Negros Occidental on the tourism trail

EVERY time I hear about the increasing numbers of tourists, I appreciate how much livelihood and economic growth is spurred and how much benefit local communities earn around destinations. Working in a non-profit conservation organization, I do however get concerned about the impact of inbound mass tourism to our cultural and natural heritage, especially to our environment. How do we design tourism that respects cultural and natural heritage while at the same time reaping economic gains from it?

It is exciting to be part of a rising consciousness in tourism development where sustainability and involvement of local communities are considered. Last May 14, the Province of Negros Occidental held a Tourism Summit at the Social Hall of the Provincial Capitol, gathering more than 100 stakeholders from the private sector and the local government units (LGUs). The talks weren’t just about Negros Occidental’s continuing success and potential for tourism. The Tourism Summit was an expression of our desire to position Negros Occidental as a holistic travel experience where tourists don’t only get to see beautiful spots, but also to learn and enjoy our local culture, cuisine, farming, and the natural resources we take care of.

Of course, we will face challenges and issues in this endeavor. More and more over the years, we have seen the need to diversify our economy and not rely on sugar alone. We have began the birthing processes of new products and experiences – with concepts like farm tourism around our province’s advocacy for organic agriculture, culinary tourism around the Negrense cosmopolitan sense of taste, and ecotourism around ecosystems that we protect and nurture. Our ideals of what Negros Occidental can offer to the world will be balanced with the work we all still need to do together.

From the Tourism Summit through Vice Governor Eugenio Lacson’s opening remarks, we find out that visitor arrivals in Negros Occidental has reached 1.6 million in 2016, with an increase of 17 percent compared to the previous year’s. This translates to a necessity for our province to develop infrastructure and facilities. Department of Tourism Assistant Secretary Frederick Alegre said that our country is currently in a tourism boom cycle, and the trend is an increase in visitor arrivals. To build on this potential, the government has started Tourism Road Projects in coordination with the Department of Public Works and Highways and the Department of Transportation. Undersecretary Jesus Hinlo Jr. of the Department of the Interior and Local Government points out that there are more beautiful attractions in Negros and the progess in building roads to reach them will help Negros economy to be driven by tourism.

As the Department of Tourism Region 6 presented its Master Tourism Development Plan, it is hoped that Western Visayas will be a tourism-driven region in 2022. DOT-6 Regional Director Helen Catalbas leads this region with the strategy to strengthen local markets and really be inclusive in terms of planning with and for the local communities.

Governor Alfredo Joseph Marañon Jr. himself believes that ecotourism and sports tourism are ways we can engage the communities more. How do we engage the communities, more than just employment or products development? How do we engage them to be proud and participative?

As Capitol consultant Rafael Coscolluela closed the Summit, we are reminded of sustainability again. As this year is the United Nations International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, we need to continue looking into an increase of tourist arrivals as a potential for economic growth, but also a challenge on how to give them a meaningful travel experience that respects both the local culture and nature of our beautiful island.