Bohol: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Mr. de Vera is a professor at the National College of Public Administration and Governance, University of the Philippines and a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms. This article was published in the December 15, 2008 edition of the Business World, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

The regular vacations I take with my wife Charito give me the opportunity to take on the role of a tourist, explore and discover the Philippines, and decide whether I should enthusiastically say “Wow Philippines.”

Our latest escapade brought us to the famous island of Bohol with its enviable white sand beaches, world-famous Loboc Choir and Church, and the New World Wonders contender Chocolate Hills. The visit was also timely given the recent decision of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to build an international airport in Panglao Island to increase tourist arrivals and hopefully create another Boracay.

Our four days-three nights stay was more than enough to make me answer the question – Is Panglao Island (and Bohol) ready to become a world-class tourist destination?

The Good

As someone who has visited Bohol over the past two decades, I can say that the transformation and development of the province have been, to say the least, phenomenal. The island is definitely a major tourist destination as shown by the more than 140,000 hits that appear when you google “Bohol Philippines.”

The information on the web on Bohol includes a functional provincial website (www.bohol.ph) that contains important information for tourists (visa requirements, language, climate, safety, money) and the places and food to enjoy, reviews and ranking of hotels and resorts (www.tripadvisor.com), and individual websites for all the major resorts and hotels in the area. The resort we stayed in – Dumaluan Beach Resort – has clean rooms, attentive staff, good food, and best of all, is competitively priced.

The road network has expanded, telecommunication infrastructure has improved, and as Angelo our habal-habal (motorcycle) driver narrated, construction of new resorts on Panglao Island has created jobs and increased tourist arrivals. Clearly, as the cooks and waiters at the Dumaluan grill say, tourism has improved the lives of people. The leadership of Governor Erico Aumentado and Vice-Governor Julius Herrera has increased revenues and brought many national projects to this island-province.

The Bad

My positive impressions of the island started to change when we explored the rest of the island.

We had to ride piggyback, without helmets, on a habal-habal (motorcycle) as the only way to reach the Panglao town center from the resorts. The 10 km resort-to-town center ride brought us to the church and a small marketplace that looked more like a ghost town at midday, without a decent place to eat – no restaurants, no historical markers, no brochures, and no balikbayan store where tourists could buy local products.
The only way to see the island’s scenic spots was through a whole-day van rental system with no standard pricing (I tried to haggle and got three different rates). We had planned on having lunch at the Loboc River in between our book-reading and tanning at the beach but were quoted the same rate as a whole-day excursion. Not wanting to see all the sights, we decided to stay at the beach.

The Ugly

Our four- day stay was rudely interrupted by two disturbing incidents, which showed that local authorities and resort owners have not imbibed “tourist-friendly” practices or learned from their counterparts in other tourist places on how to keep their guests gratified.

The first incident happened at about 8:00 pm on our second night when we were rudely stopped by security guards (their nameplates identified them as Mr. Mirall and Mr. Ayento) of the Bohol Beach Club (BBC). They told us that their management prohibits people from walking along the beach at night for security reasons! When I asked for the legal basis for such a prohibition – such as a local ordinance or a security advisory from the local police – the guards were completely clueless and could not produce a document. Worse, they refused to give me the name of their supervisor or resort manager. Only upon intense demand did they mention a certain Tony Ceniza as the person I should talk to. As expected, this Tony Ceniza was not at the BBC at that time. I left my phone number, requested a return call, and even came back the following morning to talk with management. I never got a call.

As we returned to the Dumaluan Resort later that evening we were surprised to see that the band had started to allow guests to sing – videoke style – in the restaurant. As soon as the invitation was given, a group of denim-clad videoke enthusiasts descended on the stage and started to belt out a series of eardrum-shattering songs that no tourist would appreciate.

This utter disregard for the sensibilities, not to say the sanity, of the guests definitely left a black mark on my recollection of Bohol. My wife’s complaint was dismissed by the resort staff who also seemed oblivious to the glares of other annoyed guests. We had to endure the truly horrible rendition of Delilah, Skyline Pigeon and My Way until the restaurant mercifully closed near midnight.

While Bohol remains dear to my heart and I would really like to tell friends to see the islands, my Good, Bad, and Ugly experiences tell me that Bohol still has a long way to go before it becomes globally competitive. Beautiful brochures, wonderful resorts, the Chocolate Hills, breathtaking beaches, or even an international airport will not be enough to win over tourists, if resort owners and local authorities remain insensitive and parochial.

Instead of building another airport at Panglao Island—which is only 18 kilometers from the Tagbilaran airport and which, to some foreign tourists, “completely makes no sense”—the government can put the money to better use by improving the Panglao town center, providing better transportation, and training the locals to be tourist-savvy. Then can we really say “Wow Philippines.

Comments from our Readers:

I run a website on Bohol, and sadly, I have to agree with this article, and am aware of the issues he touches upon, and can add to this list several more issues that will detract an unsuspecting visitor: 1. The waste and sewage disposal problem at the main tourist destination (Alona Beach), where just behind the line of resorts, dirt is heaped up. Also, since no proper waste-water disposal system is available, the sensitive Karst soil of Panglao is polluted by sewage. 2. Since the fresh water supply on Panglao is severely limited, most resorts only offer their guests salty water from taps and showers. 3. A huge number of pump-boats, moored in front of Alona Beach, such that swimming and snorkeling of the beach is almost impossible. 4. Some resorts use armed guards and barbed wire are used to block off public beaches (which are government property by law) from visitors who are not guests of the resort facing the beach, often in an aggressive way. 5. In spite of misleading signs that the practice is permitted by the DENR, tarsiers are still kept in a cages along Loboc river, and constantly being handled and exposed to camera flashes. Tarsiers, a famous icon of Bohol, are sensitive nocturnal animals that will suffer highly from this treatment, and wont survive such treatment for long. This way, the already dwindling stock of this endangered animal will be depleted. 6. An uncontrolled building-spree of ‘me-too’ resorts, without a sound business plans and at low quality standards, which will probably end up as concrete skeletons within a few years. 7. A uncontrolled development of Loboc river, turning the once tranquil river into a hectic water-highway, with light-shows (turning a former monument of mismanaged planning, the utterly useless Loboc Bridge) into a “tourist attraction” 8. A polluted, and to tourists utterly uninteresting capital city. I’m already a long time lone crusader against the airport plans: http://www.bohol.ph/ article124.html, in which I also offer several alternatives that would be far more beneficial to develop the Island.

With kind regards, Jeroen Hellingman

jeroen@bohol.ph

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