Progress through tourism

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Until about two decades ago, the town of Bolinao on the northwestern tip of Pangasinan could be reached only by what looked like a dirt road.

Someone familiar with the area during his youth told me that the only people who went to the remote town were cockfighting aficionados. The Bolinao fighting cock, I was told, rivals the Batangas Banaba in fierceness.

Folks who visited the town in those days for a vacation remembered the rough road, the rudimentary accommodations, how far it was from Manila, and how undeveloped it was as a tourism destination that the long drive simply wasn’t worth it.

When I told these folks about the sparkling waters of Bolinao and the big waves with potential for surfing, which I saw when I visited the town for the first time over the weekend, they shrugged, probably thinking there are similar places all over our archipelago.

There’s an online review posted in 2012, which said the off-white Patar beach was a great place to visit because it was empty even during the Holy Week break. 

Those who had previously visited Bolinao and dismissed it as a forgettable destination were as surprised as I was to find out that the town is now chockfull of beach resorts and packed with visitors during the long Holy Week break.

In fact the town must now guard against turning into another overdeveloped, poorly regulated destination like Boracay.

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Today the roads to and within the town are all paved, making Bolinao accessible to visitors. Over the weekend the town was so full of tourists it was hard to find a decent hotel on the beach in Obbog Patar near the lighthouse. Traffic crawled along the narrow roads; there were so many cars and traveling biker groups.

At daybreak on Black Saturday the public beach was already so crowded. The local government and private entrepreneurs were making a killing renting out overpriced tents and bamboo contraptions that look like low, wide tables or cots. As there was barely room to move around on the beach, we decided to take a boat ride to a fabulous cliff-diving area nearby called Polipol Island. 

From the lighthouse that’s still operated by the Coast Guard in Bolinao, visitors can enjoy a panoramic view of the West Philippine Sea. Rising 351 feet above sea level on Punta Piedra Point, the 113-year-old lighthouse was built by American, British and Filipino engineers, and continues to guide vessels entering Cape Bolinao.

The fact that these are part of the waters being claimed by China might draw even more local tourists to the town. Visitors at the lighthouse joked that they wanted to take souvenir photos before President Duterte handed over the West Philippine Sea to Beijing on a silver platter.

As the sun rose in the morning and the sky became even clearer on the boat ride from Polipol back to Patar, we wondered if white-painted structures we were seeing on the horizon were Chinese installations on Panatag or Scarborough Shoal.

From Bolinao, we could hear Chinese programs on AM radio 666 (dzRH) and 594 (dzBB). You can’t tell if the frequencies are picking up broadcasts in Taiwan up north or from Panatag.

*      *      *

Bolinao also has an interesting history. It is challenging the historical record of the first Catholic mass in the Philippines – officially, held on Easter Sunday, March 31, 1521 in Limasawa, Southern Leyte. Bolinao authorities cite a marker donated by a priest in the Italian town of Friuli, which states that a Friuli native who became a Franciscan missionary, called Blessed Odorico, celebrated the first mass in the Philippines in 1324 in Bolinao. Odorico, according to the marker, took refuge in Bolinao Bay when he ran into a storm on his way to China. Odorico then celebrated a thanksgiving mass and blessed the Bolinao locals.

Scholars also want Bolinao inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List, for being the site of a cave where explorers discovered skulls dated between the 14th and 15th centuries, whose teeth were adorned with gold shaped like fish scales.

Like the other coastal communities of Pangasinan, Bolinao is a fisherman’s town and a great place for seafood lovers. We feasted on delectable malaga, a member of the siganid or samaral family, and of course, Pangasinan’s succulent Bonoan bangus or milkfish.

Most of the restaurants in the town offer grilled seafood, rice steamed and served in bamboo segments, and a side dish of pureed eggplant, eggs and tomatoes, called buli-buli poqui poqui. Also popular are family-sized meal sets of rice, grilled seafood, barbecued meats and sides called pidudungo, ideal for a boodle fight.

Our meals were good, but we were disappointed with the resort where we ended up in the town center because everything else was fully booked. Called Dos Flores hotel and restaurant, there is no restaurant and the hotel with two empty swimming pools isn’t even finished yet, but it charged full, rip-off rates. All the amenities were inadequate, there was no hot shower and no breakfast.

The manager was apologetic, saying they were just starting out, but anyone going into this business should realize that there’s more to offering accommodations than just a seafront air-conditioned room with beds and TV.

The town itself can use a more tourism-friendly infrastructure upgrade. It can start by covering the open ditches on both sides of the narrow streets. They’re dangerous to pedestrians and vehicles alike. On the steep path to the lighthouse, metal railings can be installed for easier and safer climbing.

And now that Bolinao is becoming a major tourist draw, the government should seriously consider reviving plans to build an airport in Pangasinan. Hernani Braganza was laying the groundwork in Alaminos when he was mayor a decade ago. In a move typical of Pinoy politics, however, the project was shelved when he lost the congressional race in the First District to Jesus “Boying” Celeste, whose brother Arnold is currently Bolinao mayor. Another brother, Arthur, is mayor of Alaminos.

Pangasinan, however, may be low in the priorities of the Duterte administration. Boying Celeste was ranked high in President Duterte’s so-called drug matrix. The Celeste brothers have denied the accusations. Former Pangasinan governor Amado Espino Jr., now a congressman whose son Amado III is governor, was also in the drug matrix although delisted after appealing to Duterte.

In less than two decades, Bolinao has prospered through tourism. With an airport in Pangasinan and proper management of tourism development, the town – and the rest of the province – can become even more progressive.

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