Tagbilaran: Getting Back on Track

Before the pandemic, Bohol has become a darling in the local travel circuit. Foreigners have been flocking to this Visayas island for the range of attractions it offers, most famous of which are the white-sand beaches of Panglao Island and the dive sites off its coast. Of course, Filipinos know the Chocolate Hills and the tarsiers of mainland Bohol, and the hype with these emblems of the province is well-deserved. Bohol, to use a hoary cliche, is a paradise.

In fact, tourism has been a major driver of the province’s economy. In 2019, its tourist arrivals reached 1.58 million, a 5.6% increase from the previous year, spurred by the introduction of direct flights from a couple of international cities. Many residents, especially in the island of Panglao, have started opening up restaurants and other establishments catering to travelers, such as hotels and spas, anticipating the further rise in visitor numbers. But then the COVID-19 pandemic happened.

The Philippine government imposed a series of strict lockdowns beginning in March 2020, and the tourism industry crashed to a halt. Many Boholanos, whose income relies on travelers’ wallets, found themselves struggling to cope even as constant news of corruption, negligence, and lack of government transparency and accountability plagued the headlines.

In the recent weeks, as more Filipinos get vaccinated and cases continue to decline, the government has allowed the resumption of travel, among other things. And Boholanos are eagerly anticipating the return of the visitors, hoping it will help in their recovery.

St. John the Cathedral in downtown Tagbilaran was originally built in 1767, but was rebuilt and enlarged in 1855 following a fire.
The Plaza Rizal across the cathedral and the National Museum is a popular meeting spot among locals.
The National Museum is housed in the old provincial capitol building.

It’s in this context that I find Bohol in when I arrive one weekday. This is a trip that has been a long time coming. In August 2019, after having tendered my resignation at my previous company to start focusing on a career as a digital nomad, the first place I planned on going to was Bohol. I’ve been here 16 years ago, but I’ve always wanted to go back.

But that trip didn’t push through when I got sick. And then a few months later, the pandemic happened.

In March this year, when the lockdown restrictions were eased and the government started encouraging people to travel locally, the first destination I though of was Bohol. So I booked a tour since at the time, the province didn’t yet allow independent travel and tourists needed to be part of a private tour. But I got COVID and the number of cases in the country surged again. The government implemented another round of strict quarantine measures. I rebooked the trip to July.

But then Typhoon Fabian struck the country. I rebooked the trip yet again to August. Then the cases spiked again as the Philippines started registering its first cases of the COVID delta variant. Another round of strict lockdown was imposed. The trip was again moved to November.

And finally, finally, I’m here.

The Carlos P. Garcia Heritage Museum is in the ancestral house of the former president.
The Balay Kabilin – Bohol Heritage House and Museum used to be an ancestral house, but is now the center for Boholano cultural heritage research
Tricylces are the main mode of transportation in Tagbilaran.

I am actually based in Panglao Island, and the resort where I’m staying is just a few minutes’ drive from the airport. But as with many of my trips where I take time to visit the place’s capital, I also squeeze in a few hours of my free time to explore Bohol’s capital, Tagbilaran. Before, travelers would inevitably pass through this city as the province’s airport is here. But last year, the Panglao International Airport was opened, and most airlines now use this facility. Without major sights that would attract the typical tourist, Tagbilaran will certainly be just another place on the way to Bohol’s other big-ticket sights.

Still, for the determined traveler, the city has a few interesting sights that can take up a half a day of exploring. For example, the National Museum in the downtown part has some interesting local artifacts that tell the history of Bohol. Nearby are some heritage houses, including that of former President Carlos P. Garcia.

Also, Tagbilaran’s coastal location means some great views of the bay, especially east of Dauin Bridge.

The Tagbilaran branch of Buzz Cafe, the restaurant of the famed Bohol Bee Farm, has views of the Tagbilaran Strait to go with its wholesome dishes.
The Blood Compact Monument marks the site where Spanish conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and local chieftain Sikatuna drank a cup with each other’s blood as a peace treaty.
The boutique hotel Ocean Suites has rooms facing the Tagbilaran Strait and the Panglao Island in the distance.

After lunch at Buzz Cafe (a popular Bohol restaurant by Bohol Bee Farm), I ride a tricycle back to Panglao Island. The roads are much, much less hectic than those of Metro Manila. I’m not sure how much of this is due to Bohol’s laidback nature and how much is due to the pandemic. Still, there’s a vague sense that the city is slowly gearing into shape and local tourism slowly gets going as the world transitions into the post-pandemic era.

Boholanos can only cross their fingers as they eagerly await to share their province’s treasures with the rest of the country and the world.

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