By Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman, Reporter

MOST PEOPLE just pass through Tagbilaran City, Bohol’s capital, on their way to Panglao Island and its beaches, Loboc town and its river tours and tarsier watching, or the famed Chocolate Hills. “Rarely do tourists stay in the city,” said tour guide Doris Obena.

But the gateway to paradise is also a getaway in itself. “This is why we’re promoting it for an eco-tour,” Ms. Obena told BusinessWorld during a media tour from July 21 to 23, as the city was celebrating its month-long Sandugo Festival.

The tourism efforts are also meant to decongest, as early as now, the traffic that the new Panglao Island International Airport is expected to create when it opens late next year. The airport in Tagbilaran welcomed 455,155 tourist arrivals in 2014 and 481,736 tourists in 2015. According to  Ms. Obena, once the Panglao International Airport opens next year, arrivals are expected to increase to two million. Among the reasons that such a boom is expected are cut-price airline promos which lure an increasing number of people to explore the islands. For example, AirAsia currently has a travel promo of P888 per seat for selected local trips to mark its anniversary.

The walking tour, which has been offered since last year, aims to lure tourists to the city while, at the same time, highlighting and preserving Tagbilaran’s treasures, including its collection of heirloom homes.

“Of the 500 heritage houses in Bohol, 300 are in Tagbilaran,” Ms. Obena pointed out.

Tagbilaran: more than Bohol’s gateway
A preserved suit of former President Carlos P. Garcia which is on display at his family home cum museum.

The tour, which costs P800 for a group of 10 people, is a two-hour exploration of the city’s heritage sites, including the home of its most famous son, President Carlos P. Garcia (1896-1971). President Ramon Magsaysay’s vice-president, Mr. Garcia took over as chief executive after Mr. Magsaysay’s untimely death on March 17, 1957. The National Historical Institute declared this two-storey house on A. Hontanosas street a heritage structure in 2009. In it are displayed Mr. Garcia’s photographs, medals and certificates, suits, and books.

Tagbilaran: more than Bohol’s gateway
Some preserved recognition mementos of former President Carlos P. Garcia which are on display at his family home cum museum

Peppered along the streets of the city are other heritage houses that displayed the variety of architectural styles found in the Philippines. Some stone houses are held together with egg white mortar; some are made from wood; while others were inspired by traditional Chinese curved roofs.

The downside of the tour, however, is that it happens at high noon.

“Not a lot of Filipinos join the tour,” admitted Nonet Madrinan-Bolo, general manager of Dagohoy World Travel, an accredited travel operator in the province which initiated the tour idea. “They hate the heat and the long walks,” she said. Most of those who join the heritage tours are Koreans, Americans, Chinese, and Europeans. But the group is making some adjustments to lure more Filipino tourists.

On the tour we passed by the St. Joseph the Worker Cathedral at the town plaza, which is, we were told, “a relative of the Baclayon church” in a sense that both were made from coral stones and egg white mortar. Both churches were built in the 16th century.

Bohol is very Catholic. Ms. Obena said 96% of the residents are Catholic and there’s a city ordinance that compels all tricycle drivers to post Bible verses at the back of their vehicles.

In the middle of the long walk under the sun, we made a 30-minute stop for merienda (a snack) at Jojie’s Painitang Bol-anon, which is part of the tour package. The small and humble eatery offers a taste of Bohol’s sweets, pastries, and kakanin (rice-based snacks) like biko ube, bibingka, biko, bud-bud, and nilubid (rice cake with chocolate).

Bohol remains largely agricultural, with rice as the main crop. According to its Economic Factbook, the province produced 255,053 metric tons of rice in 2014. As an economic driving force, tourism comes second. The province currently offers more than 6,000 rooms spread out among eight hotels, 119 resorts, and 154 lodging houses.

One of Tagbilaran’s yearly highlights is its month-long Sandugo festival held in July. The celebration includes concerts, street dances, historical re-enactments, and singing contests, among many activities.

The Sandugo festival coincides with Tagbilaran’s foundation day. It is currently celebrating its 162nd.

The festival marks what is believed to be the first treaty between the Filipinos and the Spaniards — the name Sandugo comes from “isang dugo” (one blood), as the treaty was marked by a blood compact between Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and local chief Datu Sikatuna in 1565. Unlike popular depictions of the event which has the men slashing their wrists then joining them together, our tour guide said they actually lightly slashed their chests to obtain the blood that would be mixed with water and drunk as part of the compact.

Still, even in Tagbilaran, the misconception is rampant — during the Sandugo re-enactment, we saw the actors playing Sikatuna and Legazpi joining their wrists to signify the blood compact.

In honor of the historic event, a bronze shrine featuring life-size images of Legazpi, Sikatuna, and their men can be found in Loay in Tagbilaran.

Another highlight of the Sandugo festival is the street dance competition. Held this year on July 22, eight delegations from various towns and schools in the province vied for the title.   

Tagbilaran: more than Bohol’s gateway
Sandugo Festival’s street dance competition

The colorful parade features costumes made from local products, traditional dance steps, and musical performances. Previously the dancers had been inspired by the music and dances of Cebu’s very popular Sinulog festival, making Bohol’s look like “an impoverished twin brother” of the Sinulog, top officials had been quoted as saying in news reports.

Now, the organizers decided to up their game and highlight the province’s own kuradang dance step and music — the folk dance is performed in special occasions like weddings, birthdays, and baptisms. It requires energetic gaiety from the dancers who raise and sway their arms imitating birds mating rituals. At some parts a boy and a girl would circle each other or the man would lovingly chase his lady. The background music induced “last song syndrome” because the lyrics were repetitive (“sa kuradang, sa kuradang”) and the tune upbeat. According to Wikipilinas, kuradang could have been derived from an archaic Visayan word that meant “overdressed.” Indeed, the participants wore pointed golden shoes and colorful garb.