Paradise Lost

“Awake, arise or be for ever fall’n.”
John Milton, Paradise Lost

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ICOMOS Philippines in Partnership with the Department of Tourism (DOT) and The National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) held a conference on Redefining Cultural Tourism in the Philippines: Our Stories and Best Practices from the Regions
At the conference on cultural heritage and sustainable tourism on Saturday (conducted by ICOMOS Philippines in partnership with NCCA and DOT), while Sagada was busy cashing in on the hit and run tours and being plagued by mass tourism over the weekend, I felt like crying and vomiting at the same time when I have learned and how undeniable it has become, that Sagada is now one of the models of tourism gone bad. Yes, TOURISM GONE BAD. In the past, Sagada was hailed to be the next Boracay of the north as a top tourist destination, indeed, Sagada seems to be living up to it for it is now on the brink of meeting the demise Boracay is suffering from these days.

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Tracey Santiago of ICOMOS Philippines and NCCA together with Mapee Singson gave a talk and presentation entitled, Saving Sagada: Realities and Recommendations

I posted a part of that comment above in one thread and I was asked if solutions were raised. Yes, they were raised and for those who are active online, these have been repeated and raised perpetually especially in Save Sagada. So it leads me to think the most people are aware that Sagada has not yet identified its carrying capacity. The problem is we keep on building and building without asking ourselves if this could even worsen mass tourism. The to-each-his-own mindset is even fueled by the need to fill in those rooms to get back what has been spent , and with such need the tour operators see the opportunity to abuse such need by promising to bring hordes of tourists but at a lower price. But one problem with this is that, tour agencies would rather make the stay of their guests as short as possible as they have other places to go to, making tourism become unsustainable. Anyway, It has always been said in discussions and assemblies, 1. identify the carrying capacity 2. create a tourism and development plan 3. impose the National Building Code and zoning policies 4. respect and preserve heritage and culture (e.g. cultural and heritage mapping and cultural tourism) 5. bring back the people’s sense of pride and ownership of this place.

 

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The speakers during the open forum. Seated left to right: Chen Mencias- Reyes, Tracey Santiago, Kara Garilao, and Mapee Singson.

Success stories have been shared, take the case of Angeles, Pampanga. The people have been all aware that they were only known for sex tourism. But they acknowledged the problem and together with their LGU that also places much value on heritage and culture, started to work together to change that. They went back to their roots, culture, and heritage. And within three years since the new tourism officer took charge, they have been garnering awards and now they are even vying to be a part of UNESCO’s Creative Cities in the field of gastronomy.

My hopes for Sagada will always be high, I do not think we are already past the tipping point. Or maybe I am still in denial, as much as those who are in denial believing that nothing is wrong with Sagada. I believe that people could see the changes and not only see but also experience the impacts once perceived in the past but are now unfolding and too glaring to disregard. It is time to accept the challenge of rebuilding and revitalizing Sagada, not to bring back exactly the past but for it to co-exist with growth harmoniously as its nature, culture, values, and heritage continue to flourish.

It is just frustrating and heartbreaking to know how Sagada is now widely talked about NOT ONLY AS A BEAUTIFUL DESTINATION BUT A PARADISE DECAYING because it couldn’t take hold of the beast that is tourism. And why it hurts so much is because Sagada is primarily a community, a home to its people with rich culture and heritage, and not just a tourist destination, not just a place for business, and mass tourism is killing the place, the home of the people of Sagada, its heart and soul, and the goose that lays the golden eggs.

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A House Divided

“A house divided against itself cannot stand. ”
-Abraham Lincoln

From the Bible, Matthew 12:25 (King James Version):

“And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand”.

