the need to make tourism work alongside environment and culture preservation, given that Benguet’s customs are deeply rooted in its environment.

“We are trying to make tourism a tool in the preservation of environment, by telling the public that when we destroy rivers, forests, mountains, on which Cordillera’s culture is anchored, we have nothing to promote,” Prudencio said.

This would then connect to the preparedness of such locality in opening to  tourists, so that the industry would be sustainably profitable and beneficial to its constituents.

To help them prepare in handling tourists, Prudencio said the PTO conducts continuous orientations on basic tourism and cultural briefings and trainings. The office also helps barangays organize its own tourism councils, which would be responsible in making tourism plans and policies. Fongwan added non-government organizations like the Jaime V. Ongpin Foundation Inc. are also helping Benguet in training locals as tour guides. A homestay program is also implemented to accommodate visitors in the far-flung areas.

The PTO also helps organize trainings on performing arts, eco-tourism, and agriculture in elementary schools and  for other interested groups.

Before a potential site is promoted, Prudencio said host barangays are taught on how to deal with the needs of tourists, how to receive or entertain them, and basic tour guiding.

Prudencio said barangays are expected to do this so that the community is prepared, tooled with the proper knowledge of entertaining tourists, as well as in the protection of such site. “Aside from being a tourist area, they need to assure that environment is conserved and protected, including the cultural development.”

“We need to fix the area before we promote. Minsan kasi nauuna ‘yung tourism bago ang preparation. Sudden influx of tourists is difficult to address.”

Dela Rosa, owner of Noants Travel and Tours, who has been an active player in the formulation of policies for tourism industry growth, confirmed that they won’t sell a product that has no standards and in-place policies.

“Before a tourist destination or offering is included in a tour package, the site must be worth visiting, its host community is prepared and knowledgeable, the place is accessible, basic amenities are in place, dos and donts (are made clear), and provides an experience that is worth coming back for. It must be sustainable,” dela Rosa said.

The La Presa effect

The portrayal of Sitio Pungayan in Kabuyao, Tuba, Benguet as Sitio La Presa in a TV series shows that tourism in this side of the region is not all about Baguio City’s Lion’s Head, Burnham Park, and Mines View Park, barrel king, and peanut brittle. It shows there is more to Baguio City if tourists get out, and in the process help decongest an already overcrowded city and discover the potentials of Benguet towns.

But as fast as it captured tourists’ interest, it may die out soon enough on us due to unregulated activities leading to its destruction. Despite having been capitalizing on tourism to an extent by now, the locality has not been able to properly manage the magnitude of interest La Presa gained from the public. It reached a point when enterprising undertakings have compromised dignity and cultural sensitivities for the sake of profit.

When traffic happened at its worst, when products started to be sold inappropriately with the La Presa tag, when strawberries are sold at P700 per kilo, when transport packages went unreasonable, when drawings of Agnes’ pig adorned traditional Cordillera instruments and souvenirs, when business stalls sprouted in lines despite a court’s temporary environment protection order over a declared forest reserve, many decried being more fun has a price.

What matters now: Regulate

Despite the thrust to prepare tourist communities, the Provincial Tourism Officer said what happened in La Presa and recently during the Holy Week in Tuba is caused by the lack of experience in handling large volumes of people. The area, used to be known to the religious as a pilgrimage site, has become a magnet for the curious and those who want to experience the ambiance of the place where Agnes and Xander shoot “Forevermore,” and especially to take a selfie with the actors.

Traffic and garbage were also all over the place in February and the succeeding months, when more tourists included La Presa in their itinerary.

“We have repeatedly oriented them on the effects of tourism. But they didn’t believe us.  The tourist influx was unexpected, the community just saw the opportunity to generate income,” Prudencio said.

Fongwan admitted the province and the Tuba government were caught flatfooted. He has talked to Tuba Mayor Florencio Bentrez and other LGU officials about the matter and told them to come up with policies to regulate the activities in the area, such as a forest management plan for the protection of the place, and spell out what areas are for tourism and what areas should not be touched.

“They were unprepared. What they did was take the opportunity of the time. What they should do, if the chance will be there for a longer time, is learn from the experience. The municipal and barangay LGUs should come up with policies on how to regulate this. I agree that we should take opportunity, but this should be hand in hand with the challenges and the preservation of the place, considering it’s a forest reserve,” he said.

Prudencio added, “Let this be a lesson learned. We need to be prepared, not only in Tuba, but also in other areas with potential places for tourists. It could have happened for a reason para makita nila na ganito pala dapat ang gawin. Let La Presa be a window for us to see that tourism that comes before preparation will not work.”

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