SIARGAO (MindaNews / 09 June) — Through the years since Siargao became a popular haven for tourists this side of the Republic, I was curious as to why it became a byword among those seeking the pleasures of sun, sand and surf! Up till about the 1980s when we found our way to Surigao del Norte, no one mentioned Siargao but by the 1990s the buzz started to spread and eventually travel magazines began to feature its attractions.
The buzz reached a crescendo with the release of the film (also titled Siargao) and the shutdown of Boracay when tourists desperately searched for an alternative destination. Despite a few attempts to reach Siargao, somehow I just couldn’t make it to a fixed date as obstacles managed to arise when I thought the time had come. So as friends, confreres and acquaintances were ecstatic at having experienced the thrills of this island, I could only cringe as they shared exciting stories, feeling quite irritated that my turn had not come as yet.
Well, there is a saying – “Blessed are those who sit and wait!” So I patiently waited for the chance to arise and arose it did just this past week! I am sure the reader who has not been to Siargao would ask me: so, is it worth the wait? Yes, indeed and I would tell that reader: go now before Siargao becomes the next Boracay or Coron! Or even the Enchanted River in Hinatuan where the crowds get so thick that the pleasure of a quiet and stress-free vacation becomes a luxury!
And I was not even in Siargao during the peak tourist season in September-October when the Cloud 9 surf brings thousands to the island to take part of or watch the contests with surfers coming from all over the world. In those months, hotels, resorts and home-stays are all fully booked. In early June, the crowds are thinner, but already there is a bit of traffic jam along the main road of General Luna, the island’s tourist hub.
Sitting together in the evenings at Vivo Inn with the owners who were our hosts, Lori and Roger Calvo who brought their property in 2007, we were provided a short history as to how Siargao eventually became one of the major tourist draws in the country today. Up till the early 1980s, there were very few tourists who found their way here. The first back-packers who found their way to this island – having heard that it had Cloud 9 surf – were Australians who began to trickle down after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship. They didn’t mind how primitive the available lodgings and facilities were since it was the thrill of the surf they were after! As there were no paved roads, airport, transport vehicles, hotels, restaurants and shops, not many tourists – both foreign and local – were attracted to visit this place
Then word started spreading as to the thrill of the surf and by the 1990s, the increasing number of visitors necessitated some development as the construction of paved roads and eventually an airport. The once quiet barangays started to come to life especially those nearest the main tourist sites like General Luna and Dapa with the construction of the first resorts and hotels. By mid 2000, a growing number of businessmen began to invest including foreigners who saw the potential of the island. These foreigners began to find ways to buy land and construct their resorts either by marrying a local maiden or finding a dummy willing to be a partner. Soon the price of land began to rise and today, the real estate business boomed!
While the Cloud 9 surf is the island’s main attraction, it became necessary to diversify its tourist attractions in order to provide more options to the tourists who are not passionate about surfing. Siargao’s main island is surrounded by other smaller islands, islets and even sand bars. Looking down from the sky as the plane begins to descend towards the airport, the vast sea is like a vast glass floor on which these islands appear to be green throw-pillows! So island-hopping became a major draw; the most popular being the one that brings tourists to the nearby Dako, Guyam, Naked Island (so named because it has no vegetation at all; one is reminded of Camiguin’s sand bar) and what is referred to as the “secret island” because there is always water above this shallow point in the middle of the sea!
The more expensive tourist sites – because they are in islands farther away from the main center – are those that offer a variety of geological formations including lagoons, caves, falls and the endless straights of white sand. There is the Magpupungko Rock Pools where pools of water are so crystal clear into which one can dive from the rocky promontories. There is even a nearby river where on one side a coconut tree stands diagonally and as a rope is attached to it, one can play Tarzan by holding the rope and then jumping to the waters. For the urbanized kids, this is such a thrill! Sugba Lagoon and Sohoton Coves are also main attractions.
While its night life cannot yet compete with that of Boracay, still some parts of the island are fully alive at night especially where the restaurants, coffee shops, bars and tourist shops are near each other. As this island’s clientele is the 18-30 demographic, one expects that the evenings – even when there is pouring rain – would rock till past midnight! Food prices are quite expensive, considering that practically everything needs to be imported from outside. Vegetables sold in the public market come all the way from Davao City! An interesting angle is the price of the tricycles. At daytime, they charge 20 pesos passenger even for short distances. By 7 pm, the price is double and by midnight the price is five times more!
There are ways now that budget-conscious tourists cut down on costs. There are the home stays which charge much lower than the resorts or hotels. Instead of eating out in the expensive restaurants that cater to the foreigners, guests could ask their hosts if they can cook their own food. Even if prices in the market are much higher than in the mainland, still they would save by cooking their own food. (Our group did this, thanks to our host who shared their kitchen). And if you have to eat out, there are cheaper carenderias near the pantalan (port) and the palengke (market).
The concerned tourist who sets foot in Siargao is immediately worried how ecologically sustainable the tourist industry is. The first sights are actually encouraging because the plane lands into a reclaimed land still surrounded by vast swamps with thick mangroves and one is impressed that the low-lying mountains beyond are still covered with lush forests. As the van travels from airport to General Luna, one is still reminded of villages of Mindanao in the 1950s although modern-type architecture has penetrated this island. But the roads are quite narrow and coming to the main center, there are flooded streets even as the rains were not too heavy. One assumes there is no drainage system at all. It seems as if the local government units of the barangays are not able to cope with the challenges at hand in making sure infrastructure and social services are well provided for. And one wonders how much support they are getting from the Province of Surigao del Sur and the Department of Tourism.
There are, however, a few bright spots. Owing to the pressure exerted by an NGO, the LGUs have banned the use of plastic bags (but how can you ban all that plastic containing shampoo, coffee, creamer, etc.)? There are bottles that hang on tress on the beaches so the smokers can place their cigarette butts inside. Some of the side roads are purposely not cemented so that the soil can still “breathe” through which water can penetrate. And there are attempts to have gardens in strategic places. Noise also is kept to a minimum as midnight strikes. And apparently, the drug scene is not allowed to prosper. Logging and mining have not reared their ugly heads here compared to many parts across the Surigao provinces.
But are these measures enough to make this tourist destination ecologically sustainable? Perhaps not! For the moment, the ecological balance seems to hold. But for how long, considering that the future is bright insofar as drawing tourists to this island is concerned. There is no longer a travel magazine – both local and foreign – that has not published glowing articles about the thrills of this island. Which is why year after year the tourists in search of the proverbial paradise would increase. Today, foreigners come from practically all the countries in the world even as the numbers of local tourists have also increased exponentially. Lori and Roger Calvo have noticed that lately, there are more Pinoys booking rooms in their resort than before. We noticed that, too in terms of those who were with us in the planes; very few were foreigners.
As one stands on rocks along Siargao’s coast facing the Pacific Ocean, one is overwhelmed at the thought that one is at the edge of the Republic. The sea stretches to eternity as one gazes towards the horizon asking – what is on the other side? The thought comes quick – am I into California dreaming?
[Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is a professor at St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. Gaspar is author of several books, including “Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations,” two books on Davao history, and “Ordinary Lives, Lived Extraordinarily – Mindanawon Profiles” launched in February 2019. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw).]