By Zsarlene B. Chua, Reporter
Twenty-seventeen was a difficult year for Mindanao as one of its main cities, Marawi in Lanao del Sur, reeled from a five-month government offensive to reclaim it from Islamic State-inspired militants, not to mention that martial law declared on the day the siege began will now last until end-2018.
Still, the Department of Tourism (DoT) remains unfazed as it continues to roll out several projects meant to encourage tourists to visit the second-largest island in the country.
“All [tourism] fronts increased but we’re still trying to observe from the reports of our regional directors if [the battle for Marawi and martial law] had an effect on tourism,” said Alma Rita D. Jimenez, undersecretary for tourism regulation, coordination and resource generation, in a Nov. 17 interview.
“But from on ground reports and feelers, they have not felt its effects.”
And if the viral Camiguin tourism video launched late October were any indication, Mindanao tourism offices have continued promotion of the island’s regions.
Titled No Words #FeelCamiguin, the four-minute-long video featured a cynical first-time tourist in Camiguin being won over the by the island’s charm, with locals not saying a single word and letting the sights and experiences do the talking.
As of this writing, the video posted on the Facebook page of the Camiguin Tourism Office had over one million views.
DoT data showed the country welcomed 4.4 million international tourists from January to August, a 10% growth from 2016’s corresponding eight months.
According to the Mindanao Development Authority, the island welcomed 8.7 million domestic and foreign visitors in 2016, with domestic tourists comprising 94.7% of the total market.
Ms. Jimenez said when martial law in Mindanao was declared, her department told regional offices there to “use their time productively during this downtime” by joining trainings, seminars and improving tourism infrastructure.
“But they told us there weren’t any downtimes,” she said.
Mindanao has had a long troubled history of insurgencies and terrorism, and, as such, is no stranger to travel advisories. For example, the United Kingdom in a Nov. 21 advisory advised against traveling to western and central Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago (excluding Camiguin, Dinagat and Siargao Islands) “because of terrorist activity and clashes between the military and insurgent groups,” according to its government Web site.
In April, several countries including Australia, Canada and New Zealand also issued advisories against traveling to many parts of Mindanao due to the threat of terrorism and kidnapping. These came on the heels of other advisories earlier that month after government forces clashed with Abu Sayyaf terrorists in Inabanga, Bohol.
“Terrorism happens in London, it happens in France, it happens in New York and several times it happened in those places with casualties. Can you tell me where is a safer place?” Ms. Jimenez said.
Despite the said advisories, Ms. Jimenez noted that the millennials market has remained unaffected.
“While it’s difficult, there’s one upside: the millennial market is strong,” she said.
“About 26% of the global tourism market is coming from that age group. Millennials have no fear, they don’t avoid destinations because it’s risky — they even look at it as an adventure,” she added.
“For me, maybe we just need to appeal to that kind of market. Because we cannot appeal to all kinds of market because not all will have the same appetite for the products that you offer.”
And since Mindanao offers much in terms of ecotourism, Ms. Jimenez said the department is trying to develop products catering to these strengths.
“I think Mindanao is on the right track because it has very good destinations that are really ideal for eco-tourism, farm tourism, etc., and I think that’s the product line they can sell,” she said.
Products with considerable demand include trek trails that take tourists to Malagos Chocolate Farm in Davao and Mt. Apo.
Aside from the trek trails, DoT plans to introduce river cruises this year to major tourist destinations.
“It makes sense for us — because we have islands upon islands — to leverage the presence of our rivers,” she said adding that the department will be trying to replicate what has been done for Loboc River in Bohol in other parts of the country.
The department currently has 67 rivers identified as having potential to be turned into tourist destinations.
“[The point is] to make tourists stay longer because they have activities and spend more because that is what is needed in the communities and also because we want to prioritize provinces with very high poverty incidence,” she said.
Using Sohoton Cave in Samar as an example, Ms. Jimenez figured the department could establish three to four docking stations along the river, with each station specializing in activities like arts and crafts or home-stays and eco-resorts.
“Our direction is promoting circuit tourism packages which will involve tourists going from one province to another so we can distribute the benefits of tourism in many areas,” Ms. Jimenez said.
But connectivity is key, the official said.
This is why in the absence of direct flights — Davao remains the main airport hub to the island alongside smaller airports like Zamboanga and Cagayan de Oro — the department is looking for workarounds so people can still discover Mindanao.
“It is one of the problems but I can’t say it is the problem as you can do workarounds: charter flights and three-point routes (enter via Davao and use land or sea travel to get to the one’s destination),” she said, adding that the department has been working with Asia Foundation on a paper “on the business case of opening airline routes in Mindanao” in order to encourage more direct flights.
“What our regional directors are currently doing is trying to connect with transport providers so we can have connectivity within the region, because once we have a route within the region, it would be easier to connect it to routes outside the region,” she explained.
Last year, the DoT, in partnership with Davao Metro Shuttle, launched the Go Mindanao Bus tour, with routes plying Cagayan de Oro, Mati, Siargao, Bukidnon, Butuan, Pagadian, Davao, Camiguin, Surigao, Lake Sebu, Dipolog and Cotabato.
DoT regional offices in Mindanao are also working together under the One Mindanao cluster so they can do cross-promotion of provinces.
The department has designated tourism clusters so that neighboring regions can work together to promote tourism: the North Philippine cluster, the South Philippine cluster (which includes Regions 4A, 4B and 5 in Luzon), One Mindanao and the Visayas Cluster.
“It will take some time before sites will be developed but [Mindanao] will, in turn, have the luxury of time and also the luxury of lessons learned from the problems in Metro Manila and all the other provinces so they will be able start developing liveable cities and developing livable communities and not unmitigated, unplanned, unmaster-planned tourism development,” she said.