It’s More Meaningful—and Yes, Fun—in the Philippines

The Heritage Tour at the Banaue rice terraces where participants work with local communities to prevent further decay of this national treasure  (Photo courtesy of TravelTales, Inc.)

The Heritage Tour at the Banaue rice terraces where participants work with local communities to prevent further decay of this national treasure (Photo courtesy of TravelTales, Inc.)

Tourism in the Philippines is once again on an upswing after a few years of negative growth due to the global recession. Spurred primarily by visitors from East Asian countries—led by Korean nationals—tourism has jumped an incredible 30 percent from 2009 to 2011, according to the Department of Tourism (DOT).

Equally staggering are the revenues generated from tourism these days. Receipts reached $3 billion, an increase of 34 percent. It seems that the department’s marketing slogan “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” is successfully drawing tourists—3.9 million in 2011.

“Fun” of the recreational variety is what the ordinary tourist has come to expect—diving, various water sports, river cruising, hiking, nightlife. There’s nothing necessarily objectionable in these activities. But another kind of tourism is emerging, one that promises visitors a deeper appreciation of place, culture as well spurs locals to be invested in its success.

Far from airport counters is Atching Lillian’s dining table in her hometown of Mexico, Pampanga. There, tourists are savoring the bringhi (Spanish-style paella with Kapampangan flavors), the tidtad (pork blood stew), and the brazo de la Reina (toasted and rolled meringue with creamed corn custard filling). They’re part of the Viajeng Cusinang Matua (“Old Kitchen Tour”). It’s a daylong immersion in the culinary and cultural landscape of Pampanga province, “narrated” through heirloom culinary delights and told by families who’ve served them for generations.

Balikbayans are a prime target for tourism expansion.

The tour is the brainchild of Tracey Santiago, president and founder of TravelTales, Inc. She has been satisfying palates and promoting responsible tourism since 2001, respecting and upholding local traditions and ensuring that local communities are the main economic beneficiaries of tourism.

“The experience is like going to your old aunt’s house around lunch time,” explains Tracey. “It’s family. Not a restaurant, but a home.”

Tour planners and operators like Tracey and TravelTales want to tell stories of real people, their culture and their environment, from which tourists can glimpse the soul of the Philippines. This kind of tourism makes visitors slow down, listen, savor the food and the conversation, allow their senses to understand the place, and challenges them to leave it better than when they arrived.

Amor (“short for Ameurfina, or American-European-Filipina”) Bondad spent 20 years in the United States, raising their four children; but she came back to start Sitio de Amor (Place of Love) in 1993. “My husband and I bought five hectares in San Pablo, Laguna that was nothing but cogon (tall elephant grass),” Amor recalls. “People thought we were crazy.”

Sitio de Amor  (Photo courtesy of Sitio de Amor)

Sitio de Amor (Photo courtesy of Sitio de Amor)

Between the San Cristobal Mountains and Mt. Banahaw now stands Sitio de Amor with its beautiful gardens, an infinity pool and a lagoon, and a six-bedroom house. “The art of doing nothing, this is where you do it,” says Amor with smile. “We are the antidote to go-go-go tourism. We promote take-your-time tourism.” Sitio de Amor has no TV or WiFi.

Sitio de Amor is a member of Viaje del Sol, a network of 20 independently owned tourist destinations in the Laguna-Quezon-Batangas region, consisting of private houses to eat and sleep in (like Sitio del Amor), art galleries, coffee shops in old houses, even an organic farm. Unlike in traditional package tours, tourists (sometimes with the help of tour planners) can create their own itinerary. They call ahead of time to reserve a room or place for dinner; or they just arrive without notice. Since all these places are functioning houses, someone is always home.

Tracey explains the business model for these enterprises. “Some people in the industry don’t understand what we do. Kasi hindi kami nagbibilang. (We are not obsessed by numbers or profit.).”   

It’s a different kind of tourism; it challenges us to leave the place better than when we arrived.

What inspire Tracey, Amor and the other proprietors of Viaje del Sol are the principles developed by advocates of Responsible Tourism (RT). Guided by a commitment to social, environmental and economic responsibility, RT proponents believe that tourism can make positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage, while generating greater economic benefits for local people.

A core belief is that tourism should involve local residents in decisions that affect their lives; this helps minimize the negative effects of tourism-driven development. RT started in a gathering of 280 delegates from 20 countries in Cape Town, South Africa in 2002. There, they adopted the Declaration on Responsible Tourism in Destinations proclamation. Its epicenter is in the UK, anchored by the International Centre for Responsible Tourism.

“We had to ‘Philippinize’ the RT principles to fit our context and culture,” explains Tracey. “Including how to haggle responsibly! You have to recognize that what you’re negotiating is the value of someone’s work and passion.”

Before she started TravelTales in 2002, Tracey taught humanities and Philippine art at the University of the Philippines in Diliman and in Los Banos for six years. As part of her classes, she took her students to “Heritage Tours” in the neighboring towns around Laguna—“teaching while traveling,” as she calls it. Her friends saw the impact on the students, and more importantly, sensed the joy it elicited from Tracey. She soon left academia to pursue her passion.

“My perspective about travel is one of “gratitude,” Tracey says. “We should feel blessed to be able to enter people’s homes to hopefully learn their life stories.”


Francis Calpotura is the executive director of Transnational Institute for Grassroots Research and Action (TIGRA), which promotes “ethical consumerism” to transnational families.

A Profile of the Tourist

The typical tourist to the Philippines in 2011, says the DOT, is 38 years old, more than likely male, spends $92 a day and stays for eight nights-- a few nights in Manila, then most of the time (and money) in a tourist destination like Boracay, Cebu or Bohol. He could have gone on an overnight trip to Laguna, Tagaytay and Batangas.

Domestic tourists are more likely to stay with friends and relatives in Baguio, Cebu, Laguna, Davao, Negros Occidental, Oriental Mindoro, and Aklan. A domestic tourist spends about $40 per person on a two-to-three-day trip. Balikbayans, former and current Filipino nationals who have lived abroad for more than a year, are a prime target of tourism expansion.

As of 2011, about one in every four tourists is a balikbayan. If the Aquino administration’s goals are met, one in three will be a balikbayan by 2016.