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Bangon tours

A foreigner who spent six weeks in the Philippines was moved by his weeklong visit to the typhoon-devastated areas.

I told him he could help in the recovery effort by telling his compatriots to come here and have fun in the Philippines. Even in some of the areas devastated by Super Typhoon Yolanda and the recent magnitude 7.2 earthquake.

Players in the travel industry have the same idea, launching “Bangon Tours” last week to make the industry a key player in the rebuilding effort. The special tour packages include Bicol, Boracay, Davao, Puerto Galera and Tuguegarao as well as the earthquake-hit areas of Bohol, Cebu and northern Palawan.

The Bohol Alliance of Non-Government Organizations (BANGON), for example, has launched community-based eco-cultural tours to provide livelihood support for farming and fishing communities in the quake-ravaged province.

Obviously Tacloban City isn’t going to be a welcoming place for tourists in the near future. But Bohol and Cebu relied on natural attractions for much of their vibrant tourism. The attractions are still there, along with many of the accommodations. Cottages can be easily built while more solid structures are constructed.

Some of Bohol’s Chocolate Hills suffered chinks during the quake and the thousands of aftershocks, but most of the hills are intact, along with the limestone caves and tarsiers.

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The whale sharks and dolphins have not been scared away by the quake and Yolanda’s storm surge; the waters from Sorsogon to Cebu are still their playground.

Even the sinkholes and a new earthquake fault, which manifested itself through a two-kilometer-long, three-meter-high wall of rock that rose from the ground in Bohol, can be turned into tourist attractions.

Visitors who don’t mind backpacker accommodations and erratic Internet and cell phone service may even consider visiting Tacloban this early, when many residents are still looking for decent shelter and reliable food and water supplies.

Tourism stimulates economic activity. Combined with the employment opportunities expected to be generated from the massive reconstruction, tourism can be a lifesaver for the disaster areas.

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The government can support the initiative of the tourism industry through global marketing support, and by speeding up the restoration of public utilities and basic infrastructure in the disaster zones.

As I have written, the destruction can even pave the way for better planned communities and improved travel destinations.

Samar, for example, can develop its natural attractions. From the air the islets of Samar look ideal for the development of mangrove forests for kayaking.

There is, of course, the threat of another storm surge swamping coastal areas in the Visayas. But after Yolanda, perhaps people will now heed warnings from weather forecasters and avoid beaches during typhoons. Freak weather threatens every corner of the planet. We all just have to be careful, listen to the weather experts, and use common sense when booking our vacations.

Improving our travel destinations requires a lot more from both the government and the public.

Even before the earthquake and typhoon, key players in the travel industry have griped to me that our tourism infrastructure is woefully inadequate compared with many of our neighboring countries.

We lack high-end hotels, which could be a problem when we host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit. We lack trained tour guides, comfortable transportation facilities and travel stops. We even lack souvenir shops at travel sites – a common complaint of Chinese tourists, who don’t like buying souvenirs at shopping malls.

The main terminal of our premier international gateway is a national embarrassment. But the NAIA Terminal 3 looks like a modern airport, although modest in size compared with the world’s best, several of which happen to be in Asia. NAIA 3 will not be included in the annual list of the world’s worst airports.

We have to resolve once and for all that dispute over NAIA 3 with Germany’s Fraport AG as soon as we can so the terminal can ease the congestion at NAIA 1. Most foreign airlines refuse to transfer to NAIA 3 for fear that they could become entangled in the legal tussle between the Philippine government and Fraport.

The way the government is moving on the dispute, however, I’ll probably be dead before the issue is resolved with finality. Until then we’re stuck with NAIA 1, a long time ago considered Asia’s best and now rated the world’s worst.

Many other problems bedeviling the travel industry should prove easier to resolve than the NAIA 3 dispute.

Travel industry players have launched Bangon Tours. The private sector can’t do it alone; this initiative requires an overall coordinator, an accomplished conductor. All principal stakeholders should discuss how to make the initiative work.


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