Having missed out on an opportunity to visit Boracay with other journalists earlier this month, I accepted an invitation from Cebu Pacific to join a familiarization tour for Cebu journalists to Puerto Princesa. I did so basically out of my curiosity at how Puerto Princesa was doing in its tourism campaign.
Dumaguete, after all, prides itself as an eco-tourism destination so I thought I could pick up some parallels in Puerto Princesa to share with readers back home.
Cebu Pacific flies to between Puerto Princesa and Cebu City thrice weekly but because of increased visitor traffic, RG Orense, CEB’s corporate communications manager, announced that these flights would be daily starting December 5th. Flights between Puerto Princesa and Manila, on the other hand, would be upped from 10 to 12 flights a week.
The increase in flights, Orense explained, was made possible by the arrival of four brand new A320 aircraft, which will be deployed to its Manila, Cebu, Davao and Clark hubs.
Pacific officers in full force: (from left) Charles Lim (PR
consultant), Michelle de Guzman (CEB Corp. Com. Officer) Viveca Singson
(JG Summit Corp. Com. Manager) RG Orense (CEB Corp. Com. Manager) and
Len Balmonte (JG Summit Corp. Com. supervisor) (photo by Alex Pal)
Indeed, many passengers on our plane were tourists armed with cameras, sun hats, insect-repellents and sunblock. We were looking forward to seeing the dancing flight attendants giving the safety instructions as we had seen on Youtube and on CNN, but we were told that what the dance of the flight attendants was just an experiment. Orense said that the featured dance was not meant to replace the standard safety instructions but was a gimmick, conceptualized by the flight crew themselves, to show the fun-culture of Cebu Pacific.
Upon landing in Puerto Princesa, we checked into Asturias Hotel and had a quick lunch at Badjao restaurant, located right beside the sea in the midst of a mangrove forest. One could appreciate the seriousness of Puerto Princesa’s eco-tourism thrust with its spanking clean streets and the presence of so many trees in the city itself. Banners proclaim Puerto Princesa as “a city within a forest.”
With a total land area of 253,982 hectares–70 percent of which is forest–Puerto Princesa is the country’s largest city. If you were to picture that in Negros island terms, Puerto Princesa City alone would occupy half of Negros Oriental and would be 71 times bigger than Dumaguete’s 3,551 hectares.
We went on the Maoyon River cruise, a new attraction being promoted by the City, which is about one hour away from our hotel. It promises to equal the Loboc River cruise in Bohol, complete with food on board the boat and an in-house entertainer.
Next stop was the showroom of the Batac tribe, one of four groups of indigenous people in the City. Shy and amiable, the Batac live in the forest by gathering food and hunting. Only 351 of them remain.
The writer with members of the Batac Tribe
It was starting to rain when we returned to Puerto Princesa so we decided to skip the firefly watching and instead go back to the hotel for some KTV. We were to regret that decision the following day upon meeting with the Rebecca Labit, the City’s tourism officer. “Oh, you missed it!” she wailed. A firefly cruise, she said, is a must-do activity especially when there is no moonlight. “You’ll find that it’s a very romantic experience so you should come with your loved ones,” she said.
On our second day, we went to the much-publicized Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, home of the City’s bet for the world’s new seven wonders of nature–the underground river. It is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.
We traveled two hours to reach barangay Sabang, facing the west Philippine Sea. From the mainland, we took a 15-minute pumpboat ride to reach the underground river.
Boats bring visitors 1.4 kilometers into the cave (although the entire navigable distance stretches to 8.2 kilometers). This was reputed as the world’s longest underground river until the 2007 discovery of an underground river in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
view from inside the subterranean river–Puerto Princesa’s nominee to
the New Seven Natural Wonders of the World. (photo by Alex Pal)
Heading back for Puerto Princesa, we stopped by the mangrove forest, which is also part of the PPSRNP. We have mangrove forests here in Negros Oriental, particularly in Bais City, and I thought I knew all I could learn about a mangrove forest.
But our visit to this forest exceeded my expectations. Our local guides took us on a boat ride through the mangroves and explained the importance of the forest, carefully pointing out the interesting sights it had to offer. We saw four monitor lizards, two snakes and some colorful birds on our 45-minute boat ride. And our guides also shared with us a song about the mangroves that they themselves made.
Next stop was Ugong Rock. This is a cave that got its name because of a stalactite inside it that made a humming sound when touched. With the help of our local guides, we entered the cave, squeezed our bodies in between the rocks and ascended the cave using ropes, man-made stairways and natural rock formations until we found ourselves at the top of this rock. Everyone considered it the best experience in our trip (despite the fact that they woke up with muscle pains the day after). Starting January, visitors will be spared from having to walk back down by riding a zipline.
Coming back to Puerto Princesa, we were treated to a unique dining experience at Ka Lui’s. Everyone leaves their shoes by the door before stepping on their shiny wooden floor. The sumptuous meal was complemented by paintings by local artists, handicrafts, and other wall decorations.
Scaling the insides of Ugong Rock (photo by Alex Pal)
Certainly, two days is not enough to see the wonders of Puerto Princesa. We missed many other interesting places and vowed to come back to see what else the City had to offer.
The strength of the tourism program in Puerto Princesa is its being run by the people who live in that community. Tour guides whom we hired in Puerto Princesa always turned us over to the local guides with each new destination. And the local tour guides made it a point to know everything about their community and about why their site is special.
They knew all the scientific names of plants, the rationale for keeping a balanced ecosystem, and the purpose or significance of each creature in their locality.
The City, on the other hand, provided the infrastructure such as fiberglass boats, roads rest rooms and other basic facilities.
Distance is certainly not a problem. Visitors didn’t mind the two-hour ride to Sabang because the road was good and there was a rest stop along the way.
With these lessons, Dumaguete City and Negros Oriental might be able to improve on its tourism program, although they have already admittedly made inroads in infrastructure development and marketing.