Historian pitches hiking funds for marketing heritage tourism

RIDERS pedal past the iconic Saint Augustine Church in Paoay during the recent Ilocos Cycling Tour (ICT) 3 Intayon.

HERITAGE tourism can bring in the much-needed tourism dollars for the country, but somehow doesn’t get the respect it deserves from government and the private sector.

In a recent talk on Revenge Tourism by the Liveable Cities Challenge PH, historian of the Ortigas Foundation Library John Silva, said, “Heritage tourism brings in wealthy tourists. The sites we visited were historical, architectural and towns.” Speaking of his experience in tour guiding in the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries, he noted these tours attracted the middle class, chief executive officers, wealthy informal groups of ladies, the Diplomatic Corps, or those with just a particular interest like art deco in Asia.

He added, “We’d stay in five-star hotels, were driven around in limousines or at times  were flown in helicopters and private planes. These guests were affluent, well-educated and desired to learn about Asia and it’s different facets…. It was a daunting job because these guests were not passive folks. They asked a lot of questions, but in the end, the hefty fees are charged, and [gave] generous tips. It was well worth the trouble.”

While there are no Philippine statistics on heritage tourism benefits, in the US, heritage tourism brings in some $171 billion annually, according to The National Trust for Historic Preservation. In fact, 81 percent of US tourists are considered “cultural tourists.”

Second fiddle to sun and beach

However, Silva noted, “In our country, heritage tourism does not have that sort of gravitas that other parts of our country are being promoted, namely beaches and shopping malls. Heritage houses, buildings, walking tours of old sections of town, monument visits, museums, culinary events and others that focus on appreciating history and firming up our national identity somewhat play second fiddle to what seems the overall master plan of sun sand and malls, which is a current reflection of our identity.”

He noted that in his trips to other parts of Southeast Asia such as Singapore, Bangkok, and Luang Prabang in Laos, or “in any Southeast Asian city or town, where there is a bustling heritage tourism plan,” their own citizens are very eager to conduct tours both personally or commercially about the historical importance and beauty of theses sites.

In the Philippines, Silva mentioned that Bataan Death March markers are often vandalized or destroyed, and cites the demolition of the Jai Alai art deco building  built in 1939, as examples of government neglect and the lack of “heritage consciousness” among Filipinos in general.

‘Training isn’t easy’

He urged government and the private sector to look into the prospects and financial benefits of  heritage tourism, and provide more support into the area.  He added that heritage tourism must receive an increase in marketing funds. “This is not to diminish, the cash cow that is Boracay, El Nido, Bohol and other beach experiences. However, visits to monuments historical sites, heritage homes and buildings, indigenous and ethnic enclaves, gardens and estates, and all the elements that amplify our rich past, could use such an increase in apportionment.”

Silva, a former consultant of the National Museum, admitted the task is not easy as the training alone of heritage tour guides are more demanding in terms of language fluency, deportment, as well as skills that can anticipate the needs of these well-educated, wealthy tourists.

In the Department of Tourism’s National Tourism Development Plan for 2016-2022, it advocates for the promotion of culture tourism, which includes visits to heritage homes and historical sites.

Aside from Spanish-era heritage buildings and churches, the Philippines is also home to six Unesco World Heritage Sites such as Baroque Churches (San Agustin in Intramuros, Paoay Church in Ilocos Norte, Miag-ao Church in Iloilo), as well as the Tubbataha Reef National Park, Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, and the Rice Terraces of the Cordilleras.

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