I wonder how many tour guides association Sagada has now.  We have SEGA, SAGGAS, SETGO, one in the south and another in north, or is this one in the north (NORSAGA or NORSEGA?) different from this conglomerate of guide associations of northern barangays I have recently seen in a post? An incident in the past has sparked discussions regarding guides associations in Sagada which led to suggestions like having an umbrella organization to unite all these guide groups and have a unified system wherein codes and policies would be centralized while implementing streamlined operations. But it seems that some establishments or individuals would rather want autonomy and manage a group of guides on their own, annexing them to their business. Apparently, the lack of a unified group of tour guide associations poses a possibility of a widening gap between these guide organizations and an opportunity for exploitation by tour operators. In order to earn, tour operators could just basically talk it out with guide groups or a guide their terms that are sometimes neglectful of the rules and could compromise the safety of both tourists and the guide among other things, and in exchange, guaranteeing them of providing clients to them steadily.

Other barangays forming their own tour guide associations and strictly implementing their policy of hiring their own local tour guides show how tourism is finally making its way to the other barangays of Sagada. In the near future, it is inevitable for these villages to completely open up to tourism, as seen in a trend which has started recently, a trend wherein new tourist spots, establishments, businesses, and accommodations emerge in the outskirts of the poblacion as tourists are more interested in getting a taste of the pristine Sagada (the Shangri-la) that they can no longer find in the center. And in the long run,  when the points of interest will shift outside of poblacion, leaving the center high and dry, what will happen now to the tour guides in poblacion or to poblacion itself? Are we going to turn into hyenas, scavenging for what’s left of Sagada, after other animals have gorged on it?

The trend as I see it would be, mass tourism will keep the business going in poblacion for a while, since poblacion is seemingly not so keen in taking hold of the beast that is mass tourism. So mass tourism stays in the sentro, it will keep on catering to hit and run tours or bullet tours and day trippers. And eventually we will be at the beck and call of tour operators or anyone who would offer a boost in tourism, to the point that we will lose the value of things ( the value of our land, our sense of pride, culture, identity, the value of ourselves as people or specifically as indigenous people) to money, because the rooms have to be filled in and tour operators or any opportunistic soul  could very well make use of that need to their own advantage. True or not, I have heard of instances wherein accommodation establishments pit against one another in giving the lowest price to tour operators just so the rooms would be filled in.

Moreover, coupled with unabated development, lack of zoning, and building policies (it may sound repetitive but will not get tired  of calling for the LGU to look into these), by and by, the poblacion will become defaced and ugly that a new generation of tourists will look for something more that Sagada could offer, something that is still unspoiled. How long the poblacion would be able to hold mass tourism longer is the question. Mass tourism is never sustainable and unfailingly destructive, think not only of a spoiled landscape, it is just the tip of the iceberg. If it could deface Sagada physically, think of how it will also erode the and ruin  the social, cultural, and environmental life of Sagada.

One thing’s for sure, these tour operators who have succeeded in taking control of the poblacion and the dynamics of its society, will also eventually take control of the other barangays or find new places to exploit. And not only that, even the locals could find themselves entertaining the idea of expanding their business in the outlying villages, because that is the trend and that is where money is. And the lure of money which could turn into greed can come in. Those who would not be able to start a business of their own might want to just sell their land to whoever will be up for it, be it a local or an outsider. Anyway it could just boil down to whoever bids the highest, or they could be offered with shares as a bait etc. So with this formula and the progression of things, much is at stake for Sagada and its people, lands could be lost and along with it the people, their identity, culture, traditions, sense of pride and ownership among others. Things that money cannot buy. I hope that the other barangays would learn from Poblacion Sagada,  it is vital that they have to come up with a tourism plan first if they really wish to embrace tourism.

And what will then become of poblacion or of the entire Sagada? Please think about it. What will Sagada be like five to ten years from now?  Amidst all these things that are pulling Sagada down, I still believe that Sagada is not yet past its tipping point and that we can do something about it. I just hope we would be more mindful of our actions and  decisions especially when we think of cashing in on the trend of tourism and capitalizing on Sagada as a travel destination. How will it affect the people around us,  nature, and culture etc.? The gist is, if we keep having this “to each his own” mindset, we will just be nothing but a playground for opportunists like these tour operators who milk Sagada to the last drop for their own benefit, for indeed  a house divided against itself cannot stand. And once we reach that very last drop, who would suffer? If not us during our lifetime, please think about your children, our children,  the children of Sagada.