There was a time, not too long ago, when the sand dunes of Ilocos Norte were considered black sheep of the region. The province, after all, was a land of farmers. And soil incapable of growing crops was more or less useless to a great number of its working class. The land back then was greatly underutilized.
The same could be said about Paoay Lake. Legend has it that the area housed a prosperous village. And because of its affluence, its people became decadent. God supposedly punished these people by submerging the area underwater and turning them into fish. It was this legend that made modern-day Ilocanos avoid the lake and its supposed misfortune.
But times have changed. Modern technologies and globalization have brought about a renaissance in Ilocos Norte. And in light of this transformation, traditions and superstitions began taking a back seat to progress. The sand dunes became a popular site for numerous sporting activities, Paoay Lake began hosting international regattas, and Ilocos Norte became one of the busiest provinces north of Luzon.
At the helm of all this activity is Governor Imee Marcos, a woman who at least once celebrated her birthday with familiarization tours to the area, a woman who has been reared by various countries and cultures yet still considers herself proudly Ilocano.
On her shoulders rests a more complete destination: a place that honors the past while moving toward the future, a place that sees an empty patch of land as a vast stretch of promise.
How would you describe yourself as a traveler?
You’re asking me what kind of traveler I am? I’m a “hippieng laos” traveler [I’m an outdated hippie of a traveler.] I go to really bum hotels. But I like to eat so I pay top dollar [for the food].
And how would you describe your life as a traveler? Have you gone through formative journeys in life? I spent a lot of time abroad. I left [the Philippines] very young. And then I came back. And then I went into a self-imposed exile for many years. I was away for a long time. That was from ’86 up to about ’98. Middle of ’98. I was mostly in Europe. I spent a lot time in Singapore, a little time in South America.
Most of my travels are required for education. Higher education or exile. I think that a big part of every Ilocano’s identity is travel. Migration is ingrained in our lifestyle. In Ilocos, we usually travel for work. Kami [for us it’s] migration, hanapbuhay [work,] padala sa mga bunso [send money to our youngest children].
Do you have any favorite destinations to go to?
I’m more interested in going through Asia. It’s more dynamic, more vibrant. There’s much development.
Do you have funny experiences through your travels? You did say that you like staying in bum hotels. And I still do. I’m notorious for booking the most awful hotels in the world because I’m out the whole day. I’m just that kind of traveler. I like to go shopping so I go to every flee market there is. I like street food but I also go to celebrity restaurants.
On travel and Ilocos Norte…
Travel has changed significantly in the Philippines. There are so many kinds of travelers now. There are business travelers, budget travelers. What they’re looking for really is a good time.
In the beginning, they came to Ilocos, and there was so much to see but not much to do. But now there’s a lot of stuff to do. Travel here has become much more interactive and much more experiential.
We’ve seen a lot of conscientious travelers, meaning a lot of missionaries or church groups. They’d go to the beach and then they’d also build an artesian well or some kind of deep well. They come on holidays. This kind of travel’s been evident.
I think the other thing is the silver… the silver market. There’s a lot of that here now. We get retirees, pensioners who may or may not want to retire for long periods. The silver traveler also has a lot of money but they’re also more demanding. They want better food, nicer hotels, they want good service. They’re not budget travelers, a lot of them. They also stay longer, which is good for us.
MICE is also a challenge. Meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions. We’re getting our share of that.
What are the challenges that come with the sector’s current state and what has your government done to respond to these challenges?
We have some new sites. We’re also opening up the mountains section so the eastern side is opening.
Traditionally, people would go south, that would be Batac for the Marcos trail, and then Currimao for the beach and the corals, and then Badoc, and then to Vigan. And the northern trek goes to Pagudpud.
We’re beefing up the northern trek. Pagudpud is really not ready for the crowds it’s been receiving. The development is still not very good, but it’s so beautiful, that’s why it’s hard to dissuade people from coming there. It does not have big hotels. It doesn’t have big restaurants.
On the way there’s also Burgos, which experiences the same trials. But we can’t stop people from going there, because they want to see the windmills, they want to see the lighthouse, the white rocks. We’re trying to beef it up. We’re trying to add more stuff.
We’re trying to enhance the existing Northern attractions, and of course, the infrastructure issues.
Apart from its interesting infrastructures and classic locations, it appears that Ilocos Norte is also vying to present a more adventurous side. What are the best attractions the province can offer as far as this aspect of tourism is concerned? We specialize in the sand dunes now because it’s very unique, eh. It’s not a water park. You can build a water park anywhere.
We used to curse the sand dunes (of Paoay.) A lot of Ilocanos are farmers, and it saddens them because you can’t really grow anything there. People used to try planting in the sand dunes not aware that it’s an advantage pala. Over time, we got enlightened that this desert could be used for a lot of activities.
So there: we have the 4x4s, sand boards, the sand sculptures, the concerts – there are a lot of things you can do with it.
The big bikes naman, they come here because the roads are good and very scenic.
Internationally, what we’re really doing well in is windsurfing. That has really taken off. Windsurfing in Pagudpud. A lot of really well-known sports enthusiasts come here. Windsurfing, apparently, is a premiere sport here because, apparently, you can do it in a highly advanced level.
[International sports enthusiasts] also like Paoay Lake. Paoay Lake is huge – 472 hectares. It’s hardly being used. Because for us, for the locals, we have this fixation about the Paoay legend. The Sodom and Gomorrah of the Philippines. The people [of the area where Paoay Lake is now] were so wealthy they became decadent and pasaway, so they were cursed and the whole thing fell under. So, when we were little, we were told not to swim there because there were fish wearing golden earrings and crowns and they would drag you to the bottom of the lake. In short, people didn’t swim there because it was scary. Hardly anybody used the lake.
Now, it was discovered that we should really do our regattas there. International crowds say that it’s a potential Olympic venue. It’s so large, it’s so convenient, it’s near the airport, the hotels and everything, when [if there is a lake that size, it’s] normally up in the mountains or four hours away. So people are happy to schedule regattas there. They come from everywhere. The Hong Kong people always come there. Taiwan people are always there. Sometimes from the Middle East. That’s really a discovery.
Ilocos Norte itself is known for such vibrancy these days. That being said, what advice can you give to people who would like to visit the province?
Keep your timetable open. Allow yourself to go on adventures. It’s not a typical beach town in the Philippines. We’re very hospitable, we love having people come over. We have the privilege of being a place for work and play. Just keep an open mind.