Friday, August 28, 2009

Riding the waves

Thursday, 27 August 2009

For many people, hearing the word Siargao conjures images of roaring waves and surfboards under the bright sun.

But the island is more than just the proverbial surf and sun. The islands surrounding Siargao and the Caraga region in northeastern Mindanao remain hidden, waiting to be discovered—breathtaking nooks and lagoons seemingly taken out of a Tolkien book; soaring cliffs and tranquil lakes—ready to take their rightful place as one of the country’s best tourist attractions.

“We want to show that Caraga is more than just Siargao,” Department of Tourism (DOT) regional director Leticia Tan told the BusinessMirror. “We are a region of culture, adventure and nature.”

The director has reasons to be proud. No other destination in the country can boast of a recorded history of thousands of years, still-unspoiled wonders and the sheer majesty than Caraga.

The region, part of the tourism belt of the Central Philippines Super Region, now has a fledgling tourism industry. It already boasts an exclusive lagoon resort that is becoming popular among Korean honeymooners, a world-class surfer’s paradise in Siargao and vast lagoons where tourists can swim alongside millions of non-sting jellyfish within two hours of each other.

In 2008, the region’s consolidated tourist arrivals hit 385,000, up by 23 percent from the previous year. This despite limited access to Manila, and inadequate access from the nearest hub in Cebu. It is still far from Cebu’s 2.1 million consolidated arrivals in the same year, but Tan said getting a significant slice of their neighbor’s arrivals would be a huge success for this region in the unfortunate perennial backdoor of Mindanao.

WITH only around 10 wellappointed super exclusive villas(top left), Club Tara resort in Butas Grande is slowly becoming a honeymoon destination for Korean couples. PHOTO BY DESINATION SPECIALISTS CEBU

The region, composed of the Agusan and Surigao provinces, as well as the mystical Dinagat province, is accessible through its three airports in Dapa, Siargao, Butuan City and Surigao City and through an adequate network of highways to key Mindanao cities like Cagayan de Oro and Davao. There are ongoing plans to bring in more flights and more shipping routes to the region, Tan said.

After a recent visit to the region by Cebu-based tour operators and journalists, Tan reported that the local tour operators were visibly excited, adding that efforts by local officials for many years are starting to bear fruit.

“We believe our time has come and our people are ready,” she said.

More than just surfing

Siargao is the crown jewel of Caraga region. But while most of the passengers coming into the Siargao airstrip are tugging surfboards, Siargao and its people are also making an effort to offer more into their basket.

Pilar town, due north of the surfers’ hotbed of Cloud 9 in the municipality of General Luna, is slowly becoming a magnet for game fishing. Its last tournament in May drew anglers from America to Asia. Even tuna capital General Santos City sent a team to the international game fishing tournament. The winner was a 120-kilogram marlin caught just off the coast of the island.

Without a single hotel in the town, the local residents, including the mayor, have opened up their spare rooms for tourists in a home-stay program that is slowly becoming a model in the country.

Del Carmen town, an hour away from General Luna, is laying the groundwork for its main attraction—an 8,000-hectare mangrove forest that is the biggest in Mindanao.

“The tourists have been a long dream of our people and now it has become a reality,” Del Carmen Mayor Constantino Navarro IV said. The town has established a tour of the huge forests culminating in the tourist center in one of the coves.

ONE of the attractions of Siargao is the huge mangrove forest. Activities include kayaking through these forests.
Accommodation is already set in Siargao with accommodations like Bayud Resort and Pansukian ready to accommodate the higher-end market.

For Gerry Degan, owner of world-famous Sagana Resort, Siargao has the waves not offered by just any other island anywhere else.

“For surfers, Siargao is still the place to be. The waves here are just spectacular,” Degan said.

In fact, world-renowned sport apparel Billabong will title-sponsor for the third time the Siargao Invitational Surfing competition next year. Degan, the organizer of the event, said 48 surfers, including 36 of the world’s best, will be in Siargao for the tournament.

Degan said a lot of families are descending into the island for a weekend getaway while the kids go to surfing. While foreigners still make up most of the arrivals, the number of locals is growing.

