By SHERWIN DE VERA
BAGUIO CITY — Sagada, its social and physical landscapes never miss captivating travelers of all ages, singles and couples, and those who are seeking refuge after heartbreaks and burnouts.
A favorite tourist destination, the charm of this mountain getaway comes not just from its picturesque landscape. The rich culture and proud history of the people and the serene atmosphere of the place make you want to stay. While these features set it apart to other famous destinations, its vision for the tourism sector is not far from the common slogan “sustainable tourism.”
“We aim to promote and develop sustainable tourism,” said municipal tourism officer Maria Teresa Abad
Asked to define “sustainable tourism,” she gave three important highlights: (1) preserving cultural and environmental integrity, (2) teach tourists to respect and appreciate local culture, history and nature, and (3) increase revenue.
While it was easy for her to surmise the local tourism sector she and the officials envision, she admitted that achieving it is not simple. She knows there are bittersweet rewards that come with the tourism boom but also confident that Sagada can rise to the challenge.
She said since they recognized that there are many problems, “the officials regularly engage the community.”
“People here are pakialamero (meddlesome)in a good way. They actively participate in decision-making, call us out when they observe something undesirable and regularly give suggestions,” the tourism chief shared.
According to her, this shows how residents value the preservation of their culture and the image of the community.
For Abad, tourism catalyzed development in the municipality in terms of infrastructures and support services.
“As you can observe, there are already a lot of constructions activities for inns and homestays. There are also investments for shops and restaurants. The influx of tourist also provided job opportunities for the locals,” she said.
The national government’s push for the tourism industry to become a key revenue source and investment area also benefitted the place. New road networks opened and old transport routes received funding for concrete paving and rehabilitation.
However, the mushrooming of inns and homestays also changed the landscape, and some are unpleasant to see.
“While we are still crafting the ordinance that will require infrastructure projects to blend with the landscape, we encourage owners and those who are planning to put up to start doing it. We know it is late, many are already there, but we are learning to adapt,” Abad explained.
Besides these infrastructures, the influx of tourist also provided considerable income for the municipality. Average annual tourist arrival from 2013 to 2018 is 120,468 or about 330 individuals a day according to the tourism office registry. The number of visitors more than doubled in 2015 from 64,623 in the previous year to 138,257.
Records from the revenue office showed that Sagada earned P7.71 million last year from the tourist registration fee (formerly called environmental fee) alone. With the increase from P40.00 to P50.00 imposed in August 2018, the municipality expects a much higher revenue this year.
Additional revenue of at least P238,700 comes from the 173 registered inns and hotels and 219 guides in the town (as of August 2019) for the renewal of their mayor’s permit to engage in business. The local government also charge group activities such as meetings, rallies, and concert conducted outdoors, in the parks and plazas or on the street.
Trash talks, trash walks
Abad said the town has no problem managing household waste because residents segregate their waste and have their compost for biodegradable materials.
According to her, garbage from establishments catering tourists makes it challenging to manage trash. Adding to this predicament are visitor bringing meals and snacks from popular fast-food chains.
“Our staffs usually find packaging from popular fast-food chains reaching hilly picnic and viewing areas several minutes away from the town center,” she said.
Sagada has a material recovery facility (MRF) that has started to process recyclable materials. However, the tourism officer said they need additional personnel and equipment to maximize the facility.
“But we are working on it. We have seen improvements and identified were to exert more efforts to manage the garbage better,” Abad added.
She said inns, homestays and food stations have been exerting effort to minimize their waste. Establishments have also posted reminders in their places to remind guests to bring their trash on their way back from the sites and segregate.
Abad revealed municipal officials are thinking of ordinance that will require visitors to partake in ensuring the cleanliness in sites. She explained this would augment the effort of the guides who bring garbage bags in their tours, picking trash on their way.
Brenda Doco, a tourist guide and anchor in the community radio, shared that it has been their practice to remind tour groups to pocket their garbage.
