Bloomin’, boomin’ Baguio

CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren () - March 10, 2007 - 12:00am
Things have been heating up in Manila. No, I don’t mean the election fever — although all the political noise is really starting to annoy me. Summer is just around the corner, so I took advantage of the chance to spend an early break up in Baguio — still a bit frosty from record low temperatures in January and February. Besides, it was the Panagbenga Flower Festival.

Baguio was bursting at the seams as a hundred thousand visitors flocked to the summer capital of the Philippines to celebrate flower power. My family and I avoided the central crush by staying at cushy Camp John Hay Manor. I’ve always had cabin fever and the Manor serves up cozy by the barrel.

Nope, I did not get those man-in-a-barrel souvenirs this time. We satisfied ourselves with stocking up on vegetables and strawberry jams from the Good Shepherd compound nearby. (Hey, some marketing genius should have thought of giving bottles of those in the premiere of the movie of the same title!)

In fact, most of the good traditional activities were just a quick hop from John Hay. We did not even have to leave the compound to get to the riding ponies, as John Hay now has a facility of its own. Plans are afoot (or "ahoof") for a trail to be built and trail horses from Virginia brought it. Yes, Virgie, you’ll get to ride imported horses pretty soon (they neigh with a drawl). Fantastic!

And, oh yes, they will also bring back the famous 19th Tee diner soon for those who miss phone directory-thick steaks and fatso fries. The diner will be part of a larger village complex complete with a skating rink, bowling alley, shops, and cinemas. A parking structure is also in the works as visitor numbers grow.

Parking is actually one of the problems of the city, which was incidentally not planned by Daniel Burnham, to host more than 20,000 visitors at a time. Outside of John Hay, Baguio is going the way of Manila, with traffic, diesel fumes and, yes, those dang billboards. There ought to be a law. Wait, hold on a minute — there IS a law regulating billboards! Baguio does not need more blight to block disappearing views.

Panagbenga was a blast. Never mind the politicos who used it to brighten up their chances at the polls. People had fun, the merriment was nonstop, and people filled the streets. The streets themselves could actually be better configured to take advantage of the annual event. A pedestrianization experiment was conducted at the same time as the festival. Session Road was closed to pedestrian traffic for a few days — and it worked.

Pedestrianization is good. Metropolitan governments should realize that closing up streets in crowded cores benefit businesses and the environment. Jeepneys, cars, and FXs inching bumper to bumper in most of our city centers just reflect the inutility of the current system of giving more space to vehicles than to people.

Session Road should also be made a one-way street. Removing the center island to accommodate three lanes (one pubic utility vehicle lane plus two car lanes) will allow expansion of the sidewalks. This would make Session Road a walker’s paradise. The widened sidewalks would also increase the number of parade viewers. The cleared road center would also allow for unimpeded viewing from both sides — unlike the present situation where only one side has unobstructed views. The improved urban design would also allow for more al fresco dining, better lighting and the return of human scale (as long, too, as giant billboards are removed).

The one-way route should take vehicles around to Burnham Park, where removing the center island on the parallel road will also allow similar improvements. At the park, there are plans to build a multi-level parking structure along its length. I would caution against such an initiative. Building more road infrastructure at the center will only attract even more vehicles.

Baguio should learn from other hillside tourist towns and cities worldwide and actually ban cars (or severely limit them) from the center. Parking facilities should be built on the edges of central cores. A large facility at the top of Kisad Road or somewhere near SM should be able to serve the needs of tourists. Outdoor escalators like in Hong Kong or Singapore can help bring people down to the park, across to Session Road or up to SM.

On the market side, the authorities should think of a system of transporting market goods from peripheral transfer stations without all manner of vans, jeepneys, and trucks accessing the center directly. Bus stations should also be consolidated by authorities to reduce traffic in the core while a rational ikot system (hopefully with LPG-fueled vehicles) should be implemented.

But I’m just a regular visitor; Baguio citizens and the tourist industry there would do well to champion a more sustainable and people-friendly direction for the city’s growth. On a previous trip, I talked to officers of the newly formed Baguio Conventions and Visitors Bureau. Pynky Gomez-Magsino and Cathy Arvisu de la Rosa told me that they and their organization are serious in efforts to get their high-altitude act together and make sure Baguio gets back on everyone’s top-of-mind list for vacations and conventions.

The BCVB is a private sector organization set on promoting tourism attractions, events and the charms of metro Baguio. The organization is the marketing and promotions arm of the Baguio Tourism Council (BTC). It is also working as part of the North Philippine Visitors Bureau, which itself has partnered with the Manila Tollways Corporation. The MTC has also just launched a program called "Rediscover the North" through the super-efficient NLEX.

The ladies from the BCVB told me that there are improvements as well as new challenges for Baguio. The Panagbenga has improved its draw. Promotions are on the upswing with the BCVB marketing aggressively at Tour Expos and the like. Hotel facilities are expanding and improving (like the Country Club, John Hay Manor, and small boutique hotels, and bed and breakfasts like PNKYs). But the total number of rooms is decreasing because of the influx of Korean students (forcing some hotels to turn into dormitories). The outlook for investment in new hotels (or condotels) therefore has improved.

All this said — and I wish the BCVB all the best — there are the issues of traffic, pollution (air, noise, and billboard), and increasing residential density that plague Baguio. A rational city plan for physical growth has to be prepared by Baguio citizens themselves. Burnham’s plan is a hundred years old — Baguio is nearing its centennial year (2009). It’s time for visitors and locals to realize that the city’s ecology (human, tourism, and cultural) is fragile and that (another) disaster can be avoided if goals are set beyond short-sighted visions of politics, over-budgeted flyovers, or quick-buck commercial development.

Sink holes, deforestation, informal settlers on landslide-prone land, the lack of adequate sewage, and perennial water problems also are very real and dangerous problems that have to be addressed by those tasked with bringing the nation’s former vacation capital back to its old glory.

Baguio remains beautiful — but only in corners. John Hay, portions of the older residential districts around Wright Park, the Mansion House and government areas, and policed reserves filled with pines can still be appreciated. The rest of the city can do with a cleanup — not just for festivals but year-round. The quirky restaurants and entertainment make Baguio a world-class destination, but tourism infrastructure for a whole range of visitors (not just the lucky few in posh hotels) has to be improved.

Access to Baguio from Manila via NLEX, Kennon or Marcos highways was great, but we got waylaid at that disorienting detour before Urdaneta, Pangasinan. The signs for the detour were unclear and we were afraid we’d end up in Nueva Ecija, which we almost did. Tourism navigation in Baguio itself is as difficult as I’ve found it in almost all destinations in the Philippines. There are few good signs (competing with a cacophony of commercial signs) for local or foreign tourists to follow, public transport is chaotic, and walking is a dangerous affair with the volume of traffic, the toxic fumes, and tiangge-infested sidewalks.

But Baguio is still Baguio. Summers, Holy Weeks, and other excuses for escape from Manila will not be the same unless we can still zigzag up, buy our brooms, get our jams, and smell some of that pine-scented air.
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Feedback is welcome. Please e-mail the writer at paulo.alcazaren@gmail.com.
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