Cordillera Administrative Region

‘Mystical haven’ Sagada on slow road to tourism recovery

Sherwin de Vera
‘Mystical haven’ Sagada on slow road to tourism recovery

OPEN SEASON. At the peak of tourist arrivals before the pandemic, visitors had to wait for their turn to take photos on the best spots at Marlboro Hill,

Sherwin de Vera/Rappler

A year after re-opening its borders to tourists, Sagada still struggles to bring back visitor arrivals to pre-pandemic levels

SAGADA, Philippines – Tourists stomped their feet and rubbed their hands to ward off the pre-dawn chill on November 28 as they thronged at the entrance of Sagada’s Marlboro Hill.

At 4 am, with the temperature hovering between 16 to 18 degrees Celsius, staff manning the admission table ensured only visitors with tour guides and stubs from the municipal tourism office could pass through.

The prize at the end of walking for more than an hour is a summit where the rising sun pierces a sea of clouds. 

This and other scenes earned Sagada the label of “mystical haven” from the Department of Tourism years back.

After sunrise, tourists can hike back from Lamagan, the local name for the hill. Or they can opt for the rugged trek to Blue Soil Hill, which takes four to five hours, depending on the pace.

The hill’s name (it is called “Kaman-utek” by locals) reflects the hypnotic blue earth in a one square kilometer limestone area surrounded rocks and trees. The phenomenon is attributed to the high copper sulfate content and is said to be more striking when wet with dew.

“The crowd is bigger than the past days, but far from the visitors we used to have before the pandemic during this period,” said tour guide Brenda Doco, as she scanned people looking for the best space to capture light’s first burst. 

Before COVID-19 forced the country into a long lockdown, tourists had to line up and wait their turn at the best spots for sunrise snapshots, Doco said. It was the same in Blue Soil.

The tour guide  is optimistic that the coming Yuletide and Holy Week breaks will usher in more tourists but believes the number will not return to pre-pandemic soon.

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Still struggling

The local government here targeted at least 2000 arrivals for the long break from October 29 to November 2. Just over a thousand came.  

The average annual tourist arrival figure from 2017 to 2019 was 194,467 or around 531 individuals daily, based on fee collection.

“Tourism is the most stable source of local revenue where Sagada is concerned,” Municipal Treasurer Alfred Macalling said in an interview on November 28.

In 2019 alone, the town’s tourism sector collected P13.98 million in revenue, with the tourist registration fee accounting for P9.02 million or 65% of the total collection. 

There were also 173 registered inns, hotels, and 219 guides during the period, raising at least P238,700 additional revenue for the renewal of the mayor’s permit to engage in business.

The town used to charge a P40 fee per tourist and this increased to P50 in August 2018, with a proviso to add P10 every year thereafter, although it held back the increase in 2019.

Macalling had expected 2020 to be a big year for tourism. 

Sagada’s tourist-fee collections stood at  P1.79 million before the town closed its borders in March at the start of the country’s two-year lockdown

Its total local income for 2020, which included all other local taxes and fees, was only P6.61 million – lower than the tourist fee collection in 2019. 

Revenue from local enterprises dropped further to P3.76 million in 2021.

SPARSE.The hanging coffins in Echo Valley are among the sites in Sagada where tourists usually flock, especially during weekends and holidays, but since opening the borders in December 2021, traffic in the area remains light. (Sherwin De Vera)
Trauma

Just before the March 2020 lockdown, “many took loans, properties were mortgaged and invested for the peak season,”  Gwen Gaongen, president of Sagada Inn Keepers and Homestay Owners Association (SIHA) told Rappler.

She recalled that it was the second week of February when the LGU first called for a meeting to discuss the possible scenarios for COVID-19. 

However, since there was still a huge information gap about its severity and social impact, “many still invested, with restaurants and inns stockpiling food and supplies for the Holy Week.”

“Early in the pandemic, local entrepreneurs were still not that worried,” Gaongen said. “They even donated food and supplies for frontline workers, quarantine sites and checkpoints.”

“But when the lockdown dragged on and December came, everybody was worried about their loans and properties,” said the SIHA president.

The pandemic changed the town’s economic and social landscape.

Even when Sagada re-opened in December 2021, with tourist fees raised to P100, the town has yet to get over the fiscal shock.

“We are trying to do everything, but we are still struggling to increase the [number of] tourists coming in, unlike the pre-pandemic situation,” the treasurer said.

Macalling stressed that economic loss goes beyond the local revenue, noting lost jobs and other opportunities for the locals.

Of the 219 registered tour guides in 2019, only 131 remained in 2022.

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Hopeful

“Even when we opened in December 2021, it was still difficult because there were many restrictions and because of these, the tour cost also doubled,” Gaongen acknowledged.

SIHA and other stakeholders had to lobby with the LGU to ease the curbs “until we reached a compromise with the local task force.”

“Recovery was never easy, to begin with, and much more difficult [with the pandemic]. But at least now we have money coming in from the outside and not just [cash] from loans,” Gaongen said.

“We have yet to recover the peak number of arrivals, which is also a dilemma. Is it the kind of tourism we have to return to just because we are in need?” she said. – Rappler.com

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