During her lengthy interview with asianTraveler Magazine, there was only one thing that left the usually fluent Tetta Baad grappling for words: the exact date of her recent meeting with Costa Cruises, a potential stakeholder in Cebu should it successfully woo a sizeable market for luxury cruise tours. The meeting, apparently, took place no more than a day ago. But according to Baad, “I have so many events now that it’s getting jumbled in my mind.” “Everyday,” she added, “I’m out.”
Considering her current involvements, it is easy to understand why Baad is always on the move. Currently, she serves as the Chairperson of the Cebu City Tourism Commission (CCTC), and after the massive earthquake that hit the Visayan region just last year, the post has assigned her the herculean task of rallying for funds to rebuild storied landmarks and heritage structures severely damaged by the quake, among them Magellan’s Cross and parts of Fort San Pedro. Meanwhile, she is also involved in provincial tourism. And once again, due to natural disasters, her commitment has forced her to look into initiatives that would lead to the building of 100 eco-friendly nipa huts, enough to efficiently house locals left homeless in the Camotes Island. Coupled with the Suroy Suroy Sugbo, a promotional tourism program she and her colleagues launched back in 2005, Baad is a very busy woman. And to think none of these engagements actually yield a paycheck.
“Like the people in [CCTC,] I’m a volunteer,” she said suddenly breaking into laughter. “Wala kaming sweldo [We don’t have salaries].”
Make no mistake, however— Baad’s work is far from thankless. She said that she is doing this for the love of Cebu, and in recent years tourism thrusts have led to vast improvements affecting certain areas in the province. A good example is Camotes Island. When tourism programs were first geared to promote the area, it didn’t have enough accommodations to house visitors who come by massive numbers and there weren’t too many transportation options available. In recent years, however, promotional efforts have led to a measure of economic health. Soon enough, several areas in the Camotes Island began seeing change. Roads leading to Lake Danao, for one, have been asphalted and cemented. Meanwhile, several accommodations have begun to rise in the area, developing a more attractive tourism destination.
Life, at least on this side of Cebu, has gotten better. And it is cases like these that serve as Baad’s compensation. “I [am doing this] to help spur the growth of tourism and encourage LGUs to take care of their own tourism development programs,” she said. “I’m happy to report that under the province’s tourism thrust many of the towns have developed very strong tourism programs.”
“Tourism,” she added “helped them develop economically.”
It should be noted that Baad wasn’t born in Cebu. She was born in Batangas of a family with roots tied to Iloilo. But she is “in heart and mind” Cebuano. She said that she has been so, ever since Cebu took her in and made her feel at home. And since then, she has rarely run out of good things to say about the province.
Please tell us the scope of responsibilities covered by your office.
We’re not like DOT (Department of Tourism). The Tourism Commission was created by an ordinance to assist the DOT and for the city to launch its own initiatives to help fuel the growth of tourism in the city. So in that sense, we are limited geographically by the territory covered by the city. Our programs, projects and initiatives are implemented under the office of the mayor. We coordinate with other tourism stakeholders but our primary purpose is to support.
So you work hand-in-hand with the mayor?
The Commission coordinates with the Department of Tourism as far as conceptualizing projects, developing them, implementing initiatives, and making proposals for legislation are concerned.
Legislation is an important aspect of the Commission’s work. At the same time, the licensing, the regulation functions for the city of DOT were transferred to the Commission. So, no tourism player within the geographic bounds of the city can operate without passing through the Cebu City Tourism Commission.
What is the current thrust of your office at the moment?
70 percent of Cebu is up in the mountains, so that’s our new initiative. We are going to develop eco-adventure there.
We did an adventure issue that included Cebu City, one involving hiking trails and ziplines. Could this be part of your initiative?
Yes. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you go inwards, a whole plethora of offerings is possible: rappelling, climbing, picnicking, river kayaking, mountain biking, camping. If we only develop the trails… Yesterday, I had a meeting with some of the barangay captains encouraging them to make tourism one of their major thrusts in the coming year. So they’re now looking for guidelines and resources to help them develop it.
I’m surprised that there are waterfalls that don’t dry up in the hinterlands.
Initially, asianTraveler planned to do a major coverage of Cebu City and include some of these new adventure offerings and Gabii sa Kabilin. However, after the earthquake, we had to cancel due to the damages.
