Harmonizing tourism and environment

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Even now — as most tourist destinations all over the land are reeling from yet a tourist drawdown — here we are in Baguio feeling none the worse, even as the deadly nCOV, now renamed as Covid-19, continues its lethal trek all over the global landscape.

Come to think of it, as this is being written on a Friday, Valentine’s Day at that, there seems no let-up in the way we go about running our life, including the loves into it, nCOV or not, for the day’s special endearment to get by unmarked, uncelebrated. The numbers game remains on the ascend, staggering as they are, but Filipinos being what we are, no virus of whatever virulence can dampen the spirit.

Indeed, this is very much Filipino, as exemplified no less than Taiwan-bound compatriots who have been barred from getting on board cancelled flights, simply because at the last breath of a minute, that destination has been included in the travel ban list. What to do? They camp it out at the airport premises, praying that the travel ban gets lifted, or else they lose out to Indonesians and Vietnamese for jobs already theirs in the first place.

Over here, the crowd-drawing events may have seemed to get new leash in life. The Panagbenga parades have just been re-scheduled to a month later, probably driven by a natural desire to get the tourists back, and rocket-start anew the fervor and the glamour of a flower festival, so uniquely Baguio’s. The PMA Alumni Homecoming wasn’t at all tweaked all through the back-and-forth argument about a virus-influenced event deferment or cancellation. And so with other less crowd-attracting activities that are largely local in attendance.

Tourist stakeholders are of course holding their breath that the re-scheduled events would bring in the crowds to be there when the parades unfold, when hotel bookings get reactivated, when eateries prep up their regular cuisines for their regular habitues. And why not? When the virus hit the news, and health officials were practically scampering to alert the populace, cancellations came in thick and fast, drawdowns hit a high of 60 %, and tourism workers who have been the go-to guys in the hospitality sector got it on the chin of planned layoffs. If this were not scary enough, nothing else will.

Which is why there needs for tourism planners to look over the tourism landscape around which enticement efforts have traditionally been built around, much more so when health emergencies like what we’ve been experiencing these days are what drives tourists from even stepping out an inch away from where they are.

These past several weeks now, the question of re-defining where tourism must be directed has been raised — and rightly so — considering how much of a threat nCOV has been and on long-term, how much degraded our natural environment has been these many years now. That the national government has taken good notice of Baguio’s environmental condition is just in order and plain overdue.

Truly, if we locals don’t get our act together, like what we’ve been so used in doing in the past, Baguio would soon lose out in the tourism game, so intoned national officials who have been visiting us in recent months. And so it came to pass that fine we’d do our collective part to be ready for rehab, perhaps not as stringent as what befell Boracay, that the famous resort had to be shut down in 6 months and more for things to get upgraded in some kind of back-to-basics effrontery.

As pointedly emphasized by Hizzoner BBM, shutting down Baguio is not in the works at all, the way it did in Boracay. For one thing, a shutdown would mean prohibiting access by land and air, and doing just that may pose unsound travel restrictions and enforcement difficulties when barring anyone wishing to come up, anytime at all. If the shutdown means preventing tourists, local and foreign alike, from Baguio access, would that mean getting every vehicle bound for Baguio inspected, every passenger examined if tourists or residents along the way? What about people coming up here for studies or for commercial business purposes?

This is where we have to contend with the reality on the ground, something that horrifies residents, long-time or otherwise, who have acquired titled properties on housing settlement areas which government itself has long ordained to be of such status. To protect them, is DENR saying that they must be re-settled in areas safer than where they are? At whose expense if they agree? And if they don’t, will they be forcibly taken out, in the way that informal settlers have historically been?

That said, it’s always easy to put in writing what must be done by way of strategic planning. Piece of cake, any land planner will say. All it takes is some mental calisthenics on planning to pin down specific courses of action to achieve stated goals and voila, here’s the plan of action. Little do our government bureaucrats know that going that route is without even the least regard, or much more due recognition of on-the-ground realities that happen when persons and communities are adversely affected by government plans, when certain rights are thumbed down in favour of state-invoked rights.

This is just one aspect of rehabilitation that needs to be calibrated, where we locals — our policy planners and implementors, civil society, environmental advocates — would really need to get our act together and to get these realities-on-the-ground brought for a common consensus. Public policies are after all meant to be well-explained, much more so when these are even now spawning growing anxieties. Local voices must be heard, and heeded reasonably, for the entire process to serve truly the public interest.

Then too, there’s the matter of harmonizing tourism gains with environmental pains. Far too long have our very own residents been bewailing that when tourists come in droves, so do our urban woes go up in decrying decibels. Bring the tourists up and they’d bring our environment down —throwing their debris here and there, causing traffic jams at every conveyance point, even showing off total disrespect to customs and traditions that have been tourism’s bread and butter all year long.

Let us be firm and well resolved: the rehabilitation that Baguio needs should provide strategic measures to prevent the very urban woes that have long been our bane. The need is for our environment to replenish what may have been lost, to nurture what can be quickly restored, to regenerate what can grow, without having to cause needless loss to anyone. Valor without prudence is merely bravado. We are definitely above that level by now.

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