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Pride of Place
Culture for tourists, not for Filipinos
By Augusto Villalon

Inquirer News Service

Editor’s Note: Published on page C1 of the June 6, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

Baclayon Church, Bohol

MANY Filipinos and the local tourism industry remain boxed into the old “packaged tourism destination mode,” an approach that herds tourists into buses, takes them from airport to beach resort, provides a few hours’ visit to selected “tourism destinations” that are quick pops to cultural sites or monuments, leading to a dinner-show of “native” songs and dances.

Everything is packaged, from transportation, accommodation and Philippine culture.

The tourism “destination” approach crafted sites packaged with that “WOW” tourist appeal. The destinations follow a pattern. Places are decked out in fiesta atmosphere where open-air stages present cultural shows regularly and where a network of souvenir and food stalls packed along both sides of pedestrian streets compete for attention and sales.

Commercial and artificial, the destinations fail to express what is true in Filipino culture. Nor do they offer a realistic view of both Filipino history and way of life.

Nevertheless, the “tourist destination” image persists. Many Philippine locations try to concoct either their own versions or launch tourism events. A few have succeeded.

One of the most popular festivals in the country, the “Sinulog” of Cebu, based on a local religious ritual once little-known outside the city, was launched in the early 1980’s to boost the city’s tourism industry. Twenty years later, the festival has become such a success that people think it is a centuries-old tradition.

The province of Bohol, on the other hand, took stock of its natural and cultural assets-pristine rivers and beaches, whale and dolphin reserves, colonial towns, old churches with their treasures and religious traditions still intact, the internationally acclaimed Loboc Children’s Choir, local craft and cuisine, and other resources.

The government-religious-private sector cooperation preserved the provincial heritage, promoting the uniqueness of Bohol as the basis for an extremely successful community-based tourism program.

To achieve the increased numbers of foreign arrivals has always been the government target, claiming to promote Philippines as a cultural tourism destination. Still lacking are more programs to document and preserve vanishing traditions and built heritage, for instance, to show that cultural revival and preservation is for the Filipino and not for tourism dollars.

Activities in the cultural area could learn from the Bohol cultural experience whose primary aim was to preserve the unique heritage of the province for the benefit of local residents. Tourism grew as a secondary benefit of the successful cultural preservation program.

The cultural sector has made up for the lack of cultural tourism activities with a number of creative, local-level programs aimed at establishing awareness that preserving cultural heritage should be primarily for improving the quality of life of Filipino communities and not just for tourist consumption.

Historically correct tours

Organizations such as the Committee on Monuments and Sites of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and KaiVigan have commissioned historically correct tour guide scripts and walking tour maps for Intramuros and Vigan. They have also trained locals as guides.

The Bohol Arts and Cultural Heritage Council went a step beyond historical research. It actually mapped out a walking tour of Tagbilaran and environs.

The programs have paid off. Vigan and Bohol are popular destinations primarily visited by local tourists. Both have successful tourism programs based on the conservation of their heritage that are run by the local community.

An unexpected phenomenon in heritage-based cultural tourism grew out of a walking tour project established by the Heritage Conservation Society (HCS). As an activity for stimulating heritage awareness, the HCS organized weekly walks in Manila heritage districts. First conducted by professors or cultural experts, young guides eventually took over the activity.

The young guides enlivened historical fact with humor, communicated passion for urban built heritage and commitment to its preservation, made heritage alive with costumes, anecdotes, folk history and food that related to different historic quarters in the city.

Their lively walks gained instant popularity. Manilenos and expatriate residents stopped taking Manila for granted, rediscovered the wealth of texture in the city and became aware of the need for conservation.

The two leading Manila streetwalkers are Carlos Celdran and Ivan ManDy whose tours are booked solid. They have become cult heroes, darlings of local and international media.

The Time (Asia) Magazine featured Celdran recently: “If you take time to explore it, Manila pays rich dividends. One of the best ways to get to know the city is through the half-day walking tours given by the garrulous Carlos Celdran… [who] offers up rich narratives that are by turns gossipy (his account of Imelda Marcos’ rise and fall is hilarious) and compelling (the description of a bombed-out Manila, at the end of World War II, is unforgettable). They’re also filled with the kind of insight that only a native raconteur can provide.”

Tours led by Celdran and ManDy change perceptions and alter perspectives. “I can’t change the way Manila looks,” Celdran admits. “But I can change the way you look at Manila.”

Personalized tours are quickly becoming a new trend in Manila and other Philippine cities, giving the lesson that it is easier to change tourism perceptions from the ground up.

Local individuals, rather than the government, now provide increasingly viable models for community-based tourism programs, causing a shift in the cultural tourism paradigm.

In time, hopefully the new vision could evolve into a primary activity in the country’s tourism program, one that instills a missing pride of place in the Filipino and gives the tourist a personal contact with Filipino culture.

Heritage watch

Carlos Celdran will introduce you to his idiosyncratic, vibrant, and surprising Manila. E-mail celdrantours@hotmail.com or http://www.cendrantours.blogspot.com Ivan ManDy tours you around the Chinese Cemetery in La Loma and makes Tsinoy taste come alive with food tours through Binondo. Visit http://www.oldmanilawalks.blogspot.com/

E-mail afvillalon@hotmail.com