Overtourism and Aggressive Development: Baguio’s Imminent Fall from Glory
Tourist trash at Burnham Park, Baguio City
Baguio has always been one of the country’s top tourist destinations for its unique climate and picturesque landscape. The invigorating scent of pine and crisp morning chill make visitors feel they are on foreign lands if they are to compare such an awe-inspiring ambiance to the rest of the country’s tourism spots. Baguio was established as a hill station by the United States in 1900 at the site of an Ibaloi village known as Kafagway. It was the United States' only hill station in Asia. Hence, the link between America's country music and the igorots' affection towards it.
During the pre-Spanish era, Baguio used to be a vast mountain zone with lush highland forests, teeming with various wildlife such as the indigenous deer, cloud rats, Philippine eagles, Philippine warty pigs, and numerous species of flora. The area was a hunting ground of the indigenous peoples, notably the Ibalois and other Igorot ethnic groups. When the Spanish arrived in the Philippines, the area was never fully subjugated by Spain due to the intensive defense tactics of the indigenous Igorots of the Cordilleras. (Habana, Olivia M. (2000). "Gold Mining in Benguet to 1898". Philippine Studies.)
Historical records suggest that even the foreign invaders (Americans) desired to preserve Baguio and its beauty keeping physical infrastructure development at a minimum so as not to disturb its natural elegance and distinctive cultural richness. It was to be a small city meant to be home for a population of only 25,000 to 30,000. The city was never originally designed for excessive tourism and heavy commercial activities.
Fast forward to a hundred years and here we are descendants of the great Ibaloi clans who once fought fiercely for Baguio’s freedom cast on the sidelines and forced to watch our beloved ancestral home crumble at the hands of greedy bastards who even claim to be sons and daughters of Baguio.
Even before this pandemic, a number of development plans for the city have been advanced earning the ire of many Baguio folks. The current leadership seems to be pursuing a tourism-oriented development framework designed to attract more visitors under the flimsy assumption that it would boost the economy. On a short-term perspective, perhaps the said strategy would appear plausible. In the long run however, the economic gains could prove useless against the catastrophe waiting to happen.
If the current trend of aggressive development and overtourism continue, the Baguio we love will descend into an unrecognizable concrete jungle struggling to cope with the pressures of over-crowding, traffic congestion, pollution, warmer climate, resource limitations, and a rise in health-related problems. The city will become over dependent on tourism as what is already apparent today and in the process, the environment will be compromised and natural landmarks will be sacrificed in favor of new structures to accommodate more people and vehicles.
Tourism is a great ally if done responsibly and with a genuine sense of concern for the land and its people. The town of Sagada in Mountain Province has mastered the art of preserving the balance between ecology, economy, and cultural identity even as it promotes itself as an excellent tourist destination. No fanfare, fireworks, and comprehensive marketing techniques involved - Just simply Sagada and its wonders, the same with Ifugao and the other provinces in the Cordillera. Undoubtedly, the common denominator is that their leaders have unfeigned affection towards their culture, land, and fellow igorots. The strict implementation of community rules and traditions along with regulating tourist numbers and behavior are probably the strengths of their strategy. As soon as environmental damage or disrespect for heritage sites are noted, the leaders, council of elders, and the “umili” will immediately take action even to the extent of temporarily suspending tourism. Sadly, the same cannot be said about Baguio. Even as Covid cases rise, we are still practically begging for tourists to come while we unnecessarily restrict our neighboring igorot townsmen from entry.
In view of all these, there is a need to slowly rehabilitate the city and restore it to its old glory. A change of mindset will be required and perhaps, a change in leadership choices. While Baguio needs to recover economically from the ill effects of the pandemic, stimulus programs should always be based on sustainability, environmental-friendliness, and cultural sensitivities. Otherwise, the economic benefits of tourism will just be a pebble compared to the boulder that’s coming.