Time to scale down festival tourism?

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Rehabilitation seems to be the magical word these days, with key cabinet members visiting the city last week, purposely to get Baguio back on track, given the state of environmental degradation that has marked recent years of development — for many city folks, non-stop, relentless, apparently driven by nothing else but the green bucks. Key tourist destinations are reported to be on the table top for closure, principal of which is Burnham Park, which has merited funding assistance from the Department of Tourism and TIEZA (formerly PTA) for the needed renovation and face-lifting works.

In open door, and back-door talks, Hizzoner BBM may have calmed down initial anxieties when reports had it that Baguio will follow the cue from Boracay and the Bay, when he asserted that no closure of any kind is forthcoming when the rehab effort gets underway, certainly not the way Boracay had to be shut down to give all works needed the required uninterrupted task that had to be done in six or more months. Despite the vaunted non-closure, apprehensions remained, especially from key stakeholders — the hotels, the restaurants, the tourist-enticing sectors — whose business growth would certainly get it in the chin, not to mention the job access that thousands of workers would lose during the interregnum.

But, let’s face it, since way, way back, tourism has long been the bread-and-butter life of Baguio’s economy. As far back as anyone can remember, tourism has been the economic driver that has made possible much of the modernizing advances we’ve been having. Without having to point any blaming finger, it must be admitted that tourism has had its share of brickbats, mostly from residents who may have had enough of all the things that they say are tourism-generated.

With tourists jamming up every nook and cranny of the city, especially in the central business area, traffic congestion inevitably materializes, a seeming affliction everywhere, as roads get clogged up end-to-end even in unheard places. Nightlife has become a petty nuisance, with pubs and bars competing for carousing clients. Every cuss word may have been cast every which way where tourists converge.

It isn’t surprising that the derisive word “overtourism’ may have taken off from what is experienced every time the great swelling crowds are here every little chance they get. That experience gets magnified when the horde is up here. That’s all because of “overtourism” promotion, when just about everyone is here for the precious time of escaping the summer heat, but mostly during super events that are actually staged precisely to raise tourism convergence several notches up.

It is this very experience that the Baguio Tourism Council will have to face head-on as key stakeholders grapple with on-the-ground realities. In recent years, hotel occupancy has been on a downtrend, with hotels and inns barely able to make do a given year. About the only time that their facilities are substantially booked is when a festival is underway. Like last Christmas, when city-wide jubilation greeted the well-curated programs and events that strived to make the Yuletide experience a bit enchanting than the doldrums of penny-ante celebrations.

On super-events like Christmas, Panagbenga, and the summertime episodes of city life, tourists come in significant numbers, family-by-family, by the busloads or worse, on board automobiles usually seen in snail-paced drivel along EDSA. Yes, the crowds kept on coming up, enticed to take a breather or two on rejuvenating climes that are uniquely Baguio’s. And why not? Land travel has been abbreviated enough for the visitors to be up in the clouds through a relaxing 3-1/2 hour drive along expressways.

On just about any ordinary day, they still come up, admittedly in reduced numbers, but they still do. Without having to be brash about it, let’s be frank: Baguio, despite the warts and woes of a muddling city life, remains to be a topnotch getaway destination. Our cooling climes, mainly from the only natural air-conditioning system operating nowhere else, are enough to lure them in at the slightest pretense.
No weekend treats can top off the refreshing environment one gets to experience when in Baguio. Every small chance available, they’re suddenly upon us, an “overtourism” that suffices to make many city folks resentful for tourists to be around. Regulating tourism appears to be a sensible reaction, if only to check the congestion it brings into hapless citizens like you and I. But does it really do that? Wouldn’t it in fact kill the goose that lays the golden egg?

Having just concluded the Christmas celebration here in Baguio may well offer the insights that can lay the foundation of a midterm and long term tourism plan for an industry crying for attention at this time. The goal is simple and clear: how do we inculcate a tourism brand like Festival Tourism as a way to bring out the best in what Baguio can offer?

Even now, the BTC stakeholders are in guarded anxiety if the planned events and activities of any festival tourism event, outside of Christmas, Panagbenga, the Summer Vacation, will induce the unique joy of celebrating life the Baguio way, by innovative new events drawn together by a community of people interested to engage and be engaged with each other.

Make no mistake about it, this is simply the initial step of what is accepted as a long mile. On long-term, there is need to energize the tourism sector in harmony with our natural environment, admitting that the industry can only thrive in an environment whose resources — the mountains, the forest cover, the trees, the water and air bred from these — are well-protected, preserved and nourish enough to secure posterity.

We recognize that tourism direction has to be fleshed out now, not just in sensitive consideration to residents’ sentiments, but precisely to keep us in line with global trends now dictating the tempo, style, and substance of tourism initiatives. Strategies that have long been the established norms in plotting tourism drives do need to be re-visited in keeping with the times, made more relevant by pressing environmental needs for protection, conservation, and even regeneration.

That is why it makes absolutely good sense to hear other voices — not just mine and yours — for our city’s tourism campaign to accept fresh initiatives in terms of policy, people, facilities, standards, and events, which is what tourism is all about.

Fortunately, Baguio will always serve as a magnetizing charm anytime, anywhere, a shining example of family-oriented tourism that has been its hallmark all along. Closing Burnham Park, for instance, may just be the opportunity for tourists to be dispersed to other attractions, just like Baguio pushing for a dispersal strategy to make them visit nearby towns, to make them feel, up close and personal, Cordillera culture, arts, crafts, and other traditional expressions at their very ancestral roots, in the very cultural spaces still blending and flourishing in our neck of the woods.