“We have always encouraged our clients not to bring food from the outside and refrain from using commercial bottled waters. There are also instances that we give the visitors plastics bags, so they pick garbage while taking the tour,” she shared.
Navigating traffic woes
Abad admitted that traffic is only one of the complications experienced by crucial tourist destination. An incident related to this proved that both locals and tourist are at their “tipping point.”
She recalled that before the “Sagada Carmageddon” went viral on social media, the town already experienced heavy traffic, both human and vehicle, in October 2018. An unprecedented traffic jam occurred in 2018 during the long-weekend that started on November 30 (Bonifacio Day), a Friday.
“When the incident became viral, many were shocked and alarmed. It was also the tipping points for many locals and a wakeup call for us [officials] to do something,” she said.
Narrating the incident, Doco said the municipal government failed to account tourist influx and the situation that time.
“It was a long weekend. One of the most visited sites, Kiltepan was closed. So the people, in numbers, went to Marlboro Country and Lake Danum,” she shared.
She also admitted that there were also lapses on the part of the guides at that time.
“There was a lack of coordination where and when to bring the visitors considering they arrived in numbers. We didn’t have a system before to limit the number and divert people to other sites and tours while the favored sites are full,” she said.
At least for this particular problem, Abad believes the municipality already made great strides with the “park and walk” campaign.
Other than the mandatory registration and “no guides, no tour policy,” also posted in strategic places, inns, transient houses, cafes, and restaurants are transport and traffic advisories.
“Central town, including Echo Valley, Sagada Weaving, Ganduyan Museum, is a walking tour. No vehicles (including local shuttles) are allowed to ferry guest going to these sites,” reads the advisory.
Some sites like Bomod-ok Falls and Marlboro Hills have designated pick-up and drop-off points by local transport service, the only ones allowed to ferry tourist.
Mayor James B. Pooten issued Executive Order No. 37-18 directing municipal personnel to enforce existing traffic regulations to avoid another terrible traffic jam. He also advised tourist to walk or take public transport. An ordinance on the “park and walk” policy is also under deliberation of the municipal council.
The town also imposed limits for the number of visitors in two sites, Sumaguing Cave (300 persons) and Marlboro Hills (800 persons), at a given time. Guides recommended the optimum number of visitors based on their experience.
Dignity above all
Culture tourism and cultural integrity have been at odds in many places. This matter needs a “careful balancing act” said Tomas Tawagen, the indigenous peoples mandatory representative of Mountain Province.
While he recognizes the contribution of the sector and measures instituted by the municipal officials, Tawagen noted that the national government sometimes promotes tourism with little regard to culture and tradition.
“They [government] promote festivals and sometimes even use rituals to attract tourists. That is commercialization of culture,” he lamented.
Tawagen was very particular on how tourist should conduct themselves during community rituals and in sacred places. He cited experiences and reports where tourist violates revered occasions such as tengaw or community holiday and desecration of dap-ays and burial grounds.
The municipality launched an online campaign with the help a non-profit group to remind tourists to respect their place, culture and people. They culled the pointers from an existing 2015 guidelines, which was an output from consultation with the local.
“There were indeed mistakes in the past, but we learned from those mistakes, so we crafted ordinances to protect our culture,” Abad explained.
To avoid this, she said the town passed an ordinance that prohibits taking photos and videos during rituals.
She added that they regularly remind tourist guides that there are certain limits on what they can show and sell to the tourist. Orientation for travelers also includes the “dos and don’ts” in particular places.
“But there are still hardheaded individuals. Like the visitors who shout in the Echo Valley to hear their voice even when they are told to respect its sanctity,” the tourism chief shared.
According to her, the tourism department sets standards that do not apply to the town. Among the requirements, she said, is to open the municipality to outside investments.
“We don’t sell our lands to an outsider, and we prioritize our people, give them every opportunity available to improve their lives. We may not get those awards, but we get to keep our culture and dignity,” she said. # nordis.net