Sohoton, Samar

Wonders of Samar and Leyte

This adventure in the Philippines is for us the opportunity to discover areas that do not attract many tourists despite their high potential and beautiful natural resources. We also want to think about different possible ways to offer tourists a unique experience in those places while creating more jobs for the local people and preserving the environment.

We have been travelling in the Region VIII (Samar and Leyte) for 10 days and we haven’t seen any foreign tourist yet! However, as you can see on the pictures, there is a lot to see and to do! Then, why are tourists not coming? Transportation,  lack of tour operators and marketing as well as political instability are different factors that could bring some explanations.

The Map of Region VIII

Before talking about tourism in Region VII, let’s share some general facts. Samar and Leyte are respectively the 4th and 8th largest islands in the Philippines. However, they both are among the poorest. To give you an idea, the poverty threshold was set to 20 euros (Php 1300) in 2009 for one person in one month. Samar had 37% of its population under this threshold (with high disparities between Eastern, Northern and Western Samar) and Leyte 27%, against 21% in the Philippines as a whole (source : National Statistical Coordination Board). The main sources of income are fishery and agriculture (rice, corn, coconut) which is very sensitive to typhoons.

Crops fields in Samar

Samar and Leyte are two jewels for travelers who have time and patience (or neither, but money). In fact, public transportation is rare and overcrowded, either you have to bear with the average speed of 20km/h and enjoy the beautiful coastal landscapes, either you must privatize a vehicle.

Overcrowded transportation…

These two islands are wild and should attract tourists looking for adventure and sport. In fact, there are several caves (and even more to discover!), lot of treks,  canyoning activities, big waves for surfing in Eastern Samar (not for beginners!) and the longest zipline in the Philippines in Southern Leyte. However, for now there are only few tour operators (one in Samar and very few in Leyte) and a lack of marketing campaigns from the national organizations to encourage the private sector to go to region VIII.

What might be the most detrimental to tourism are the numerous typhoons every year and the presence of the New People Army (NPA), a rebellious armed group. Kidnapping of tourists never happened and there is no major insecurity issue there but the national media often talk about region VIII only to communicate alarming news so that most of the Filipinos have a very bad image of Samar and Leyte.

On the Road

Despite all these issues, we have met very interesting people, all lovers of their region. Joni, the solitary caver who was among the professionals who discovered beautiful caves in Samar, and Leyte Gulf Travel and Tours (based in Leyte), told us about their daily work to promote their place and attract tourists. Joni was recommended by the Lonely Planet (that helps a lot!) and Leyte Gulf Travel and Tours relies on outbound packages (outside Leyte and Samar) to sustain its activities.

Nevertheless, there is a site that is very popular in Region VIII: Sohoton Caves and Natural Bridge.  With an average of 3,000 visitors per year, this is the main attraction for tourism. Accessing the bridge and caves is done by boat in an emerald green river with limestone rocks and small floating houses along the way. Before any trip, the visitor must register in Basey Tourism Office, in Samar, a city known for its weaving and its church.

Weaving in Basey

In the Tourism Office, we were impressed by the display of all the information regarding the accounting and planning. In fact, the municipality participates to a national program which aims at proving information and transparency to citizens. We met the Tourism Officer, Evangelina O. Ritaga, who told us about the successes and weaknesses of the tourism packages in Basey. In 2003, the local government organized the light men, guides (not all) and cleaning employees into the Sohoton Services Association (SSA).The SSA gets 10%of the money paid by tourists for the wages of the members and for the organization of events and maintenance of cultural sites. They all receive trainings from the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and from the Department Of Tourism (DOT). This organization became effective and more tourists came.

The information for citizens

However, Ms Ritaga told us she received some complaints about the guides from tourists and she requested a more experienced guide to train again the existing ones. The difficulties encountered by the tourism office are mainly due to political changes and the lack of support from the DENR, which is collecting a tax of Php 200 for every foreign tourist and Php 25 for Filipinos. The DENR should support the work of the tourism office and invest money in trainings and others programs, however, according to Ms Ritaga, the DENR employees are there only when it’s time to collect the taxes…

The Natural Bridge,Sohoton

Despite all these issues, the Tourism Office dreams of several big projects : the installation of more hotels and restaurants, a zipline, some paddle boats among others. There is already a project of Waterskiing carried by a foreigner. Indeed, located in Samar, 30 minutes from the beautiful Marabut Islands and the heavenly Caluwayan Resort and 45minutes by van from Tablocan in Leyte, Basey has everything needed to become a major tourist destination!

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