“You can see the effects on the community. Before, children aged 14 would just sit around drinking tuba. Now everybody has a surfboard,” Degan said. “The biggest drawback is many locals kids would go surfing than go to school.”

Aside from being a healthy sport, many Siargao kids have become surfing trainers, easily taking home P1,000 on a regular day.

At the Billabong-Siargao Invitational Surfing tournament last year, a local boy Edito Alcala defeated the world’s best and pocketed close to P500,000.

“This becomes an inspiration for everybody and where you see the positive effects of tourism and surfing to the local community,” Degan said.

The mainland

The region’s biggest city, Butuan, is considered the seat of civilization in the country. This claim is backed by the discovery of balangays during a government ditch project in the 1970s.

The boats were carbon-dated to as early as 300 AD—a sign that an advanced community, capable of trans-Asian travel and international trade, was already existing in the region more than a thousand years before Magellan landed in Masau, Butuan, for the first Mass (still contending with Limasawa, Leyte, up to the present).

The name Caraga comes from many lores—it was the supposed name of the ancient kingdom in the region named Karagan. It may also come after the Visayan word “kalag,” meaning the region was full of spirits.

The spirits must have been generous to the people of Caraga, given its wealth of natural resources. And its people are known for their warmth and hospitality.

Just a two-hour drive from bustling Butuan City is the tranquil 15,000-hectare Lake Mainit, the deepest lake in the country at more than 230 meters deep.

The lake recently became a key destination for roadsters in Mindanao, thanks to the investment of the Almont Lakeside Hotel, just by the lake’s shore.

Nestled at some 50 meters above sea level, Lake Mainit is now starting to grow a following at least within the affluent circles of northern Mindanao for the fishing activities in the area.

The cove

Sorsogon may have its tourists swimming with whale sharks. In Sohoton Cove in Butas Grande Island, tourists can swim, touch and even have their pictures taken with millions of nonsting jellyfish.

Butas Grande is just 20 minutes from Claver town in Suriago del Nore (three hours’ drive from Butuan City). Its main attraction is Sohoton Cove with its blue-green waters and solid rock cliffs packed with virgin forests. Eagles glide in the sky to welcome guests.

Sohoton comes from the Visayan word “sohot,” meaning to sneak in, as visitors, especially at high tide, literally have to duck and weave among stalactites in the cave entrance into the cove.

Entry into the cove itself is like being transported back in time. At the back and top of imposing cliffs are freshwater lakes the size of football stadiums, which until the present remain pristine.

Dhodo Ajoc, the officer of the tourism center established by the people of Socorror town in the cove, said visitors can see at least five species of eagles and countless other animals.

“Our members used to be fishermen and loggers in the cove until we realized the treasure that we have,” Ajoc said. “We have grouped ourselves and dedicated our time to protect our jewel.”

The jewel of Sohoton is perhaps its jellyfish lagoon. A kayak ride through the winding mouth of the cove leads to a small lagoon inhabited by millions of non-sting jellyfish.

Tourists can see jellyfish—brown, purple, lavender, blue, transparent ones—from the boats. The braver ones can jump and wade in and feel the gelatinous creatures slamming into the body. Tourists can also scoop one for a photo op.

The international market has started to take note of the potential. An exclusive Korean-owned resort, Club Tara, has opened in one of the lagoons offering honeymoon suites with a breathtaking view of the lagoons and its cliffs greeting guests each morning.

“Our guests are mostly Koreans looking for a holiday and adventure,” Club Tara owner Sing Hoon Kang said. “They always say they seem to forget they are in the Philippines.”

In her speech before local tour operators in Butuan City, DOT Central Visayas director Patria Aurora Roa said the Central Philippines Super Region has a great chance of capturing the international market because of the diversity of destinations it can offer.

“Caraga can now ride in the coattails of Cebu by tapping the tourists that arrive in the region,” she said.

Her counterpart from Caraga, Director Tan, said her region and Mindanao must rise to meet the challenges in order to succeed.

“We cannot just sit down. We need to get up and move forward,” she said. “Caraga has a lot to offer and its people deserve to benefit from their efforts in preserving their environment.” (Businessmirror)

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