TB: Yes. The bell tower fell, Fort San Pedro sustained damages. That’s where I’m focusing my attention now to get attention and funding for restoration. You saw Magellan’s Cross, right? It’s still propped up. It doesn’t look good.
Can you elaborate more on the major strength of the city as a destination?
While it is highly urbanized and capable of offering modern conveniences— entertainment, shopping, dining, Cebu still has that provincial charm because of its size. You get a sense of community in Cebu. People know each other. That’s the reason why Cebu is known for its “can-do” attitude. Here, we work with government like the private sector, the public sector, the NGOs without a lot of problems because we’re tightly knit and we know that everyone benefits from what is done by the community as a whole.
The other thing is that Cebu has everything you need for a vacation. The city is only 30 to 35 minutes away from the mountain options. And you can even cross over to the western side in just a little under one hour. I used to drive there very often. As for beaches, just 45 minutes to an hour to Mactan. And that’s a favorite weekend pastime of Cebuanos: going to the beach.
You’re also famous for diving sites.
Yes. And it’s a transportation-, communication-shaping hub. In fact, 85 percent of the country’s shipping companies are based in Cebu. Shipping, because of Cebu’s strategic central location, is the backbone of its economic growth for many years.
What continues to make Cebu amazing even up to today is the community, the people. We don’t look at each other as competitors. We see ourselves as a team.
And that’s what sustains it…
Yes. If you are anchored on your best asset, which is people, it’s sustainable. It’s not something that’s dependent on the infusion of money or infrastructure. It’s the people themselves who make it happen.
What is the story behind Cebu’s development as a destination?
I was in the tourism industry way back in the 80s when Cebu was just emerging. I was with the Fonacier group, Cebu Plaza, which is now Marco Polo. It was the bright idea of Mr. Anos Fonancier to start marketing Cebu directly without emphasizing that it is part of the Philippines. Most flights—we didn’t have international flights then—came into Manila and then passengers would take the domestic flight to Cebu. So what did he do? He started looking at doing direct charter flights. Cebu had a good airport built by the Americans and it can accommodate large jets. We then launched an ad campaign “Make it Cebu: An island in the Pacific.” And it worked. For the longest time. It irked people in Manila, but we said “Hey, to each his own.” It’s an out-of-the-box solution. We marketed it as an island—you don’t have to pass through Manila and go through the political turmoil and the rallies because we will fly you directly to the island. And then Cebu became the major destination in the Philippines.
What is the challenge for you?
The challenge for us is how to innovate, reinvent and repackage Cebu year after year so that people do not get tired. And the answer to that—and I’m championing this to the tourism congress—is to tap the cruise market, the international cruise market. I threw the challenge to them in one of our recent workshops and I said: “Why is it that the Philippines, which is an archipelago with many potentially excellent island destinations, not tapping the international cruise market?” Even the Asian cruise market skips the Philippines.
They take off from Singapore or Hong Kong and then they go to Malaysia, Penang, and Phuket. Yesterday, Costa Cruises launched their November, December and January packages and only one route, I think the one in January, is going to pass by the Philippines—Puerto Princesa and Boracay. So, I asked them, would Cebu make an attractive destination if we have your requirements? And they said yes for the Asian market, for instance, especially those who come from Hong Kong. I said: What are their expectations because they go for value-for-money now? What are those values? It’s food, shopping and relaxation. That’s why Boracay is a favorite.
I took a Mediterranean cruise that covered Spain, France, Italy, Turkey, Greece and Venice. It was partially a learning experience for me because I’ve been wanting to push the cruise market here because it’s crazy. We have so many wonderful destinations here.
But do you think our ports can handle larger cruise markets?
TB: It’s a matter of political will. I’m pushing it because, number 1, we don’t have the ports but, hello?! If you go to South of France, the ship anchors in deep ocean. You disembark through tenders, and they just have boats to bring you to shore. Why can’t we do that here in the meantime while we’re building up the market? We can have tenders because the port of Cebu that’s used for international cruises is the international port. Let’s do something already. If we have tour buses lined up waiting to take guests to different tour packages, we can do the Hillyland eco tour, we can do the heritage tour, we can do the shopping and dining tour, we can do the spa tour, we can do a wellness tour. There are so many things we can do in Cebu which are all within a one-hour drive from the port. It’s a small place but, hey, we’ve got everything covered.