Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Land of a Thousand Fiestas

The President’s SONA pronouncement earmarking the entire Central Philippines as THE major tourism corridor of the country has generated much excitement and discussion among tourism industry players here. Nowadays, Department of Tourism Regional Director Trompeta is grinning from ear to ear and LGU officials currently are gearing their development programs towards tourism. While I think that the current mood in Western Visayas borders on “irrational exuberance” (to borrow from Alan Greenspan), one cannot really blame the people for becoming so excited. Many Ilonggos make their living out of tourist-related businesses and are truly pinning their hopes on tourism to lift them out of poverty. Already, some places here are aggressively vying for the chance of becoming the next Boracay.

For my part, I see the President's SONA as just a “repackaging” of the Medium Term Development Plan. Most of the projects President Arroyo mentioned can already be found in the long-delayed MTDP and she just sort of “re-labeled” or embellished it to suit her propaganda needs. Nonetheless, credit must be given to her for realizing increased revenue collections, reducing government spending and controlling the budget deficit. Now, she has money to spend on projects to keep her political supporters happy.

Anyway, the President’s SONA caused me to examine what the Central Philippines have to offer in terms of tourism activities and festivals. As many Filipinos may already know, the Visayas area is famous for its lavish, mardi gras-type festivals. Visayans are also known to be a fun-loving, hospitable and laid-back group of people. One can go to the South and come across at any time some fiesta, parade, celebration, carnival, cockfight.

Most of the biggest and most established festivals in Central Philippines occur in January and are supposedly held in honor of the Sto. Niño (Child Jesus). The four biggest festivals are the Ati-Atihan Festival of Kalibo, Aklan which is held every 3rd week of January, Dinagyang Festival of Iloilo City scheduled on January 28-29, Masskara Festival of Bacolod City usually every October 19, and the Sinulog Festival of Cebu City every January 5-20. I have been to all but the Sinulog of Cebu and I can say that out of the three festivals in Western Visayas, I find the Ati-Atihan Festival of Kalibo the best of all mainly because it still retains its “religiousity.” The celebration in Kalibo is still centered on the Catholic Church; part of the Ati-Atihan experience is hearing the solemn mass concelebrated by the Kalibo bishop. The Catholic Church and the Sto. Niño plays a major part in the festivities. Somehow, Ati-Atihan was able to hang on somehow to its religious roots. That is why I was extremely saddened to hear that violence marred the traditionally peaceful Ati-Atihan a couple of years back (see my entry “Boy Cuadra is Guilty”).

In contrast, Bacolod’s Masskara and Iloilo’s Dinagyang Festivals have become too commercialized and purely hedonistic: it is merely merry-making for merry-making’s sake. Loud music, open-air beer gardens, fistfights and KSP national politicians have become the two festival’s standard fare. I remember about ten years ago, San Miguel Corporation sold beer during the Masskara Festival for only one peso! The catch is it should be the old one-peso coin (the bigger Bagong Lipunan kind which was still in circulation back then). Needless to say, bumaha ng beer sa Bacolod on that day. A couple of years ago, Judy Ann Santos suddenly appeared as Darna in the middle of the Dinagyang festivities, causing much consternation among Iloilo City denizens. Judy Ann did it to promote her TV series with ABS CBN at that time.

Lately, other Visayan LGUs have established their own festivals. Fast gaining adherents are the Seafood Festival of Capiz (July 15-16), Pana-ad sa Negros Festival of Festivals (April 3-9), Paraw Regatta of Guimaras-Iloilo (February 18-19), Mangghan Festival of Guimaras (May 22), Aswang Festival of Capiz (October 29-30) and the Sinadya sa Halaran of Capiz (December 3-8). Other provinces are also trying to “cash in” on the mardi gras festival trend such as Antique with its Binirayan Festival (April 27-29), Bohol its Sandugo Festival (July 16), Eastern Samar its Homonhon Landing (every March 16), Leyte its Gen. MacArthur-Leyte Gulf Landing (every October 20). Visayan cities are also vying for visitors like Dumaguete with its Kasadyaan Festival every December, Ormoc City its Terry Larrazabal Bikefest (March 30-April 2) and Calbayog City with its weird-sounding Sarakiki-Hadang Festival (September 3-7).

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