Monday, November 21, 2011

Left Behind

Only in recent years has it become obviously and painfully clear to many of the people here in Lianga that that if there was one industry that could help the town lift itself out of years of economic apathy and stagnation, it would have to be foreign and domestic tourism. I remember just a few years ago one foreigner friend gazing in wonder at the thundering surf at one of the local beaches, his bare feet half buried in the white sand. "My God!" he exclaimed. "You live in a tropical paradise yet you don't make money out of it.  How can you all be so blind?" He then shook his head in exasperation and disbelief.

For decades now, town leaders here have looked towards some form of industrialization as Lianga's ticket to economic progress.  Memories of the heyday of the logging industry in the 1960's when the Lianga Bay Logging Company was the engine powering the town's then rapid growth and economic expansion remained obstinately fixed in their collective minds.  There were grandiose plans to reactivate the logging franchise which had folded up in the 1970's.  The plans included proposals for a seaport (two were built but both remained unused to this very day) which would hopefully turn Lianga into a shipping and marketing hub for this part of Mindanao.

None of these proposals in the wake of present day economic realities, despite all the rhetoric, effort and money wasted on them, amounted to anything significant and it was only recently when the obvious became, well, glaringly apparent.  Build on the town's strengths.  Capitalize on what it already has.  And what it had, by the grace of Mother Nature, were plenty of was white sand beaches and spectacular seascapes that local and foreign tourists could not get enough of.

Sad to say, this shift in thinking and the resulting surge in investments in beach resorts and visitor facilities could not be credited to resourceful or innovative planning on the part of the local government but largely to the foresight of the private sector.  Known local visitor hangouts like the Kansilad Beach Resort, the Sea Hoi Family Resort or the MEDEVCO Training Center, for example, were purely recent, private initiatives by local businessmen with the foresight and the courage to risk pouring their hard earned money into what many of the less prescient here considered, just a few years ago, as a foolhardy, risky thing.

This brings me to the crux of the matter.

That there is indeed a growing tourism boom in this part of Mindanao is undeniable and Lianga is just one of the municipalities enjoying its benefits.  Other coastal municipalities in Surigao del Sur like San Agustin, Hinatuan, Cantilan and Lanuza are also reaping the rewards of investing in tourism infrastructure.  The pristine, natural beauty of the coastline here has become an irresistible draw for outsiders from within and outside the Caraga region and from even outside the country.

Yet in Lianga, it is clear that the town is not in any way positioned to maximize its capacity to take full advantage of this potential windfall.  This is because the local town government has, now and in the past, not provided the essential policy initiatives and the requisite material and infrastructure support needed to help the local tourism industry grow and expand.

In other nearby municipalities like Hinatuan and Cantilan or Lanuza, for example, municipal governments have initiated reforms and implemented programs designed to assist and support private investments in their local tourism industries.  They offer tax incentives and investment packages designed to attract investors and have not hesitated in prioritizing spending on support infrastructure like municipal and barangay roads, adequate street lighting, modern water and sanitation facilities, bus and jeepney terminals and parks and public gardens.  They have encouraged telecommunication companies to set up within their areas modern electronic communication facilities.

They have also beefed up the capacity of their police and security forces to provide a visible and effective presence that encourages visitor confidence in their personal security and that of their families and companions.  This factor is critical in places like Surigao del Sur which has been unfairly labelled as a high security risk because of its location within a part of the country noted as a hot spot for the communist insurgency.

These towns have also been aggressively promoting their tourism attractions in the print and electronic media.  Hinatuan's Enchanted River, Bislig City's Tinuy-an Falls and San Agustin's Bretania Islands, to name a few, have become well known must-see destinations.  Other sister municipalities like Tago, Lanuza and Cantilan also regularly sponsor festivals or aqua-sports competitions that serve to lure tourists and visitors.

Lianga's town leadership is probably the only one that remains inexcusably blind if not inexplicably and obstinately apathetic in the face of this local tourism boom.  Either by sheer ineptitude or lack of vision, it has placed the full burden of developing the local tourism industry solely on the backs of its own citizens who, already burdened and handicapped by a lukewarm and tepid local economy, may not be in a good position to invest in such expensive ventures.

Many local civic leaders and entrepreneurs here have pointed out to the present administration of incumbent Mayor Roy Sarmen the need for a concerted push on the part of the present political leadership of the town to provide the policy and fiscal framework that will encourage business investments not only in the local tourism industry but in the whole range of other service industries that will encourage visitors to come and spend their money in Lianga.  The Sangguniang Bayan or municipal council under Vice-Mayor Jun Lala is aware of these calls and has deliberated on these deficiencies but except for a lot of rhetoric little has actually been done to address them.

The sprouting all over the Lianga coastline, in the past year or so, of small beach resorts, eateries and visitor facilities is a testament to the slow and painful growth of what is an emerging yet potentially viable local industry yet the local government had played virtually no significant role in its development.  One wonders exactly how far these new entrepreneurs amd investors (and how many more of them) could have already moved forward and prospered if their own municipal officials had been more supportive of their efforts.

No adquate street lighting system, poor public sanitation and waste disposal facilities, potholed and unpaved municipal streets, nonexistent visitor information or assistance services and a town economy in the doldrums.  Add to that a local government mired in apathy and indifference.  No wonder that in the race for the lion's share of potential revenue from the local tourist boom in Surigao del Sur, Lianga, as usual, is getting left behind.


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