Bohol is Ready to Claim the Title of Top Tourist Destination

Bohol Sandugo Festival (7)

The first thing I noticed when I landed in Bohol was the airport. It was a small, single-floor structure, with a tiny baggage carousel. I wondered how this little airport could handle the deluge of tourists that come to see the famous Chocolate Hills and the reclusive tarsier. More importantly, I wondered how the airport survived during the earthquake. But as I learned throughout my trip to Bohol, the  island province has bounced back, and is poised to claim the title of top tourist destination.

But that wasn’t always the case. On October 5, 2013, a 7.2 magnitude hit Central Visayas, killing 22 people, injuring 976, and ruining 73,000 structures, such as seaports, the airport, century-old churches, and the city hall in Tagbilaran. Bohol relies heavily on tourism, so the earthquake affected everyone. Around 25 of the province’s historic churches were damaged and the Hills were disfigured. How can Bohol, considered as one of the 20 poorest provinces of the Philippines by UNICEF, pick itself up?

Bohol Sandugo Festival (3)

The beautiful Dimiao Church is currently being restored

Gov. Edgardo Chatto called on the resilient nature of Filipinos and tourism. Bohol bounced back after a week, and preservation groups worked together with the Bohol Restoration Group, the local government, the National Museum of the Philippines, the National Commission of the Arts, the National Heritage Commission and the Tagbilaran Diocese to restore the churches. Through technology, they were able to identify the churches that could be restored, while those that are too far damaged are promoted as ruins, like the Machu Picchu in Peru, the Parthenon in Greece, and Stonehenge in the UK. USAID also went around the towns to look for heritage sites.

“From day one, we know we were going to rebound. When God closes a door, he opens several windows,” shares Gov. Chatto. “The basic rule is, do not falsify anything, meaning, don’t introduce something that is not part of the original structure. Our ancestors built these churches in 30 to 100 years, but through technology, we can do it faster.”

This year, the Philippines is celebrating Visit the Philippines Again 2016, a campaign by the Department of Tourism (DOT) encouraging foreigners to visit and rediscover the country. Just last month, DOT set up a large-scale experiential exhibit at the Waterloo Station in London, where commuters saw banners, floor stickers, virtual reality tours, and photobooths. Some even won trips to the Philippines.

I asked Emmylou Palacio-Noel, the newly-appointed executive director of the Bohol Provincial Tourism Council: “Is Bohol ready?”

Bohol Sandugo Festival (1)

The writer and other members of the media with representatives from the Bohol Tourism Office and Gov. Edgardo Chatto

It looks like it. During my chat with Gov. Chatto, he confidently detailed his 5A’s, a checklist of things Bohol hopes to accomplish to regain its spot as a top tourist destination. The 5A’s include arrivals, access (like bridges), accommodations, attractions, and activities. All the A’s tie to Bohol’s vision of making the island province an eco-cultural tourism destination.

Its first step is to improve the airport. After all, what is the point of a city or a province marketing its attractions if the airport cannot accommodate visitors? The Panglao Island International Airport is set to open next year after years of planning. The plan was finally approved in 2012 by the NEDA Board of the Philippines, and will be set in Panglao Island, a beach destination. It is set to accommodate 1.7 million visitors every year. Soon, visitors who wish to plunge to the sea won’t have to drive from Tagbilaran, the provincial capital and only city in Bohol.

Bohol Sandugo Festival (8)

The writer and other members of the media with representatives from the Bohol Tourism Office and Mayor Baba Yap

But with PIIA replacing Tagbilaran Airport, will this affect the city? After all, majority of tourists only pass through the city to get to other destinations. Mayor Baba Yap doesn’t seem to worry, as the city is developing existing attractions, and coming up with new ones.

Bohol Sandugo Festival (4)

The stately marker is done by Boholano National Artist Napoleon Abueva

One of Tagbilaran’s tourist attractions is the Blood Compact commemorative marker, where a blood compact was held between Miguel López de Legazpi, a Spanish explorer, and Datu Sikatuna, the chieftain of Bohol, on March 16, 1565 to seal their friendship. It is considered as the country’s first international treaty of friendship. Today, a monument sculpted by Boholano National Artist Napoleon Abueva sits in an unassuming site, but it will be reinvigorated into the Bohol Friendship Park, with a panoramic viewing deck and a galleon restaurant.

Bohol Sandugo (9)

The Momo Beach House is perfect for those who want a quiet vacation in front of the beach

An equally important aspect of tourism is accommodations. I saw for myself how vibrant the hotel scene in Bohol is, from the ultra-luxurious villas in Be Resort, to the laidback and homey feel of Momo Beach House, where we stayed. The rooms were simple, and I slept with the sound of geckos and the waves gently crashing on the shore.

Read more about our Bohol adventure on the next page!