Greening the new normal

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Once more, we’re on tenterhooks, looking at several scenarious as the city braces for the next quarantine phase come end of June. Indeed, we’re just a step away from getting into the New Normal, and much of the lingering wait has to do with that very next stage. Are we ready?

These past two weeks have decidedly been an either-or situation. Given the re-opened business environment, it’s like having to balance health and economic needs. There’s no question the need for businesses to re-open, however clumsily but calibratedly, in keeping with the proximate need of keeping everyone — no special Tom, Dick and Harry — out of harm’s way. After all, close to three months of standstill — how else can one explain the stagnance everyone feels.

In the tourism sector alone, already there’s much wringing going on, precisely how to make ends meet, especially when both ends seem out of sight. Tourism seems to be at the backseat of any business re-opening, given the fact that travel restrictions are in place. While the virus numbers seem to indicate a continued descent, neighboring provinces to Baguio are now exhibiting throes of a viral hit that have been tightening up all this time.

Just how Baguio can foster tourism invigoration when dear Cordilleran neighbors — part of the regional brethren we’ve all been part of — are themselves caught up in a viral spin. What happens over there impacts well enough over here, in more ways than one. While Baguio happens to have the infrastructure of health services well in place, it just isn’t so with brother Cordillerans.

True, we have just about everything that links us good enough to endure from generation to the next. Environment resources — the mountain landscape, the greenery all around — are aplenty in parts near or far. Through the years, especially in the recent age of modernization that propelled Baguio to new niches of wonderment, we’ve always been the gateway in to the Cordillera wonderland, enough to mesmerize tourists by the busloads of good memories.

Prior to covid-19, Baguio tourism was well underway to some kind of re-connection — to our storied past of shared unfading memories, to our energizing present of bettering up every which way of our regional journey, to our beckoning future of a shared destiny, fated well enough to last more generations of new leaders, new citizens, new inhabitants that are bonded up to live a common life.

When covid-19 struck, it came hammering at all the planned efforts to get back to Mother Nature, to get common folks nurture a common pride, to get our neighbors all part of a broadening loop of domestic tourists encouraged to experience what is to be a Cordillera tourist, first and foremost. More than being linked up with affinity, we’re just a typical traveller lured to feel first-hand, up close and personal, what Cordillera life has been all through the centuries.

While key principles remain revered in pushing far beyond what have been in-the-box, there has now arisen a new sense of discovering what is inherently worth being a part of, whether the traveller is of Cordilleran roots or a lowlander just braving to hurdle the odds and getting himself soaked up, not just of what Mother Nature has to offer in magnificent bursts, not just of a rich cultural heritage predominantly indigenous and therefore attractive for those lusting for something new, effervescent, translucent, and penetrative.

In a re-branded Baguio, we’re not just talking of a city made safe by good governance practices, but of a community needing to be uplifted from the commonplace newness of a New Norm, a kindred human settlement whose fear of the unseen and unknown has made it possible to slow the viral sweep down, a brethren of linked up souls just wanting to get over the hill and get back living life even harder than before, but worth living just the same.

Very soon, the marketing push will get the decisive hands on back. We at the BTC are buoyed up by the positive (pardon the word!) feedback from tourism promoters whose critical help is just what we need to blaze new trails, to get the ground scaled down, to build back better, when NN is where we should be. There is a sense of exhilaration pushing us further northside as we launch the plan that will decisively re-brand Baguio in a strategic message that cuts across the barriers of age, sex, status, lineage, and just about every category that places the travellers in a box. That kind of a fostering mindset has been obliterated by the viral sweep.

Thus, in two key teleconferences hosted by the Baguio Tourism Council and the City Government of Baguio — much thanks to Mayor Benjie whose ever-busy, hand’s on leadership functions allowed the critical dialogue — there was a healthy if candid exchange of views among national officials led by Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat and the Tourism Promotions Board COO Antonietta Allones and other high-ranking officials, hobnobbing with locals spearheaded by the Mayor himself and this columnist, as BTC Interim Chairperson.

The end-result of this critical interaction can only be greeted with a smile, a grin from ear to ear, no doubt fortified by a confident look far ahead beyond the horizon. Earning funding support, where and when it counted most, goes a long way in setting off to new frontiers of tourism activity, much of which is digitalized in keeping with the way communication is conveyed, much of which perched on the platform that travellers will now be enticed to be where health and safety are well in place, even as struggling efforts rise above the mundane and well into the mesmerizing memories of a Baguio visit embedded, not just in one’s mind but even more so in one’s soul.

