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Cordillera tribes realize why they should not fear tourism

January 26, 2008

BAGUIO CITY -- After years of viewing tourism with suspicion, cultural workers now say Cordillera communities need not fear the tourism industry because it has been instrumental in keeping traditional practices of the country alive.

Benicio Sokkong, the Kalinga-born founder of the first government-sponsored school of living tradition in Baguio, says new generations of Cordillera youth had rediscovered their fathers’ old rituals and magic because of the tourism boom.

As a result, he says, villages had been encouraged to open their doors to foreign and domestic visitors.

Sokkong, 52, an advocate of authentic Igorot culture, lectured at a festival management workshop here that was sponsored by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and assisted by experts from the Philippine Education for Theater Arts (Peta).

Using the city’s annual Panagbenga Flower Festival that opens on Feb. 1, and the “Lang-Ay” Festival of Mt. Province as case studies, the workshop offered officials some techniques to help fine-tune their skills in organizing and presenting authentic native festivals, says Purificacion Molintas, director of the Department of Tourism in the region.

The DOT reported breaking the agency’s 2007 target with three million foreign tourists infusing more than P168 billion into the national coffers. Baguio should have earned P2,500 from each tourist who stays for two days, according to Councilor Perlita Chan-Rondez, chair of the city council’s committee on tourism.

To attract more tourists to the summer capital, the DOT has tasked tourism stakeholders with marketing the city jointly with the Poro Point International Airport in La Union, which will open in mid-2008.

But most provinces fear that tourists and government-led tourism will interfere with or change community rituals, Sokkong says. This fear often compelled local governments to stave off or suspend projects that would have strengthened their tourism potentials, he said.

“We are a culture that suffered from invasions. The Spaniards [and the Catholic Church] stopped us from playing our gongs because it was supposed to be un-Christian,” he says.

Dr. Brenda Fajardo, a Peta visual arts educator and workshop lecturer, says Philippine culture had a “multicultural” flavor because it drew from a rich history dating back to pre-Hispanic times, a Catholic Church-controlled Spanish colonial rule that lasted for nearly five centuries, and a 50-year American colonial period.

The traditions these periods helped introduce were immediately “Filipinized,” which is why they lasted this long, Fajardo says.

But towns today are also confronted by the fact that, to new generations of villagers, these rituals have lost their purpose, Sokkong says. He says he piloted the school of living traditions in Baguio in 1999, hoping to reignite the youth’s interest in their parents’ culture.

“The project [which became the Cordillera Music Tutorial and Research Center] was subsidized by the NCCA, but it took me a year just to find people who can teach authentic traditions, rituals and music,” he says.

The school inspired the youth by focusing on Igorot dances and chants, Sokkong says, because music is attractive to the new generation. “They also see that when we perform our dances, we showcase our sense of pride [to visitors].”

Molintas says the festival workshop had become necessary because new interest in community-oriented tourism also required some measure of restraint from the people.

A DOT concept paper for the workshop theorizes a “strong interrelationship of culture and tourism,” but it prefers the “kinder” school of thought that culture can be used for promotional purposes, compared to another advocacy that opposes cultural adulteration through tourism.

According to Fajardo, tourism is inherently an economic activity to both the government and the private sector, “but what is presented to the world is culture.”

“That is dangerous. We cannot commodify our culture,” she says.

She says there were tourism-oriented cultural performances that were staged due to “economic motivations.” As a result, “nawawala ang kahulugan (culture has become meaningless),” she says.

Fajardo says this should not be the inevitable consequence of tourism. Communities can avoid it if they draw up programs that showcase their traditions “using motivations of your own and not the motivations imposed by outsiders,” she says.

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