Sarbay Fest: A beach party to end all beach parties

GUMASA, Sarangani – This place was once touted as the South’s version of Boracay.

Not anymore. It has acquired a brand of its own; its own unique life.  It has become a place to see and be seen in the summer. 

It has even become one of life’s great levelers – at least in this part of the Philippines. This year, the beach was deluged with beachgoers, in all sizes and skin tones, from the peasants and proletarians to the bourgeoisie and compradors. They were all there.

Gumasa is where the biggest beach party in the country happens every summer – the Sarangani Bay Festival, now made even more popular with its catchy brand name, “Sarbay Fest.”

Whatever it is, this year’s crowd must be the biggest yet to enjoy the thrills of a beach party that ends all other beach parties in the Philippines.Organizers say 100,000 people invaded the beach, but that may be a tad too many as it would mean putting all but 6,518 Glan town residents in a strip of white sand beaches measuring no more than two kilometers. (Glan, Sarangani has a population of 106,518.)

Fine beaches

Before it became home to Sarbay Fest, Gumasa was always known for its fine white powdery beaches.  In the early 1980s, adventurous college students from nearby General Santos would head for its pristine white sand beaches.

In the latter part of that tumultuous decade, however, Gumasa became a largely forgotten attraction as peace and order took its toll on this laid back town, one of the oldest in the region.  But there is no escaping the allure of its fine beaches.  Tourists, most of them retired expats, have found paradise in this place until a Japanese national was kidnapped in the vicinity, setting back again its development as a major tourist destination.

Still it did not prevent other nationals from finding a haven in Gumasa, among them, a Dutch national who was nearly finished with his castle-inspired 48-room hotel beach resort in nearby Taluya village until he ran afoul with former Glan Mayor Enrique Yap Jr. The world-class facility is now rotting away after Hans Kooring got separated from his Filipina wife.

The Dutch connection

The case of the Dutch national did not escape the attention of former Sarangani Governor Miguel Rene Dominguez who tried to bridge the gap between the mayor and Kooring.

By then, the governor was just warming up for a beach event that would later become synonymous with summer fun.

Two months into his first term in 2004, the then 27-year Dominguez was looking for activities that would open the province to tourists and investors.

This author suggested a beach festival to differentiate it from the ethnic-inspired festivals across the country.

But the problem was, the province shared the same bay with General Santos.

The beach festival was initially envisioned to be a joint activity with the city.  But after a couple of meetings, the effort did not bear fruit. So the governor decided to do it alone.

Thus, the Sarangani Bay Festival was born.

Unqualified success

Sarbay does not make any pretensions about culture.  It is pure and simple summer fun, decadent as it may be for others.  That is what makes Sarbay a phenomenal and unqualified success.

The first bay festival did not come off the starting block until 2006.  It was a very modest beach party kickoff with hundreds camping into the night at the height of the then 4-day long celebration (May 17-20).   

Most of the revelers were locals.  The inaugural staging attracted a handful of visitors from Davao City, mostly friends of the governor and some backpackers from Kidapawan City, according to an article by Bong Sarmiento that appeared in SunStar General Santos in May 2006.

It nevertheless thrilled those who came to Sarbay’s coming out party.  The hundreds became thousands.

The following year, some 10,000 people came.  Then it became 17,000 for a two-night party in 2008.  Since then, the crowd has been steadily growing. Sarbay has also since shed off its image as a backpackers’ haven.

Corporate sponsors are now racing to have their brands and products displayed at the beach strip that has likewise evolved from the two aircondtioned rooms of White Haven to an array of beach resorts offering better amenities.

Last week’s 9th edition of the festival had only Asia Brewery beer products on sale in the strip’s hundreds of booth and bars.  SMART got the very best exposure with its sponsorship of the lung-busting triathlon of the festival.  SMART and Tanduay, each mounted well-lit giant inflatable balloons of their corporate brands.

SUVs and other luxury cars were left unattended along the narrow concrete highway  as practically all resorts sacrificed most of their parking spaces for the more profitable tent area rentals.

And for the first time, aerial shots of the events became available offering a bird’s eye view of the events below the shores and crystal blue waters of Gumasa, thanks to camera-equipped drones.

And the crowd had become a merry mix with more than a handful of Caucasians, a few of them participating in the triathlon.  Local tourists from as far as Ilocos and the Visayas also camped at the site.  Sarbay is no longer is just Mindanao’s biggest beach party.  It is the beach party in the country.

Gumasa has undeniably arrived.

The whiners

This year’s Sarbay Fest was not only attended by a record number of people;  it was a runaway blockbuster.   My own estimate is a low of 30,000 to 50,000 max partygoers filling the resort strip at the peak of the dusk-to-dawn party nights on May 16 and 17.

On the morning of May 18, the beach was littered with trash from the night before. This prompted some to jump on the organizers, commenting on a solitary picture (of trash on the beach) that threatened to overshadow the success of this this year’s bay fest edition.   The photo created a stir in social media.  

Michelle Solon, wife of incumbent Governor Steve Solon, was fuming mad when she posted this on her Facebook account: “If you think you are angry by what you saw on photos before the Clean Up... Imagine us, from Sarangani, how upset we are? We are more UPSET. We however, did not go publicly declaring dirty laundry. Instead we continued to Clean Up.”

The clean-up was completed two days after.

There are no signs that the Sarbay Fest is cooling off.  If the trend continues, next year’s edition will be even bigger and hotter.  

There are rumors that the beach strip, which houses the Rosal, White Haven, Coco and Reyes beach resorts won’t be renewing their hosting contracts next year.  Wherever it will be, partygoers will be there for Sarbay – the beach party nobody should miss. – Rappler.com