Saturday, December 26, 2009

Travel diaries: Batanes as eco-tourism haven

MANILA, Philippines - In the town of Chavayan in Batanes, small stone houses with cogon-thatched roofs line the street in rows.

Some are crumbling, while some are still inhabited, creating a feeling that time stood still hundreds of years ago.

The noontime sun was intense, and old men and children sat lazily on the curbs, swatting flies or sucking on "ice candy."

Walking down the quiet street, searching for a breeze, I spotted an old woman frying up garlic inside one of the houses. She saw me and beckoned for me to enter. Inside, it was noticeably cooler.

She let me linger for a while as I poked around her kitchen. Then she returned to her work.

This could be the Ivatan nature in a nutshell. The locals are friendly and welcoming to tourists, but then they'll go on their way because they always have work to do. If they're not fishing, they're farming. If they're not farming, they're tending to cattle.

And these historic vernacular houses, so adaptive to the climate and practically typhoon-proof, are one of the cornerstones in the local government's plan to market the cultural landscape of Batanes.

Once refurbished and improved with basic amenities, these houses could be opened up to visitors, providing bed-and-breakfast type services. Visitors can also participate in the town's daily activities like planting camote (sweet potato) or bundling up cogon grass.

Not the next Boracay

A simple, revolutionary idea miles away from the usual luxury developments is what Batanes's local government wants for its local tourism plan.

"People always tell me, 'Batanas should be the next Boracay'," Batanes Governor Telesforo Castillejos said. "I have to explain to them plainly, we cannot be Boracay (in Aklan). Why put up a 5-star resort here? It's true that the place is very unique, but the moment we introduce changes, then it's no longer an exciting place to visit."

Batanes has things to offer beyond the usual casinos, malls, or videoke joints--and the government intends to keep it that way.

When Gov. Castillejos came to office in 2007 for his 4th term, he cancelled a plan to lease some o fthe islands and immediately came up with ordinances that prioritized local investors.

"It's an unwritten policy," he explained. "We do not encourage big investors. What the national government is promoting is not something we can cope with."

"We can afford to be slow with growth--our way of living, which has been carried on from past generations, is sustainable. If the big investors succeed, we wake up one day and become second class citizens in our own town," Castillejos said.

Sustainable community

The Ivatan identity is one based on a certain independence and self-sustainability.

As an isolated island, they have never been integrated into the larger market economy. Each landowner traditionally produces his own food for consumption.

Once listed as one of the 20 poorest provinces in the Philippines, Batanes is now in the top 10, with one of the highest Human Development Indez Ratings in the country.

This was reportedly after the national government poured in more funds and called on Prof. Roberto Bastillo as a consultant to the area's development back in 1993.

Bastillo asserts: "Modernization was not the answer. Not industrialization or golf courses or annexation to Taiwan. It's keeping what they have because it's sustainable."

Bastillo, who is the acting tourism officer for Batanes, said it was hard to explain his plan to the officials at first but once they got it, there was a groundswell of support from the community.

Though the concept of conservation has not yet been ingrained in the minds of all the people in Batanes, it is getting there.

The Batanes Eco-Cultural Tourism Industry is launching programs like the Community Stay where Batanes homes will provide rooms for guests, who can live among the Ivatans. It also launched the "Amazing Tour", a competitive race with team challenges that revolve around Ivatan culture and practices.

"Tourists also have a role to play," Bastillo said. "They can hopefully help the people rather than pull them apart, by educating others on the cultural landscape of Batanes--which is often hard to explain--and in turn the Ivatans will be proud of their uniqueness."

World heritage site

Currently, Batanes is on the "tentative list" of world heritage sites documented by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

According to officials in the area, Batanes satisfies the "Outstanding Universal Value" sought by UNESCO's World Heritage Centre.

Batanes has beautiful rolling hills and virgin beaches strewn with heavy boulders that make the province a must-see.

But beyond the cinematic visuals, there are also sustainable farming and fishing systems (they've been organic from the beginning) and deeply rooted cooperative traditions like community building of stone houses and even an "Honesty Cafe" that has no storekeeper.

Batanes, a worthy travel destination, is certainly deserving of preservation.

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