After two years of lockdowns it was good to finally get to travel beyond Metro Manila. I took my first plane rides flying to various destinations in the Visayas the last few weeks. This was mostly for work — tourism master planning and site designs for resorts — but I did take time off to enjoy some of our over 7,000 delightful islands.
I’ll start with my more recent trip to Panglao, Bohol, for this week’s article. I flew there with my two sons right before Palm Sunday for a much-needed vacation. I did still have to do some Zoom meetings, since the official break started on Holy Wednesday. It’s a good thing that data connections are good for most of the island and at the resort we stayed in.
The airport experience at NAIA 2 and 3 (I took both PAL and Cebu Pacific for my flights) was good and fairly hassle-free. It’s good to note that safety protocols were generally followed by everyone and that airlines were strictly enforcing the mask requirements and restrictions on hand-carried luggage.
Most of the flights were full and people behaved. I’d forgotten that PAL had premium economy seats with snacks even for short runs (we were upgraded due to overbooking). I was also pleasantly surprised when Cebu Pacific attendants offered their midflight “show-me” game. They asked to see items related to health protocols, like vaccination cards and hand sanitizers.
We arrived at Panglao airport on time. The weather cleared to show us the island, as well as the dive destination of Balicasag nearby. The relatively new airport had opened a year before the pandemic and cut travel time to resorts to just a few minutes. It used to take about 45 minutes to get to most resorts from landing in the old airport at Tagbilaran.
We stayed at Be Grand Resort, just 10 minutes from the airport and adjacent to Panglao’s famed Alona beach. Like most of the larger resort complexes, Be Grand had weathered the last strong typhoon with just some minor damage. Typhoon Odette battered most of the Visayan islands last December. It’s taken the last three months for most resort and hotel operations to repair and recover, just in time for the summer season.
It was great to finally rest, breathe the fresh air and take in the sun, sand, and sea. Although the culinary offerings at Be Grand are wonderful (try their seafood kare-kare and signature halo-halo), the island offers a lot of options. My favorites are Guiseppi’s for Italian fare and Bee Farm for their artisanal ice cream (try their salted caramel, guyabano and ube flavors). Both are within cycling distance of Be Grand if you bike, but comfortable shuttles are available.
Aside from lovely beaches, tarsiers, and the famous Chocolate Hills, Bohol also offers cultural sites and structures. There are two lovely Spanish colonial-era churches in Panglao (Panglao and Dauis poblacions) and several more in the main island, including Loboc church beside its picturesque river, where you can go on a lunch cruise.
The National Museum runs a satellite museum in a heritage structure across Tagbilaran’s main plaza. A day trip around these sites is recommended. The province is also bike-friendly; just ask my friend, noted graphic artist and book designer Felix Mago Miguel, who lives in the city and bikes around the islands.
Although only a few resorts offer the luxury of villas in their resorts, Be Grand provides its villas with their own Jacuzzis and an exclusive walk-in river pool in an enclave separate from the main block of rooms (which has its own large pool for adults and one for kids).
I’ll have to admit that I am biased since I was a consultant for the resort’s site and landscape design, but the owners must be credited for a high level of maintenance and excellent staffing. I’ve always said that the success of any design really lies in how well buildings, landscapes and facilities are taken care of. Be Grand’s management rates five stars on this point.
I’m convinced that tourism development and the attendant infrastructure necessary to support it can be good for everyone in all Philippine tourism destinations. Many resort areas in the country are hosted by second- and third-class municipalities with limited resources for infrastructure spending. Tourism can justify investment in roads, ports, airports, and even hospitals with funding from the provincial, regional, and national levels. All these can also be tied to disaster risk-reduction initiatives. This would also bode well for shoring up the resiliency of these towns to calamities. Everyone wins.
Municipal authorities would be driven to abide by building standards of national and international levels (learning the lessons from Boracay, of course). Supply-chain issues would also be addressed if investment covered expanded and improved sidewalk, road, seaport, and airport infrastructure. However, I’d like to see dedicated bike paths and more fast sea craft, as well as better RORO services between islands. I understand that a good number of sea routes nationwide are controlled by monopolies or politically connected operators, a situation that stymies levels of service and better options for travelers.
Philippine resort owners and operators nationwide must be commended for keeping their facilities running the last two difficult years. Kudos as well to DOT and its secretary, Berna Romulo-Puyat, for the support they have shown their industry partners, making sure of access to vaccines for tourism workers, as well as setting protocols that allowed many to operate and prepare for the new normal. The DOT has also made sure our tourism destinations are not forgotten worldwide with continuous marketing and promotions.
So get out and travel. Support local tourism. See the Philippines first.