Zamboanga back in tourism map

Call it nostalgia or déjà vu but one can’t help but be brought back somewhere in time when the Spaniards reigned in the country, the moment you step down at the Zamboanga International Airport. It used to service international flights to Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia until it was cut off due to the Asian financial crisis. 

But still, the airport which sports a very distinctive Mindanao design, is kept busy by domestic flights to and from Davao and Metro Manila especially this October with the month-long celebration of the Zamboanga Hermosa Festival which is being held in honor of the miraculous Our Lady of the 
UZAMBOANGA CITY-Bienvenidos! The moment you hear that word which means welcome, you realize that you have indeed arrived at Asia’s Latin City. And once you experience the Chavacanos’ charm then you learn to just let go of your fears and inhibitions.

Call it nostalgia or déjà vu but one can’t help but be brought back somewhere in time when the Spaniards reigned in the country, the moment you step down at the Zamboanga International Airport. It used to service international flights to Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia until it was cut off due to the Asian financial crisis. 

But still, the airport which sports a very distinctive Mindanao design, is kept busy by domestic flights to and from Davao and Metro Manila especially this October with the month-long celebration of the Zamboanga Hermosa Festival which is being held in honor of the miraculous Our Lady of the Pillar, the patroness of Zamboanga City.

But that was not the case after the September 2013 siege of Zamboanga when Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) forces landed in the city, forcefully took over the city, hostaged residents of Barangays Rio Hondo, Sta. Catalina and Mariki and engaged the Special Operations Group of the Philippine Navy in a firefight which resulted to the death of civilians, military and the MNLF themselves.

“Zamboanga is going to be back in the tourism map judging from the number of visitors in this year’s festival specifically the Regatta de Zamboanga,” said Councilor Vincent Paul A. Elago, chairman of the City Council committee on tourism at the sidelines of the vinta competition conducted along R.T. Lim Boulevard which sued to be known as Cawa-Cawa. While the kilometer stretch of the boulevard used to be occupied by families, mostly Badjaos who were displaced during the siege, the tents are gone and replaced along the shores by traditional vintas with colorful sails. 

Mr. Elago estimated the spectators, who stood from end to end of the boulevard to cheer for the Regatta, to at least 50,000 including foreign visitors.  The Regatta de Zamboanga, a traditional race of colorful vintas, also had a record-breaking number of participants with 180 bangkeros trying their luck this time and vying for the P20,000 first prize and the P7,000 and P5,000 for the second and third prizes respectively.

“The vintas are one of the most popular icons of Zamboanga but most of the Badjaos who used the vitnas for fishing have started to look for other means of livelihood in the city so we feared that the vintas would disappear,” Mr. Elago said. Fishermen in the area have ceased to use their vintas for fishing and have become middlemen and traders. He said the local government hopes to bring back the art of fishing and of sailing the vintas through the holding of the Regatta de Zamboanga every year.

Hajad M. Hamid, who used to be a fisherman but now works at a state university here, and his brother Danny paddled and steered vinta number 006 to victory, making them the undisputed winner of the Regatta for the past consecutive years now. “It took me almost a month to practice whenever I have free time,” he said in the dialect.

“Zamboanga’s vibrant tourism industry suffered a setback because of the siege but we have recovered and are rebuilding tourist confidence in the area,” Department of Tourism (DOT) IX Director Mary June G. Bugante said. Convincing tourists to visit the city was a big challenge considering that the months after the seige was already the peak months for the city’s tourism.  

While the region’s tourist arrivals dived after the siege by almost 50 percent to 344,000 from 658,000 in 2012, the tourists have started to come back with 370,000 arrivals last year, most of them domestic travelers.


Eleven Islands

Ms. Bugante admits that the top attractions of Zamboanga remain to be its culture and beaches. Zamboanga’s vibrant culture is easily recognized with the vivid colors of the vinta sails. The area was already a trading center as far back as the 13th century but Spain’s influence is best seen not inside the museums of Zamboanga but at Fort Pilar which was built in 1635. Fort Pilar used to be a military fortress but now it houses a Marian Shrine and the regional museum of the National Museum of the Philippines which continue to attract tourists and devotees up to now.

Fort Pilar is a National Cultural Treasure as declared by virtue of Presidential Decree 260 issued on August 1,1973. 

With so many beautiful islands in Zamboanga, it is not surprising that Mr. Elagois pushing for the development of the Eleven islands in the east coast as additional tourism products of the city. Ms. Bugante is fully supporting the development of the Eleven Islands as tourism brings many benefits to the people including the improvement of their economic status.
“The Eleven Islands could be our next attractions but we have to make sure they are developed sustainably,” Ms. Bugante said. While each of the islands have fine white sand and crystal clear waters, she said each has its own unique beauty that will surely attract nature lovers.
Culture and heritage

A tour of Zamboanga City is much like a walk back in history starting with the Zamboanga City Hall which was built by the United States to house the American Governors during World War 1 including Governor John J. Pershing who started the construction of Pasonanca Park in 1912. The City hall is made with adobe stones exterior walls, red terracota roofs and hardwood interiors. The belfry-like tower of the building is easy to spot.

A few minutes away from the City Hall is the Pettit Barracks, which was named after James S. Pettit, a United States Army Colonel who used to be commanding officer of the Second Military District and later Inspector General and officer-in-charge of Civil Affairs, Zamboanga. History lovers would have a grand time walking along the Pettit Barracks which has been declared by the National Historical Institute as a heritage zone not only because this used to be the station of the US Army’s 43rd Infantry Regiment and the defense headquarters of the Japanese after that but the streets are also lined with heritage acacia trees that are more than a hundred years old that have been properly strapped with a metal plate showing their scientific and local name, date of declaration, approximate age, registry number and location. These trees are considered “ecologically, historically and culturally valuable.” 

With its rich history, culture and charm, it easy to say Quiere yo contigo (I love you) Zamboanga. The very same reasons why you cannot help but keep coming back to Zamboanga again and again.

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