On the last day of July 2023, a Monday, all the roads in Dumaguete led to the Negros Oriental Provincial Capitol where—in the forecourt of the heritage building housing the office of the governor of the province—a tourism extravaganza was about to be unveiled. It was something definitely new for the province as far as I was concerned, and when I arrived at the venue—which was jazzed up to accommodate a huge stage—my first impression was: “I’ll take this as Negros Oriental’s tourism reset after the horrors of March.”
Because there really is no denying the blood-soaked March we just had—only three months ago as of this writing. There is no denying the hellish turmoil that followed that made headlines and broadcast news—and losing two governors in the process, one to cancer and another to carnage. The damage was deep, and also impacted the way Negros Oriental was being seen everywhere: our province was now the unfortunate haven to craven politicians eager for tactical assassinations. Post-massacre, it was not unnormal for visiting friends to ask me: “Is it safe to go to Dumaguete?”
So how does one rise from that? To quote the local musician and theatre artist Hope Tinambacan: “What we artists have tried so hard to establish for Negros Oriental as a place of great culture, has been undone so thoroughly in just one day.”
It is perfectly ironic then that for the rehabilitation to come, culture and the arts are the tools being used once again in the name of tourism. The July 31 program at the Provincial Capitol was being dubbed a “tourism roadshow and cultural exchange program,” and served as a welcome program for the First Silliman University International Choral Festival, which had participants coming in from various parts of the country and the world. The tourism roadshow was working from the slogan, “Negros Oriental: Garbo sa Kabisay-an [Pride of the Visayas],” and the Negros Oriental Provincial Tourism Council was hoping to use it as a “platform to showcase and celebrate the essence of [the] province’s vibrant culture, arts, and heritage.” Everything was the brainchild of Woodrow Maquiling Jr.—RR to friends—who had come home to Dumaguete from a long and fruitful stint working at the Department of Tourism head office to find himself appointed by newly-installed Governor Chaco Sagarbarria as the Provincial Tourism Board Executive Director and concurrent head of the Provincial Tourism Council.
There was no denying the grandness of the roadshow presentation and the robust talents it was showcasing—many of them recreations of various festivals from around the province. From Gov. Sagarbarria’s keynote speech, we learned of his new administration’s recognition of the importance of local culture and the arts: “[Our program] stands as a testament to our unwavering commitment to preserving and promoting our cultural heritage as it brings together local artists, performers, and community members who share an unyielding passion for showcasing the unique identity of Negros Oriental. This collective effort encapsulates the very essence of our province, providing both visitors and locals with an opportunity to delve into our rich cultural tapestry and witness the remarkable depth of our heritage.”
Sagarbarria noted as well the importance of tourism not just as an economic powerhouse for the province, but also as a mark for local pride: “[I have] an unwavering passion for our province’s extraordinary potential as a captivating tourism destination”—noting all the tourist spots of pure potential dotting the province, and then ending with this declaration: “[I am for] embracing the delicate balance between preserving our environment and nurturing sustainable tourism. [My administration thus] is making tourism among my top priorities, and [I pledge] to elevate Negros Oriental to the forefront of global travel destinations, inviting wanderers to embark on a soul-stirring journey through our paradise.”
Truth to tell, we didn’t need the new governor to tell us of our riches—with most of them being untapped potential. Aside from culture, we do have beautiful beaches and marvelous mountains; we do have hundreds of waterfalls; we even have our own “Chocolate Hills” in Guilhungan, and our own “Rice Terraces” in Canlaon. And there’s so much more!
But how come Negros Oriental remains a “secret” to most travelers? People undeniably know more Bohol and Cebu, and even when people mention “Negros,” they mostly mean the Occidental side.
The pandemic, too, has not helped. And the numbers remind us of the long work ahead if we have to showcase Negros Oriental as a place to visit, and not a place to run away from because of bloody politics.
On a lark, I decided to calculate tourism figures provided by the Department of Tourism, primarily for Dumaguete and Negros Oriental immediately before the pandemic and then during and after, comparing them to equivalent numbers posted by nearby provinces [Cebu, Bohol, Siquijor, and Negros Occidental] and cities [Cebu City, Bacolod, and Iloilo].
I was not prepared for the stark reality of numbers, which are tabulated by the DOT from reported occupancy numbers in hotels, hostels, and resorts—but not including the numbers from Air BnB.
In 2019, right before the pandemic hit, there were 1,025,407 visitors to Negros Oriental [an aggregate number combining foreign travelers, overseas Filipino travelers, and domestic travelers], and 854,661 to Dumaguete. I used these numbers as my base for “normal times” moving forward in this analysis.
In comparison, there were 781,145 to Negros Occidental [with Negros Oriental edging out considerably]; 1,088,938 to Cebu Province [only slightly overtaking Negros Oriental]; 1,581,904 to Bohol [the clear statistical winner]; and 168,366 to Siquijor. Among the cities, Cebu City had 2,869,809 visitors in 2019; Iloilo City had 1,171,520; and Bacolod had 803,911. There were more visitors to Dumaguete than to our sister Negrense city.
