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By Marites S. Villamor, Cebu Bureau Chief

Quake-hit Bohol looking to lure back tourists

Posted on October 21, 2013

CEBU CITY -- Tour operators in quake-hit Bohol are redesigning packages, mapping out alternate routes and looking to offer new attractions in a bid to revive the tourism-dependent island.

The changes, said members of the Bohol Federation of Travel and Tour Operators (BOFETTO), could allow their operations to normalize in less than a month.

“Nature has forced us to redesign and repackage our products,” said Ma. Lourdes T. Sultan, BOFETTO vice-president and managing director of Travel Village Tours and Travel, Inc.

“We’re looking at this as an opportunity to provide a different view of our tourist spots and attract more new tourists as well as convince repeat visitors to come back and see Bohol from another angle,” she added.

The 7.2-magnitude earthquake that shook the island last Oct. 15 flattened two of its so-called Magnificent Seven Churches and greatly damaged four others, dissected one of the Chocolate Hills, tore down critical bridges and roads, and killed 172 people.

Ms. Sultan said the 19th-century Our Lady of Light Church in Loon and the 18th-century Santa Cruz Church in Maribojoc, flattened and no longer usable as places of worship, could still be tourist draws.

“We can still take tourists there to view the ruins. These churches would still be part of heritage tours,” she said.

The two churches are considered national cultural treasures along with the Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Church in Baclayon and the San Pedro Church in Loboc, which sustained massive damage. Three others -- the St. Joseph Cathedral in Tagbilaran, St. Monica Church in Alburquerque and Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Dauis -- complete Bohol’s “Magnificent Seven.”

In Carmen town, about 57 kilometers from Tagbilaran, tourists will now not only get to see the Chocolate Hills but also a cross-section of one of the mounds.

“One of the Three Sisters (a clump of three hills closest to the road) was cut in half by the quake. Now you can see what’s inside the Chocolate Hills. This would be something new -- a different view that we can offer,” Ms. Sultan said.

The viewing deck at the Chocolate Hills Complex collapsed during the quake but Ms. Sultan said they would be taking visitors instead to the Chocolate Hills Adventure Park, which also has a viewing deck as well as a serpentarium, coffee shop and restaurant.

To reach the Chocolate Hills, the tour operators have mapped out an alternate route to bypass the roads and bridges that have been rendered impassable. An alternate route has also been readied for tourists going to Loboc, a town famous for its river cruise, floating restaurants and children’s choir.

Ms. Sultan said the new routes were validated over the weekend.

New spiels have also been discussed with tour guides in preparation for the resumption of some tours this week.

Tours have been suspended as aftershocks continue to shake Bohol, Cebu and neighboring islands. A series of moderately strong quakes rocked the Visayas islands yesterday.

Despite these, the Loboc River Cruise is targeted to resume by Oct. 24, the town’s chief tourism officer, Elmer T. Varquez, said.

“We’re fast-tracking the repair of the terminal. We still get a lot of inquiries,” he claimed.

Visitors to Loboc average 1,000 daily during the holidays and at least 450 during the off-peak season. About 85% of tourists going to the Chocolate Hills take their lunch in one of Loboc’s 21 floating restaurants while cruising the river.

The 17th-century Loboc church, however, is still off limits as it sustained massive damage.

“Miraculously, the altar is intact. The NCCA (National Commission of Culture and Arts) has advised us not to dispose of the huge chunks of concrete because the church would be restored using the original materials as much as possible,” Mr. Varquez said.

Visitors can view the ruins and the leaning bell tower from a distance, he added. The Loboc Ecotourism Adventure Park, however, will remain closed until a thorough inspection of its facilities is conducted.

Like Ms. Sultan, Mr. Varquez was confident that tourism operations would return to normal soon. Ms. Sultan pointed out that the resort island of Panglao, which is famous for its white beaches, has continued to accommodate tourists.

“All the resorts there are open and fully operational. Even some of the tours have continued,” she said.

Pamela Gallardo, president of the Bohol Association of Hotels, Resorts and Restaurants (BAHRR), was also bullish.

“We’re still busy. Tourists are still coming in. Of the 70 members of BAHRR, only five are not open. We’re very optimistic,” she said.

Bohol accounted for about a sixth of the Central Visayas’ 1.7 million tourist arrivals as of June, government data show.

Ms. Sultan, however, said this figure does not reflect industry’s real performance as day tourists are not counted. Bohol is a popular day tour destination from Cebu as it is just two hours away by fastcraft.