Behold Bohol!

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - November 13, 2019 - 12:00am

That’s how Boholanos are presenting their province as a Paradise island.

I spent the weekend in Bohol, my first visit in over  10 years. I was curious to see the new airport.

Architecturally, it doesn’t look bad. Inaugurated a year ago, its operations and maintenance must be privatized very soon before it deteriorates more quickly.

My wife almost fell off the escalator as a power failure made it stop abruptly. Maybe its solar power isn’t working well. On our way out, the escalator was already cordoned off… not working. Power was restored but the attendant said the escalator is under repair.

That otherwise nicely built JICA-funded airport should have more passengers using it. That’s the other reason why it should be privatized.

Private operators will actively market the airport to airlines, tour operators and tourists. That’s what Megawide is doing to maximize use of the Mactan Cebu International Airport.

I understand the Aboitiz bid to run the Panglao airport is on its last stages. Hopefully it is awarded soon.

I agree that Bohol can be the tourist paradise that Boholanos say it now is. It is a natural for tourism. The people are tourist friendly and the beaches are good.

The Boholanos also have a knack for creating tourism points of interest where there previously was none. The river cruise in Loboc is a good example. Dining in its floating restaurants is very popular with tourists.

Loboc Mayor Leon Calipusan is successfully leading the entire town in making sure tourism continues to be a major livelihood earner. They make sure the river is kept clean and tourists are treated well.

Then there is the Loboc Children’s Choir, the internationally award-winning choir which has the distinction of beating the Vienna Boys Choir in a competition in Europe… the choir has spawned other singing groups.

Oishi chairman Carlos Chan has brought the choir to Shanghai for concerts. Loboc has so enchanted Mr. Chan that he donated the funds to light up portions of the river popular to tourists.

We stayed at the Panglao Bluewater Resort, just 10 minutes from the airport. The resort is busy expanding to cope with the steady increase in the number of tourists. According to official figures, close to two million tourists visited Bohol last year.

According to Weng Jose, the resident manager of the resort, a little over half the tourists are domestic. That’s probably because the new airport doesn’t have regular international flights. The foreign visitors normally come via a two-hour ferry ride from Cebu.

Governor Art Yap was on the same flight I took on the way in. He told me that tourism and OFW remittances are the biggest contributors to Bohol’s economy. A former agriculture secretary, Gov. Art now wants to make agriculture a strong contributor as well.

Ms. Jose agrees. She said that early this year, they run out of lettuce on the island and the chefs were in a panic. Vegetables, which can be grown in Bohol, still come from Mindanao, mostly Bukidnon.

Gov. Art wants tourism to be a bigger economic driver. Aside from labor, almost everything needed by hotels and restaurants must come from within the island, he said. The Bluewater resort has a supply arrangement with a mushroom producer and a cacao farmer.

Yes, the island famous for its Chocolate Hills also grow cacao that’s world class. A local brand, the Dalareich, 100 percent unsweetened chocolate, won a Gold Award in a prestigious international London-based Academy of Chocolate Awards 2019.

Ms. Jose said the Bluewater resort is buying all the chocolate they need from a family of cacao farmers. I tasted a breakfast chocolate drink made from this Bohol-grown cacao and it was good.

Hotels and restaurants entering into supply agreements with local farmers or farmers cooperatives is the way to go. Indeed, Gov. Art said, the provincial government would take this approach of assuring markets for farm produce.

Bohol’s population is just about 1.3 million. The poverty level in 2018 was at 21 percent, a sharp drop from the 51 percent in 2010. Gov. Art hopes to bring it down to five percent in five years.

It is just as well that the national economic managers cancelled the P50 billion bridge to connect Bohol with Cebu. According to NEDA Secretary Ernesto Pernia, a Boholano, the Cebu-Bohol bridge was dropped from the list of Build Build Build projects because “the traffic doesn’t justify the construction.”

Pernia said the bridge project would be “substituted with smaller projects,” but “are game-changing for the region.”

That is exactly what Gov. Art had in mind. For just P4 billion, Gov. Art explained to me, various ports on the island could be modernized to improve their connectivity in the region.

Gov. Art thinks improving ports in Getafe, Tubigon, Maribojoc and Loon ports would make them serve as gateways to Cebu, Jagna port as gateway to Mindanao, Aguining port in Carlos P. Garcia as gateway to southern Leyte and Popo wharf in Carlos P. Garcia to connect to Ubay, would integrate Bohol better with Cebu, Mindanao and Leyte.

Gov. Art pointed out that most of the tourism and other developments are in the south of the island. The north of the island is where the most poverty is. He wants a highway that connects the northern part to Panglao to help spread benefits of development.

Gov. Art’s tourism thrust is well aligned with Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo Puyat’s program in support of ecologically responsible tourism.

We visited a forest reserve where the Bohol provincial government is developing local tree species for reforestation. They are also testing a “glamping” facility where, for less than P2,000 a night, a family or group of five can sleep in a tent and commune with nature.

I can see why Boholanos think they live in an island paradise. But as Gov. Art puts it, they have to link tourism with poverty reduction. His experience as agriculture secretary will surely be valuable.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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