The City of Pines is said to be torn between keeping its status as a tourism destination, an educational hub, and a commercial center.
Baguio lovers would claim the city was a tourism haven before business flourished in this part of the northern highlands – and it must be kept as such.
There is no argument there. What makes Baguio seem to be having an identity crisis is the several policy directions on where it should be and where is it going.
This is complicated by another fact that the city is losing its natural grandeur because of a very same reason – its natural beauty.
The city’s planner – Arch. Daniel Burnham – envisioned Baguio to be merely a camp site, a rest and recreation area, which is why several barangays in the city like City Camp, Sanitary Camp, Camp 7, and Camp 8, were named as such. It was supposed to be a place where one comes to work, relax, buy goods, and leave or return to his place of origin, according to City Tourism Officer Benedicto Alhambra. The cool climate here lured visitors or those living nearby to stay and make Baguio their permanent residence.
This has contradicted the vision of the city’s planner.
According to a National Statistics Office data, Baguio’s population has increased from 182,142 in 1990 to 325,880 in 2010 – way beyond Burnham’s plan of having only 25,000 people here.
The city’s population density, or the number of people occupying a area, hit 5,668 per square kilometer. This has made Baguio one of the most congested cities in the country.
Tourism and commerce
The question on whether trade flourished first before tourism should not be treated as the “which came first, the chicken or the egg” puzzle.
Alhambra said tourism and business are inseparable. It is indisputable that the city’s ideal environment has been its major attraction that drove people here. Alongside the coming of visitors is the creation of economic ventures. “We cannot separate tourism from commerce. These sectors complement each other because as we accommodate people, it is automatic that we also have to provide their needs,” Alhambra said.
The dilemma therefore on whether policymakers should focus on making the city a trade center is resolved by investing on tourism.
“Baguio’s main industry is tourism,” Alhambra said. The rise in businesses – both tourism-oriented and tourism-related – is simply a result of Baguio’s status as a tourist destination.
Tourism-related establishments are businesses that exist not only to cater to the tourists, but also to the residents of the city. Among the tourism-related businesses are restaurants, museums, and the transport system.
“You may not be a tourist, but you patronize these services,” Alhambra said.
Tourism-oriented businesses, meanwhile, are establishments or undertakings that cater directly to tourists, among these include travel and tour agencies, hotels, and tour guiding.
One can never separate business from tourism as one cannot thrive without the other, according to Alhambra.
A “prime educational center”
Baguio’s environment has also made it a magnet of students wanting to escape the uncomfortable classroom setting brought by the warm climate in the lowlands.
A data from the National Economic and Development Authority showed enrollment in the city has doubled, from 88,446 students in 1990 to an estimated 150,814 students in 2010.
This is corroborated by a data from the Commission on Higher Education, which provides most of the HEIs in the Cordillera region are private institutions that are located in Baguio City. The city hosts 40 percent of the total HEIs, capturing 70 percent of total enrollment in the region, according to the CHED data.
Baguio as an educational hub is not supposed to be a cause of concern. But again, because Baguio’s cool weather proved to be helpful in providing the ideal learning environment, students from various parts of the country preferred to come here for their education.
While it is a source of pride to be tagged as the Educational Center of the North, Alhambra said the quality of learning that a student should be getting from Baguio’s educational institutions should always be the primary concern of these education providers. There should still be a regulatory measure to ensure that Baguio graduates are highly competitive.
Alhambra said the goal of educational institutions should be to provide service. “Education should not be considered a business undertaking.”
Unfortunately, it has become as such and because the aim of most educational institutions now is to gain profit, most are now prioritizing quantity over quality. If this trend is not addressed, Alhambra said human capital is also sacrificed.
While Baguio is now playing varied roles – as a trading center, an educational hub, and all the other tags various sectors would want to attach to the city’s name, Alhambra maintains the city remains a prime tourist destination.
A blessing and a curse
Alhambra admitted Baguio’s status as a tourist spot has its advantages and disadvantages.
“Baguio, as a tourist spot, is both a blessing and a curse,” Alhambra said.
It is good that economic activities flourished in this city. What is not good is the uncontrolled arrival of people. Worse, those who came first invited their relatives in other areas to settle here.
But the tourism sector is not losing hope.
Baguio City can bring back its glory days, much more, maintain the environment which has been its edge over the other urbanized cities in the Philippines.
Alhambra said maintaining Baguio as a premier tourist spot is not difficult if “we could just stick with the way the Americans planned it to be.”
“Huwag na sana tayong lumayo sa unang plano para sa Baguio,” he said in relation to the seeming dilemma and oftentimes conflicting policy directions that are being formulated for Baguio.
Where should the job start?
Alhambra said bringing back Baguio to its golden years is both a job of those governing and the governed.
One step to start the preservation process is to maintain or protect the remaining open spaces in the city. Alhambra said creation of tourism venture should be geared towards preserving what is left and complementing the city’s existing natural spots.
“The direction that we should be heading is to strengthen our goal to make Baguio a destination-based place where people come to see and enjoy and then go back to their places of origin,”Alhambra said.
The tourism officer, however, admitted it may seem impossible to decongest the city at its current state. “But with political will, it is not impossible to attain it.”
Another and one of the most practical ways of addressing the “curses” of being a tourist destination is a strong political will on the part of the leaders. Alhambra said while the policymakers craft rules to address the city’s concerns – from garbage, traffic congestions, peace and order, and ambulant vendors, an honest-to-goodness implementation is badly needed.
“The reason we are having these problems is that, implementation of our regulations has been weak. We do a lot of talking, but we often fail to walk the talk.”
For example, imposing garbage segregation among the households to address the problem is a talk. Walking the talk is investing in the right facilities, such as providing free bags or containers for the households for them to place their segregated wastes.
“If the government could have invested in these initiatives, then maybe the private sector could have sensed sincerity in them, and maybe, they would have helped.”
Applying the BLISTT concept within Baguio can also work very well in addressing the problem of a congested central business district.
Spreading out economic activities in Baguio’s various barangays will not only solve the problem on sidewalk vendors, it will also decongest traffic and lessen pollution in the CBD.
To start the job, functional satellite markets should be set up in a cluster of barangays where the sidewalk vendors who commandeer the walkways in the CBD could be accommodated, Alhambra said.
“Our problem with the sidewalk vendors can be solved by identifying where those peddling in the streets come from and then establishing satellite markets for them in their respective barangays,” he said.
No identity crisis
Alhambra said Baguio City may be called a commercial center, an educational hub, City of Flowers, or the like, but no one can dispute that it is a tourist city.
Yes, it has nothing new to offer, other than its environment which every Baguio resident should help protect.
That is why there is a need for policymakers to be rigid in implementing local regulations that are geared towards protecting and preserving the city. That is why there is a need to change the mindset of the residents and awaken in them the “culture of caring” which was the theme of Baguio’s Centennial three years ago.
Alhambra said maintaining Baguio as tourism haven must be a job between the rulers and the ruled. “We need political will and community will to make this happen,” he said.