Sunday, April 10, 2011

How do you Sell Iloilo City

By: Ben Jimena

OFTENTIMES we ask ourselves, what is there to find in Iloilo City? Or why would visitors come to the place which seems to have nothing interesting to offer? It does not have much of natural wonders except for its river. No waterfalls, no nearby mountains, no hot spring, no caves. Villa beach is black sand.

In the past, we tried to package Iloilo City as a heritage destination. Photos of old baroque churches, antillan mansions, huge pre-Hispanic commercial buildings have been ubiquitous in postcards and other promotional collaterals for Iloilo City which was labeled heritage city.

The heritage branding however did not somehow click and take off. Iloilo City remains in the sideline.

If one is interested in heritage houses, there is Vigan in the Ilocos Region. Though there are many old architectural structures scattered all over Iloilo City – from its Central Business District and the Chinatown triangle in the City Proper, the vintage structures dot the outskirts of Jaro and Molo; yet it is Vigan’s short strip which is top of mind of travelers. There is one UNESCO-picked Miag-ao Church but it is located about 40 kilometers south of the metropolis. There are other magnificent churches such as the Jaro Cathedral and the St. Anne Church in Molo, but they still pale in comparison to the grandeur of the better known century-old edifice of San Sebastian and San Agustin churches in Manila. So if one is to look at heritage, would he still go for Iloilo City?

Positioning Iloilo City as heritage and culture has failed to make it a premier tourist destination. We were never part of the Department of Tourism’s Top 8 tourist-drawers. We have never been a priority in terms of promotions. We were categorized as second-rate destination. It was difficult to sell the “old” Iloilo City!

Why is this so? Tourism Secretary Alberto Lim during his visit as guest speaker for the General Membership Meeting of the Iloilo Business Club had mentioned that the visitors’ negative perceptions of the country are difficult to counter. He cited that Japanese still think that the country is still a 3-D – disorderly, dirty, and dangerous. So that despite efforts to project Iloilo City as heritage site (our tourism promotional poster has either a photo of a mansion with a sprawling green front yard or that of an old stone church), we failed to rouse interest.

Most of the identified heritage structures are poorly maintained. They have not seen repair nor touched paint. They are just left to look old and rotten as if heritage is synonymous to such. The façade has cracks, its frontage has makeshift stalls of the sidewalk vendors. How could you call this attraction?

There are other branding options such as Sports and Adventure. Iloilo City could play host to sports events that could utilize existing gymnasium and swimming facilities. There is the Iloilo Sports Complex with rubberized track and field oval, ball courts and covered gym for indoor games. There are school gymnasiums around the city. But it’s only up there - the usual and the common which other places could also offer. Nothing exciting, no extreme sports challenges to pump up more adrenalin and spark curiosity. We were only up to hosting national sports meet occasionally; we could hardly remember the last time there was an international sports show in Iloilo City. No local sports organizations seem to have the guts and the savvy to mount this kind of competition. Where are the local moneyed sports enthusiasts or daring event organizers who should be investing in these endeavors?

Most of the adventure sports could be relegated to the rural areas like Guimaras and other Iloilo towns with elevated terrains. Iloilo City does not have the natural landscape to accommodate such kind of activities, it could only serve as gateway for these adventure destinations. The northern Iloilo towns of Ajuy, Banate and Concepcion could offer island-hopping tours including spelunking and diving. The present popularity of zip lines could probably interest investors to set up facility in the hilly topography of Guimaras. Nowadays zip and rappelling are not just exclusive for the boondocks because wherever there is altitude gap, these activities could very well be operated.

To market Iloilo City as Festival Capital is not a problem except for a fact that it is just a seasonal thing. Dinagyang which has been getting both national and international attentions happens on the fourth Sunday of January; the Paraw Regatta sailboat race on the third Sunday of February. These annual celebrations have brought a significant number of visitors from all over the globe. Both have been adjudged as the Best Tourism Events by the Association of Tourism Officers of the Philippines. Dinagyang was cited as a Best Practice for Private-Public Partnership by the Asian Development Bank and the United Nations Development Programme; because by all indications, Dinagyang has surpassed the parameters of what a premier festival is made of. But then, they just happen in the first two months of the year.

Although there are about more than a dozen other exciting festivals from the towns of Iloilo Province which come for the rest of the year, these events have yet to be developed to be world-class so that we could sustain a year round supply of this genre.

Iloilo City has been a popular choice for national conventions of government agencies, civic groups, religious associations, academic societies, and professional organizations. A medical association like the Philippine Urological Society will come for their mid-year conference this April 2011. Many local government units had scheduled their “lakbay aral” during the past months and we are expecting members of PHILTOA for Travel Exchange with local travel and tour operators and familiarization tour on April. The Philippine Society of Science Clubs is also holding its national congress here in the City very soon.

As a destination for MICE (meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions), Iloilo City has established a good track record especially in the hosting capabilities of Ilonggos; although this was devastated and crippled by that infamous Perimeter Boundary Ordinance which did not allow out-of-route public utility vehicles and big buses to enter the City. It was a nightmare for travel and tour operators who carry big groups of visitors and it has created a big blow to tourist arrivals. Lately, however, some remedies were introduced to loosen the restrictions to accommodate visitors into the metropolis.

As an emerging MICE destination, the City Tourism and Development Office presents Iloilo City as a F.I.E.S.T.A zone. It’s a place where you could have Fun, tasty Food, spectacular Festivals, quality Fabrics, and nice Fine crafts. Infrastructures are in place – modern airport of international standards, and network of well-maintained roads. Ilonggos are Engaging hosts – hospitable, courteous, warm and happy people. The city is Safe and Secure. Our Track Record speaks for the satisfaction of all those who come to visit the City. In 2010, we hosted fourteen national conventions aside from many regional conferences and local seminars. We have at least twenty-seven flights a day served by all the major airlines in the country. Iloilo City is also linked to the roll-on-roll-off (RORO) nautical highway making the place easily Accessible by all modes of transportation.

And talking about food, we have earned the distinction to be home of the best tasting foodstuff and delicacies. La Paz Batchoy is a popular hot noodle concoction which the visitor should not miss; otherwise his or her experience of Iloilo would not be completed. Biscocho, barquillos, pinasugbo, butter scotch are the usual take-home pasalubong items. There is abundance of the sweetest and most succulent fresh fruits – mangoes and melons; of seafood – crabs, shells, prawns, fish, and oysters. There is a variety of grilled chicken preparations from old favorites like Tatoy’s and Breakthrough’s – two of the more popular seafood restaurants along Villa Beach. Even PNOY had publicly endorsed the “manamit” foods of Iloilo during his first presidential visit last April 1 for the inauguration of the coal-fired power plant here. Airphil Express has even labeled Iloilo as its Food Tripping route.

The prospects are very promising. Funds are coming in: the P150-M Iloilo River Esplanade courtesy of Senator Franklin Drilon, and the P10-M LGSP tourism promotion package for MIGEDC. The P20-B Megaworld project will have its groundbreaking next month. A solar energy source is in the offing. With these options and prospects, our hopes are high for Iloilo City to become a premier tourist destination by 2015.


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