In terms of travel and tourism, there is only one issue that can make me flare up and hound an opposing opinion (and beat it down to a bloody pulp long after it has stopped having a pulse.) I am talking about the widespread belief that high air fares are necessary in order to preserve whatever is beautiful about Batanes. If you are one of the very few people who actually read this blog, you’d remember me mentioning something like this a few times in the past. But recently, I got into a tiff with a certain Cris Reyes Galang when she posted the following note in Facebook:
Here’s the context: Airphil Express announced that it would offer much lower-priced flights servicing the Manila-Basco route starting May 2013, thereby opening up Batanes to a possible exponential increase in the province’s tourism arrivals. She posted the message on the Facebook page of Skyjet, a semi-luxury carrier that is currently servicing the same route, but which currently charges more than P16,000 round trip per person.
A lot more words were exchanged between us after that statement was posted. But since Ms. Galang is hardly alone in her belief (and I suspect it might even be the majority opinion) I will instead address not just her but everyone who is of like mind. I will lay down their usual statements and demolish each one by discussing why they are wrong.
1. There is a direct relationship between being able to pay a high price and being a responsible tourist.
The error in this line of thinking does not need expounding. The belief that individuals who are willing to pay a high air fare are more “responsible” tourists smacks of elitism and ignorance. In addition, it naturally comes across as insulting to those who are not willing nor able to pay the same high price. People have different priorities. You can’t say that a person who wants to spend his/her hard-earned money to embark on an expensive vacation is more responsible that someone who would rather spend that same money to study, or raise a family, or pay for the mortgage. It’s not even a valid argument that the act of going through hardships just to save a lot of money to pay for very costly air fare would somehow instill responsibility in someone. That’s clearly non sequitur.
And besides, not everyone who is willing to pay the high air fare goes through “hardships”. Maybe they have rich parents, or high paying jobs, or maybe they’re even corrupt government officials. For every person who has to work his/her @$$ off to pay a P16,000++ airfare, there are those who simply purchase the tickets effortlessly with hardly any consequence on their finances. What then is the source of responsibility in this? Obviously, it’s something other than the capability or willingness to pay.
2. Batanes is at its best if it remains “intimate” and “exclusive”.
Intimate and exclusive for whom, exactly? Anyone who has never been to Batanes before and has only seen the pretty pictures have this idea that Batanes is one big beautiful place where they can explore and run along the hills and sing a la the Sound of Music all day long – your own private playground where you don’t have to compete against anybody for space. That’s part of the allure. I know, I was one of them.
But then when I actually got to Batanes, I discovered that it’s just like any place in the Philippines in the sense that there were a lot of people there who had to work hard to survive, and who had to deal with the fact that they lived in a place with a harsh environment and ruled over by typical Filipino politicians. Many of them had to leave and find their luck elsewhere just so their families could have a better life back home. Everywhere in the social media, I encounter Ivatans (Batanes natives) who haven’t been able to go home to the land of their birth in years – in some cases, even decades – because they can not afford the generally high air fares going to Batanes. These are the very people who are adversely affected if the status quo were to remain.
If we were to advocate a high price floor on Manila-Batanes flights, then we would necessarily be supporting the practice of allowing people from higher economic classes to travel to Batanes, to the exclusion of everyone else. And as far as “everyone else” is concerned, there are many, many Ivatans in this latter group. And the last time I checked, Ivatans are the ones who deserve the most to be in Batanes. Clearly there’s something morally wrong in that scenario.
And even if you take away Ivatans from the picture, it is still morally questionable to advocate a blanket exclusion of people from lower economic classes from traveling there. For reasons I already explained in #1, there is clearly nothing that proves that people who can pay the airfare deserve be in Batanes more than those who can not. Again, the word “elitism” can not be stressed enough.
3. Development and commercialization is bad for Batanes.
I hear this a lot, even from those who have never been to Batanes. Apparently, there is a prevailing belief that the only way to preserve the natural beauty and culture of Batanes is if the Ivatans are blocked from any sort of development and commercialization.