And then the pandemic hit in 2020, and the numbers everywhere plummeted—which was to be expected. Negros Oriental posted 171,650 visitors, a drop of 83% from 2019, and Dumaguete posted 130,656 visitors, a drop of 85%. [That number also included returning residents who had to quarantine and stay in hotels, as mandated by COVID-19 protocols.] In comparison, Negros Occidental posted 202,147 visitors, a drop of 74% from 2019; Cebu Province posted 226,019 visitors, a drop of 79%; Bohol posted 177,341, a drop of 89%; and Siquijor posted 37,980 visitors, a drop of 77%. Among the cities, Cebu City posted 599,188 visitors, a drop of 79%; Iloilo City posted 186,980 visitors, a drop of 89%; and Bacolod posted 143,114 visitors, a drop of 82%. You could see Dumaguete and Negros Oriental taking major hits in 209198.
I used the 2020 figures as my base for COVID-era numbers, to note if improvement in tourism numbers could be seen as the pandemic progressed and waned.
In 2021, things improved for some—and worse for others.
Negros Oriental posted 91,580 visitors, a decrease of 47% from 2020, while Dumaguete posted 41,851 visitors, a decrease of 68% also from 2020.
In comparison among the provinces, Negros Occidental posted 311,577 visitors, an increase of 54% from 2020—and three times more than Negros Oriental. Cebu Province posted 387,484 visitors, an increase of 71%; Bohol posted 179,781 visitors, an increase of 1.4%; and Siquijor posted 9,017 visitors, a decrease of 76%. Among the cities, Cebu City posted 219,169 visitors, a decrease of 63%; Bacolod posted 147,582 visitors, an increase of 3%; and Iloilo City posted 211,914 visitors, an increase of 13%. Bacolod’s number is a reversal to Dumaguete’s from 2019 figures, and by a considerable stretch. What happened?
In 2022, with restrictions being relaxed and vaccinations programs firmly in place, there are marked increases across the board in terms of visitor numbers—except Dumaguete.
Negros Oriental posted 204,164 visitors in 2022, an increase of 123% from 2021, and an increase of 19% from 2020. In comparison, Negros Occidental posted 510,022 visitors in 2022, an increase of 64% from 2021, and an increase of 152% from 2020. This is a reversal in fortunes for the two Negrense provinces based on 2019 numbers—with Occidental posting 40% more visitors than Oriental in 2022.
Meanwhile, Cebu Province posted 737,163 visitors, an increase of 90% from 2021, and an increase of 226% from 2020; Bohol posted 535,803 visitors, an increase of 198% from 2021, and an increase of 202% from 2020; and Siquijor posted 99,386 visitors, an increase of 1002% from 2021, and an increase of 162% from 2020—the statistical winner among Central Visayan provinces.
Among the cities in 2022, Cebu City posted 1,063,503 visitors in 2022, an increase of 385% from 2021, and an increase of 78% from 2020; Iloilo City posted 752,301 visitors, an increase of 255% from 2021, and an increase of 302% from 2020; Bacolod City posted 618,682 visitors, an increase of 319% from 2021, and an increase of 332% from 2020.
Meanwhile, in 2022, according to DOT numbers, Dumaguete posted 48,719 visitors, an increase of 16% from 2021, but a decrease of 62% from 2022. Apparently, more people [99,386 of them] went to Siquijor than to Dumaguete [a difference of almost 50%] in 2022. And more people [204,164 of them] went all over Negros Oriental without going to and staying in Dumaguete—that’s 76% of people who went to Negros Oriental without staying in Dumaguete.
It does not make sense. Surely, the number for Dumaguete posted at the DOT website is an encoding mistake. [I asked someone from the Dumaguete City Tourism Office to clarify—and I was told there’s a mistake in the encoded number, and should be rectified by DOT.]
But let’s assume for now that it is not. One clearly sees from the overall data that Negros Oriental [and Dumaguete] has been falling behind in terms of tourism recovery compared to most places near and around it. I have no answers to explain the stillborn numbers—although local tourism diva Angelo Villanueva recently quipped to me: “Nobody is flying over because airline tickets are ridiculously expensive. So tourists will never get to see [any of our tourism endeavors] except for the usual suspects.” [I checked online and the cheapest one-way ticket from Manila to Dumaguete I could find as of this writing cost P1,482; compare that to P993 for Cebu City; P1,048 for Bacolod; P1,213 for Iloilo City; and P1,268 for Tagbilaran City—definitely, going to Dumaguete is more expensive. I know a friend who flew in from Manila to Bacolod, and then took a bus to Dumaguete—because “it was cheaper.”]
It is not for lack of trying. Over the course of the pandemic, the Dumaguete City Tourism Office released two magnificently-produced tourism videos that tugged at the heart, painting the city as a place of resilience, and then of welcoming recovery. The reception to both marketing videos was solid. And now, in Dumaguete alone, we do see a city thriving once more—even with more establishments catering to hospitality and culture than ever before in the pre-pandemic. That has to say something.
Sometime in the run of the tourism roadshow at the Provincial Capitol last July 31, an unexpected thing occurred: the power tripped while the Silliman University Dance Troupe was presenting a number, and the whole show was drenched in darkness, leaving the dancers to carry on even without lights or music. It lasted 13 minutes, RR later told me—but the show went on, as it should.
I’m positive about our potential moving forward—and I know that our tourism numbers will go up again—but using the sudden power outage of the tourism roadshow program as a metaphor, there is indeed a lot of work to be done.
Author’s email: [email protected]