Clearly, it’s now justy about being green, but ensuring that a greening tourism gets back on track. Angat Baguio means raising up public morale, lifting up sagging spirits, tracking back where it all began: the richness of a cultural heritage running across from this generation to the next.#

A marketing and promotions plan that I personally saw emerged from BTC consultations was presented — thanks CTO and BTC Secretary Alec Mapalo, Ferdie Balanag of An Enchanting Baguio Christmas fame and his communicator of a tandem Noly Balatero — to my mind, so ably explained to our tourism national counterparts, even as all through the proceedings, it was Mayor Benjie who seemed to hug the tourism limelight. No doubt, the Mayor’s sterling reputation and the innovative leadership he exercised all through the quarantine periods have preceded all other considerations, as no less than Sec Berna herself jested out that she seemed to have sounded more like a “media handler” of our very own chief executive.

Stripped of all the niceties liberally thrown around, the marketing presentation takes into account three stages of city life amid the continuing coronavirus threat: the Mitigation Stage, the Transition Stage, and the New Normal Stage. As presented, Baguio would seem to be now at the Transition level, and certain basic considerations were premised, upon which the Plan itself was based. I take pride in quoting from the submitted document, to wit:

“The entire Baguio community, as spearheaded by key officials, public and private, has been in shared soliidarity with national policies, as enforced by the local government, in combatting the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic affecting the country, through a series of measures generally meant to keep everyone out of harm’s way while the coronavirus contagion continues its national sweep.

In the last 9 months now, the City Government, led by its Local City Executive, City Mayor Benjamin Magalong, has been actively in the forefront of “a whole of government response”, leading the way in enforcing ECQ, later downgraded to GCQ, in a city-wide campaign to instill compliance with restrictions in all levels of society.

Presently, under GCQ till May 31, 2020, the city response has been strategically encompassing and wide-ranging. The overall goal remains unswerving: keep the population out of health risk, reduce mobility from point to point, and restrain unnecessary travel out of home to only very essential needs for health and sanitation, food security, and medical requirements for self-protective wear and equipment by frontline service providers — doctors, nurses, medtechs, allied services, and other health workers.

While critical business and work operations gradually re-opened beginning May 16, 2020, the tourism industry remained generally closed, even as partly some economic activities have been allowed:

a. Hotel accommodation facilities only to serve as lodging places for returning workers in re-opened non-tourism businesses as well as frontline health workers required to be in near-sites;
b. Restaurant establishments, only for food cooking, pickup and delivery transactions.

The Baguio Tourism Council is in shared solidarity with the business sector in expressing its readiness to comply with national and local guidelines when community quarantine restrictions are lifted.

In the local economy’s transition into the New Normal, the BTC has prepared and expresses full readiness to launch a marketing program designed to re-brand Baguio as a tourism city made safe and secure by the collective discipline of its people, now better equipped to instill responsible tourism among residents and visitors alike.

Why a RE-BRANDING FOR BAGUIO

Like all other re-opened businesses, the tourism industry will adopt a gradual entry into the New Normal, and adapt allowed activities to the continuing observance and strict enforcement of health and occupational safety protocols as the basic strategy in preventing transmission and infection.

Necessarily, under a re-opened tourism business, marketing efforts will have to abide by the New Normal regulations put in place, such that defined directions must be in line with new practices consistent with Baguio’s prevailing health-protecting economic and social environment.

Consequently, the traditional ways of promoting Baguio as a festival haven (Panagbenga Flower Festival, Cordillera haven of enduring rituals, etc.) will have to be set aside in favor of new marketing approaches carefully chosen for their thematic approximation of the New Normal.

Re-branding Baguio towards the defined marketing thrust will serve to focus on new assets (what Baguio has in unique dominance over other tourist destinations) and new ways that will attract targetted markets (a rejuvenating natural environment, a safe and secured well-nourishing experience of sharing and caring, and a desire to be part of Baguio’s enriching cultural heritage that is sustainably anchored on creatively felt diverse customs, traditions, and arts in existential harmony with each other.

How will this be expressed and to whom and in what stages? This for next week’s continued narrative.

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