Guimaras economy reels from Iloilo Strait tragedy

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PASSENGERS going to Guimaras crowd at the Parola Wharf in Iloilo City after the suspension of all pump boat operations was announced. — BW/ERSSANTIAGUDO

By Emme Rose S. Santiagudo, Correspondent

THE ISLAND province of Guimaras, with its white beaches and sweet mangoes, provides the perfect tropical complement to Iloilo City’s urban and cultural tourism attractions.

A week after the Iloilo Strait tragedy, wherein three motorboats capsized and 31 people died, Guimaras already feels the blow to its tourism industry and overall economy.

Guimaras Governor Samuel T. Gumarin, in an interview with the media last week, said the transportation sector is the hardest hit with the suspension of motorboat operations to and from Iloilo City.

Ang kabuhayan ng mga residente (The livelihood of residents are) affected lalo na sa (especially in the) transport sector, both for the land and the sea,” he said.

Further, without the motorboat services, the province feels the effects of isolation.

“We are totally dependent in Iloilo because lahat ng kinakain namin, ‘yung mga ginagamit namin dito (our food supply, other supplies), almost 70 to 90 percent from Iloilo. If our children got sick at hindi kaya dito, pumupunta kami ng (and the health services here cannot handle it, we go to) Iloilo,” he said.

An extra roll on-roll off (RoRo) vessel has been deployed to cover the Iloilo-Guimaras route, but the mayor said it is not enough to serve the island’s passenger and cargo needs.

Mr. Gumarin said their tourism industry has also been affected.

“Now, those who visit the province only see the tragic incident that has happened and this is a negative feedback for us (after) we have already established the vibrant tourism industry in Guimaras,” he said.

The province’s tourism officer, Liberty N. Ferrer, said there has been a domino effect on the different aspects of the industry.

“The number one affected is the transportation sector. There are also cancellations in our accommodation establishments and tour guides who were also expecting tourists, na-cancel na din (got cancelled too). The effect has gone down to other supporting businesses for tourism like products in our pasalubong centers,” she said.

Ms. Ferrer said initial reports of the accommodation sector indicate “there are lesser tourists that are going to Guimaras.”

Fatima Farms, which just had its soft opening last July 1 and scheduled for a full opening in October, said they have had almost no guests since the Aug. 3 sea mishap. On that Saturday, they had almost 100 visitors.

“We already expect that the number of guests will go down because of the incident. Others might think that travelling to Guimaras is not safe anymore and it is really difficult for us, even though we are promoting our business for devotees,” said Charlie G. Losanes, acting manager of Fatima Farms.

The provincial tourism office has already started discussing with the Department of Tourism-Western Visayas Region on how they can help the industry bounce back.

“We will find ways to on how to help the livelihood of the affected tourism sectors,” she said.

Transportation Secretary Arthur P. Tugade, during his visit to the island last Aug. 7, discussed possible immediate and long-term changes in the sector with local officials.

“We need to revisit, amend, and get rid of the policies that are not applicable on today’s weather and sea worthiness. We are looking now at the possible changes of the design and ergonomic of the motorboats,” Mr. Tugade said.

“Instead of wooden hull, we need to use aluminum or fiber glass. The wooden hull motor boats, we need to look into its possible phase out as a public transport,” he added.

Mr. Tugade also inspected the various ports in Iloilo and Guimaras, which he said need improvement and expansion, noting that these do not seem to have the capacity for the average 15,000 passengers that cross the Iloilo Strait daily.

“There are a lot of things that need to be considered, from the idea of bringing RoRo vessels or fast crafts, phasing out the wooden hull, the improvement of ports, and the needed finances. As we feel sad about what happened, we have to look forward and learn our lesson, so that a situation like this will not happen again,” he said.

The mayor said he also raised the planned Panay-Guimaras-Negros bridge project, which is in the feasibility study stage under the Department of Public Works and Highways.

“It is under the authority and power of the President, but it will take time. Now what is important is for the economy of Guimaras to be normalized, those who have transactions in Iloilo City will be transported and food will be made available to the residents,” he said.