PHL’s top tourist destination seen having its ‘best year’ in 2019

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BOOM-boom-boom! Prat-prat-prat! Pit Senyor! Pit Senyor!

With every strike of the drum and rhythmic tinkling of xylophones, dancers in colorful costumes and elaborate headdresses sewn by hand, put their hearts and hips into every sway and shake to celebrate the Santo Niño over the weekend.

The constant downpour on Sunday did very little to dampen the fervor and excitement of the participants in Sinulog 2019, as well as the estimated 230,000 foreign tourists and over 1 million domestic travelers, who descended on Cebu to watch the annual festivities celebrating the gifting of the image of the child Jesus to Hara Amihan by Portugese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1521. The image, now housed in Basilica Minore de Santo Niño in downtown Cebu, is credited with a number of miracles, thus the increasing number of thankful devotees.

The Sinulog is just one of the many attractions that have made Cebu the Philippines’ top tourist destination, according to Regional Director Shalimar Hofer Tamano of the Department of Tourism’s (DOT’s) Central Visayas region. “I think this year will be the best for tourism in Cebu,” he enthused, as he expressed optimism the province will see at least a 10-percent increase in tourist arrivals for 2019, or at least 6.5 million from last year’s estimated 6 million.

In March, Cebu will host Routes Asia 2019, the region’s air service development community, which attracts senior decision makers in the aviation industry, tourism authorities and stakeholders, and industry influencers. Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo Puyat recently said about 800 delegates, and representatives from 100 airlines and 200 airports, as well as 30 tourism authorities, along with the 20 featured speakers, are expected at the three-day event.

Another travel-related event the province will be hosting, said Tamano, is the Center for Asia-Pacific Aviation conference in June 24-25. With low-cost carriers (LCCs) in North Asia accounting for total traffic to the region, the conference will discuss challenges these carriers are facing and opportunities for growth.

The annual Ironman triathlon challenge, to be held in the province on August 11, will also be a source of thousands of tourists.

He added the newly-opened Cebu Safari and Adventure Park in the municipality of Carmen, just 2-3 hours away from the city, will be a key attraction, with tourists flocking to try “Asia’s longest zipline,” at 1.2 kilometers (km). “Tourists can go there to stay overnight,” said Tamano, as a hotel is being built, or make a stopover there before heading to Sta. Fe, in Bantayan Island, another major tourism destination in the province.

“This year, we are promoting Northern Cebu,” he averred, but acknowledged that one of the major challenges for these destinations is the long travel time going there. From Cebu City to the jetty port gateway to Bantayan is about 5 hours in all. “That’s why I have been proposing a water taxi at least from Cebu to Carmen, patterned after Venice, to make the Cebu Safari more accessible.”

He said the opening of Terminal 2 of Mactan International Airport will likely draw more direct flights to Cebu as well as charter flights from Southeast Asia and other regions. “Some are working on flights from Qatar to Cebu,” he revealed.

Close to 7 million tourists visited Central Visayas in 2017, some 80 percent or 5.6 million of whom made their way to Cebu City, according to data from the DOT. Of the total visitors to the region in 2017, some 3 million were foreigners, while the rest were local travelers, said Tamano.

Despite the huge numbers, the DOT regional executive said the agency has been “working closely” with his counterparts from the Departments of Environment and Natural Resources and Interior and Local Government to ensure the environment of major tourism destinations continue to be protected. “We have the same kind of setup like the BIATF (Boracay Inter-Agency Task Force), except for the region,” he noted.

Tamano said DOT has also been working with the “local government and the fishermen in Oslob, for instance, to cut in half the visitors there, to reduce the stress on the whale sharks.” At the same time, he said, proposals have been made to raise the environmental fees for tourists to be able visit with the sharks. (A shark visit/tour costs about P1,000 per person.)

Environment Undersecretary Sherwin S. Rigor, who has spearheaded the rehabilitation of Boracay and Manila Bay for the DENR, said the waters of Cebu, including its beach destinations, are regularly being sampled and tested. “It’s part of periodic monitoring of the Environment and Management Bureau,” he stressed. For now, he said, no environmental issues have come up regarding Cebu.

Tamano noted the recent problem about hospital waste being found floating in waters off Lapu-Lapu were traced to a private home, and not to the city hospital which was earlier blamed for the refuse.

“We are implementing the sustainable tourism action program announced by Secretary Puyat,” he underscored, ensuring that Cebu will not go the way of Boracay Island, the country’s second top tourist destination.

Boracay was closed for six months in 2018 to give way to the government’s rehabilitation effort. President Duterte dubbed the island a cesspool after seeing footage of sewerage pouring straight into Bulabog beach, the kite-surfing area. After Boracay, government has trained its sights on cleaning up and protecting other island destinations like Panglao in Bohol, El Nido and Coron in Palawan, and Siargao in Surigao del Norte.

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