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Saturday, October 23, 2021

Tourism sector fighting back, year after Yolanda

CEBU. Residents of Santa Fe in Bantayan Island clean up a part of the shore as their way of marking the fi rst year since Yolanda swept across the Visayas, including 15 towns and a city in northern Cebu. (Allan Defensor)

STA. FE, Bantayan — In the activity hall of a beach resort in Sta. Fe, a local tourism official asked resort owners and managers to submit reports on the number of tourists they accommodated from January to September this year.

“We have been lenient for three years,” said Melanie Loyao, the town’s tourism officer. “We need your cooperation now.”

Resorts, the Municipal Government and other tourism stakeholders are back to planning their future after months of dealing with the destruction wrought by super typhoon Yolanda.

The typhoon brought resorts to their knees, but all struggled to get back on their feet. “No resort closed down,” Loyao said.

Yolanda made landfall in Cebu twice—once in Daanbantayan and then in Bantayan Island. It will take an estimated P347 million to fix government buildings, like markets, town halls and evacuation centers in its three towns.

But it is also an example of how a combination of humanitarian support, hard work and local leadership can determine how well a community can bounce back after a disaster.

In her appeal for more data from resort owners, Loyao explained that the Municipal Government needed the reports to get funds from a National Government agency to build a tourism assistance center.

Their brief meeting last October 21 came shortly after a group of marine biologists presented, in the same venue, the findings of their study of the town’s marine habitats.

If the town wants to maintain its appeal as a tourist destination or draw more visitors, it has to preserve its marine environment, including corals and mangroves, experts from the Zoological Society of London-Philippines told resort owners, fishermen and town officials.

The storm crushed almost all of the resorts in Sta. Fe, the tourism hub of Bantayan Island, when it struck on Nov. 8 last year. Only one resort out of 22 withstood, with minimal damage, the strong winds. Resort buildings were flattened along with houses and other structures all over the island.

Many resorts have yet to fully recover, with repairs still ongoing and huge loans to pay.

The Sta. Fe Beach Club, a pioneer resort in Sta. Fe, and its sister-resort Ogtong Cave, for instance, may operate with no profit in the next two years.

Susan Holaysa, one of the owners of the resort, said their earnings since they went back to full operation earlier this year went mostly to repairs.

They also had to get a loan of more than P2 million from their relatives for major repairs like putting back roofs over 30 of the 31 cottages in Ogtong Cave Resort.

It doesn’t help, Holaysa said, that fewer tourists have been coming to Sta. Fe in the past few years owing to stricter regulations on beach parties.

“Business is slow,” she told Sun.Star Cebu last Oct. 22. “We may not be able to recover in the next two years.”

Loyao estimated that more than 90 percent of the resorts have recovered “physically”. During the first quarter of the year, the resorts busied themselves rebuilding or repairing their facilities to take advantage of the surge of tourists during the Holy Week.

Some availed themselves of a loan from the Small Business Corp. (SMB), the financing arm of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). The resorts are allowed not to pay for the loan during the first year.

Not all resorts were able to borrow funds from SMB, like the Sta. Fe Beach Club, but Loyao said another batch of resorts will soon be able to avail themselves of the loan.

All still open

As of June this year, 22 resorts and 15 inns or apartelles were operating in the town, offering more than 400 rooms.

Based on the records of Sta. Fe Tourism Office, more than 49,000 tourists stayed in the town from January to October last year. (The office did not require accommodation establishments to submit reports for the months of November and December because of the typhoon.)

But Loyao said she believes more than 100,000 tourists visit Sta. Fe, which is known for its white sand beaches, every year.

In the past three years, not all resorts submitted reports while those who did failed to provide correct data, she said.

The town, which hosts the port of Bantayan Island, is crowded with tourists during Holy Week. Although fewer visitors came to the town during Holy Week last April, all resorts—albeit having fewer rooms—were fully occupied, Loyao said.

While still recovering from the typhoon, the Municipal Government, the resorts and other tourism stakeholders have busied themselves with new efforts to promote the town.

New attraction

Last October 3, the town launched a new festival in a bid to draw more tourists. Loyao said the town will stage the Puting Baybay Festival on January 15 next year. (Puting Baybay means white coast).

The Municipal Government, resorts and other tourism stakeholders have also formed the Sta. Fe Enterprise Association, which is composed of resorts, restaurants, bars, health and wellness centers and other tourism-related establishments.

Loyao acknowledged the need for the town to come up with more activities to attract more tourists, especially after the number of tourists visiting the town declined in 2011.

Before the Cebu Provincial Government and the town passed measures to regulate beach parties and prohibit bikini shows, “tourists here were shoulder-to-shoulder,” Loyao said.

So many tourists came to Sta. Fe that families would sleep in tents to rent out their houses.

Loyao also noted that the town’s tourism is confined within sand and beach activities. “With not many activities to keep them longer, Loyao said, tourists usually leave after two days.

The town is now working to develop itself as an “eco-paradise” where tourists can enjoy boating, fishing, sight-seeing on a boardwalk and bird-watching, among other activities.
P10M tourist center

Efforts are also underway to train resort personnel on tour-guiding and have lifeguards of each resort accredited.

A tourism assistance center is also seen to boost the town’s tourism.

Mayor Jose Esgana told Sun.Star Cebu that the Department of Tourism, through the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority, will provide the town with a P10-million grant to build a tourism assistance center.

He said the construction may start in three months.

Esgana said resorts can set up stalls at the center and inform tourists about all the activities they can enjoy in the town.

The Municipal Government has also strengthened efforts to give the town’s tourism a brand. It recently partnered with a businessman to promote the town online using the tagline “Amazing Sta. Fe.”

The town is capitalizing on the summer season to attract more tourists. In the weeks leading to summer this year, the tourism office popularized a slogan that equates the town to everything about summer.

“It’s not ‘Summer in Sta. Fe’,” Loyao said, careful not to be misheard. “It’s ‘Summer is Sta. Fe’.” (Sun.Star Cebu)
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