Bohol, our tour guide Roel claimed, has become the country’s top tourist destination, overtaking Boracay whose popularity has slipped due to pollution and congestion issues. I can’t verify his claim since the Department of Tourism website doesn’t have the info, but if it’s true, it does make sense. Bohol offers a wide range of activities and points of interest – like Boracay, it also has beautiful beaches, but in addition to that, it also has old churches and watch towers, caves, the famed Loboc river cruise, the flagship species Philippine tarsier, and – what was that – oh – the Chocolate Hills.
Indeed, Bohol has got its tourist sites so down pat that you can hail any taxi driver passing by and he will be able to give you the standard tour.
The problem with that, of course, is that everything’s so standardized that you feel that you’re just following a well-trodden but narrow path, looking straight ahead but remaining oblivious to what goes on at either side. Worse, you’re trudging along the path with hordes of other people elbowing each other out to get the best photo op.
In Chocolate Hills, for example, it requires a bit of speed and maneuvering to get good photos (and, of course, pose for photos) because of the large number of people milling about the relatively small viewing area (and you’d all end up taking similar-looking photos anyway, because you’re on the same vantage point). Photographers-for-hire and their hawkers/agents are also around offering to take the standard trick photos of people “holding” the hills, forming heart shapes, jumping, “flying” on broomsticks, and what-have-you. I found the jumping and the flying broomstick photos both amusing and appalling at the same time, because as it turned out, they were trick photos in the real sense – people were just jumping in front of a huge tarp photo of the hills. This is a fairly recent development, I learned. Apparently the area where people used to jump was fenced off after a kid almost fell down. Of course, all the tarp and printer set-ups ate up even more space in the crowded view deck. I tried to think of ways to improve the situation, and found myself stumped. Erecting view decks in the other hills will ruin the vista. Imposing a limit on the number of people who can climb up and the time they can spend there may work, but it can be a hassle to visitors especially during peak season. Carefully-placed view decks, I guess, would be the most viable option.
In any case, there are still some ways by which one can try to stray a little off the beaten path in Bohol. Some pointers (I never got to do all these, mind you, these are just nuggets of wisdom borne of hindsight):
- By all means still go and enjoy the standard attractions, but go for the less popular/alternative versions. For Chocolate Hills, go to the view deck in Sagbayan instead of Carmen town. To check out the tarsiers, ignore the riverside operators exhibiting captive ones in small enclosures; instead, check out the Tarsier Sanctuary in the town of Corella for a healthy trek through the woods and a chance to see tarsiers more or less in the wild. For the Loboc river tour, I think we did check out an alternative option, in another part of the river which features a mini Ati tribe community instead of the waterfalls.
- Aside from the above standard attractions of the so-called “Countryside Tour,” check out the other sites and tour packages that are being developed elsewhere. A group called BANGON, for example, specializes in these lesser known packages, partnering with community-based organizations and assisting them in developing and marketing their tourism programs. Their tours get you to interact with these community organizations, try your hand at activities like buri weaving and mangrove planting, and know more about local conservation efforts and livelihood programs.
- Go dolphin-watching around Pamilacan Island, but make sure to book the tour that’s run by the Pamilacan folk themselves. They are better trained at spotting the dolphins and maintaining proper distance and other dolphin-watching protocol, and they run the tours as an organization so revenues are more equitably distributed. You can also get the chance to dock at Pamilacan Island and go snorkeling at their vibrantly alive coral gardens. The boatmen hawking their services in Alona beach, on the other hand, just offer a quick dolphin tour in the Pamilacan waters and then bring you back to the mainland, or bring you straight to Balicasag Island where the corals are not as lush (although the fish are bigger, apparently because they encourage the snorkelers to feed them, which should be a no-no).
- Ditch the tour driver for a day and go around commuting by jeepney or tricycles the way locals do.
- If you have the time, go back to a place that you visited while on a tour schedule and experience it in a more leisurely manner, covering a wider area than you did the first time. You might be surprised at what you’ll discover.
- Do lots of advance research to heighten your appreciation of a place. Learn just how much of a geological wonder the Chocolate Hills is; find dramatic stories of struggle and bravery surrounding the old watch towers scattered around the province.
- Hang out at a non-tourist area and chat up with locals who are not involved in tourism, i.e., who won’t try to sell you souvenirs or offer guide services.
Indeed, there are lots more to Bohol than its standard tours and Chocolate Hills, and I believe that the province would be gracious enough to explorers who would take the challenge of going beneath the surface.