You know what development and commercialization has brought to Batanes? To name a few: electricity, clean fresh water, clean drinking water, basic goods, telecommunications, information technology, the Internet, vehicles, concrete roads, airports, etc., etc. As far as I know, no Ivatan is complaining about all these. Who are we to tell the Ivatans that they should not develop? They don’t exactly exist purely for our viewing pleasure, you know. And besides, the development that many of us dismiss as detrimental to the Ivatans is the same development that enables anyone to go to Batanes in the first place.
If anything, there has been too little development in Batanes. Back in 2009, when I was in the municipality of Savidug in the island of Sabtang, a place known for its old Spanish-era stone houses, I chatted with an old homeowner who saw me taking pictures. She asked me what I thought of their place, and I told her that it was very beautiful. Her reply was something I completely didn’t expect. She said, “Maganda para sa inyo, pero kami hindi umuunlad. Hanggang ganito na lang ang buhay namin.” (Yes, she spoke Tagalog quite fluently, as do most Ivatans.)
I’m sure she didn’t mean to make me feel guilty, but that’s how I felt when I realized that all around Savidug, old houses were crumbling down, and the observable [low] level of income of the people there is not commensurate to the number of tourists that regularly flock to the place. (And there I was, taking pictures of them as if they were a living museum exhibit.)
At that moment, it seemed like a veil was lifted from my face and for the first time, I met the very people who were the most adversely affected by the lack of development in Batanes. We expect these people to preserve their old houses and their way of life, but do almost nothing to assist them when these prove incompatible to modern life. Right now, Savidug is threatened by uncontrolled development wherein modern structures are beginning to be built alongside heritage structures. The same is true in other Batanes municipalities, and in fact, has been going on for a long time.
Development and commercialism will come to Batanes whether we like it or not, but by imposing an artificial impediment to these, the only type of development and commercialism that will ever come to the province will be the uncontrolled type. And in this way, everybody loses. It is possible to control development to a level that will benefit all stakeholders, and especially the Ivatans themselves – whose welfare really should be the first one to be considered in discussions of this sort.
= = = = = = = = = =
I maintain that both (1) the political will of the leaders of Batanes; and (2) the personal sense of responsibility of everyone in Batanes, whether Ivantans or tourists, are the key to preserving its natural beauty and culture in the midst of an increase in tourism levels. I further maintain that contrary to popular belief, development and commercialism is never incompatible with such preservation. Increased tourism will always entail increased revenues. Under a competent local government and responsible citizenry, these revenues will translate to better basic and social services and livelihood assistance to the Ivatans. They will even translate to better upkeep of heritage structures.
If we look back at the past 50 years of Batanes (and who of us would actually do that, eh?), the inescapable conclusion is that high air fares have done more harm than good for the Ivatans. The only ones who would favor this setup are (1) those who are moneyed enough to chase a fantasy they’re hardly entitled to …in a place they hardly understand, and (2) certain airline companies that would benefit from a practical monopoly in the Basco-Manila route (and quite possibly some government officials who allow the setup in the first place.)
We must not be so arrogant to think that we know what is best for the Ivatans. i.e., we must never substitute our own tastes, beliefs and fantasies of an idyllic Batanes for what is actually needed by the people there. By lowering air fares, their hands are now being untied. They will be able to play a more active role in determining the course of their own development by having more opportunities and options to decide for themselves which is best for their land.
And among other things, they will no longer be anyone’s private playground.
= = = = = = = = = =
(Cris Reyes Galang apparently reported my comments as “abusive” in Facebook and had them removed. I would have posted my own comments here, but they were gone before I could make a screenshot. Funny how my posts – substantive and without any profanity whatsoever – got reported and removed, while other people’s comments calling her “jerk” and “stupid” were allowed to remain by her. I also could no longer view her comments nor her profile, which could only mean that she had me blocked in Facebook. Again, this is funny because last year, it was she who actually sent a request to add me as a friend in FB. I don’t make it a point to add strangers in FB, most especially bloggers who just want to direct hits to their income-generating sites and forget about you afterwards. I ignored her request, and now it seems that I did the right thing.)