A lifestyle icon, globetrotting journalist, philanthropist, diver, golfer, runner and perennial life-of-the-party, Tessa Prieto-Valdez reveals her assessment of the Philippine’s Travel Injury.
As a traveler, would you say Philippine tourism is thriving or not?
I get frustrated to see that the Philippines hasn’t taken off to the same level of tourism as other countries in Asia. For the people that come to Asia, the Philippines is never top of mind, unlike Thailand or Bali in Indonesia. They’re exotic. We are just so Americanized.
There’s also the element of religion. If you go to Bali, their culture is so intact. But here we are so Christianized, which is just the same as in the West. Today, the trees are no longer mahiwaga. There’s nothing mystical anymore. We don’t emphasize enough our (indigenous pre-Christian) ceremonies.
Do you think that the rich multiculturalism of the Philippines makes it hard for foreigners to simplify our character into stereotypes that are easy enough to distinguish, understand and remember from other nationalities?
As a Filipino, you can tell the culture is different between Iloilo and Cebu. But a foreigner can’t tell the difference. Some can’t even tell the difference between a Chinese and a Thai. There’s not enough difference to say that this is distinctively the Philippines. On one hand you have so many islands, beaches, food and so many different things to offer. But then you don’t have one united thing to offer to the world. It’s great that we have diversity. But then again, it’s so hard to market.
What do you think are the strongest areas which Philippine tourism must focus on to maximize its potential?
We should emphasize eco-tourism like diving. I’m a diver. My husband is a diving instructor. That’s how we met.
We should promote something that’s uniquely in the Philippines, like the whale sharks in Donsol. It’s the only place in the world where you can site 15 or more whale sharks together. They already have a system where they have whale shark watchers who limit the number of tourists and boats. They also require tourists to listen to a lecture (on how to properly interact with the whale sharks). There’s no over-exploitation. Whatever money you pay goes to the local communities.”
“The Philippines has one of the biggest coral reefs. Compared to the 1980s, there’s a whole lot less dynamite and cyanide fishing and poaching going on now. And if it ever does happen, you know right away.
The fishermen who used to practice dynamite fishing are now patrolling the coast and picking up trash. Locals who used to poach sea turtle eggs now care for them. The people who used to hunt whale sharks now guide tourists and protect the giants. Why do you think this is so?
They now know they can convert cultural tourism into money. It’s really about education.
The thing about the economic crisis is that people started to travel locally. It’s also the cheaper fares to domestic destinations.
Some destinations are becoming too crowded. What local destinations would you recommend?
They say that Alona Beach in Panglao, Bohol is like the old Boracay. The sand is just as fine. They named it after this actress, Alona Alegre, who did a movie there in the 1970s. There are now several resorts there. A lot of divers go there as well. Bohol is also where the Chocolate Hills are and the tarsiers. They have zip lines and the (Mag-aso and Kawasan) Falls. They also have the Luboc River tour.
Besides water sports, what other kinds of tourism do you do?
I do fiestas. It’s fun with friends. I’ve gone to the Panagbenga in Baguio and the Sinulog in Cebu. I’ve also witnessed an Ati-atihan in Kalibo.
I’ve also been to South Africa and Botswana on a safari.
My running has also taken me to the New York Marathon and the Paris Marathon. I’m supposed to do Rome but I chickened out. I am so not prepared. But there are some 500 historical sites you’re going to pass. Beautiful.
What are your personal travel essentials, things that you cannot travel without?
I always travel with at least a dozen sets of accessories, hats—all crushable no need for bulk hat boxes—and clothes for at least half the entire trip. If there are 10 days there should be five outfits. My hand carry is the usual essentials: computer, phone, camera, chargers, etc. My toiletries are a killer. I’m just so vain. And I’m a packrat. Every hotel I go to I hoard the toiletries.
Is there a part of the Philippines you have not gone to yet but wish to see?
If there are destinations in the Philippines I still have yet to go to, they’re in the extreme South and the extreme North. I haven’t been to Batanes. I want to go there with 10 photographers. I want to do a pictorial. I also want to do Jolo. I want to go shopping for Muslim crafts there.