I’m again wondering why Loakan Airport in Baguio City is left in a prehistoric state. The runway was literally carved out of the mountain by the Americans – the military – who maintained it until before their decampment from the City (and the country) in 1990. Since their departure and the last commercial flight of Philippine Airlines to the City in 1998, local commercial air traffic went down. After PAL, Asian Spirit took over for some time, and afterward WCC for a short while. There’s now just the intermittent flight servicing Baguio-Cauayan (Isabela) and Philippine Navy choppers infrequently servicing the President or some VIPs who do few hours of official duties in town. City Hall, in order to induce some traffic, opened the runway to the public on weekends when it then transforms into a sort of concrete park. Most airport officials would cringe at this, for the fact that runways should be maintained (meaning, the less trampling the better), for the planes – what’s an airport for but not a park.
The downtrend on air traffic to the City can be an indication that the market for the most cost effective route to the City has reverted elsewhere. By market I mean the money dealers, decision makers, and business executives who with their full calendars would prefer this route. One can argue that their preference has changed, preferring the bus (Victory Liner leaves the City at 20- and 30-minute interval), although I can’t imagine a busy executive who has only a short (but deal-making) meeting in the City wanting to go by a 4- to 6-hour land trip (this is when there’s no traffic) when at a slightly higher price he or she can be in the City in 45 minutes.
This and the fact that City Hall has not done anything to zone out (or rather enforce zoning restrictions on) construction and activities on the perimeter of the runway. Both ends lead to cemeteries, Heaven’s Garden (shows that in the country the dead or at least their relatives they’ve left behind are toe to toe with those who are alive in the fight for land and space), and the end where planes make their final take-off is a dense residential-commercial-institutional-industrial area. By locating on these sites, the cemetery owner may have assumed he’s doing the City a good turn in that planes making serious errors in landing and take-off could conveniently drop into their graves either way.
How City Hall could take back space on which to expand the airport without bleeding itself dry – I don’t know. But since the airport is the National Government’s property, City Hall could just as well shrug off the concern.
Anyway. This article is really about why Baguio City, unlike the trend in provincial cities elsewhere in the country, has totally lost out on air traffic.
Conditions I’ve observed that could’ve contributed to this are (1) the general increase in clean land based transport (i.e. buses, private cars) which makes travel a lot less stressful combined with improved roads to the City bringing down travel time to half of the 8-hour trip a decade ago, and (2) advancements in information and communications technology. Because of these improvements and advancements, the imperative to rush into and out of the City has become irrelevant.
By private car as well as on a deluxe bus, travel to the City takes at most four hours from Metro Manila. This means, for someone on business who starts off at 6 AM in the Metro she’d be in the City well before noon, attend to that lunch meeting, and maybe squeeze in a bit of shopping afterward. She can leave the City at 6 PM and some minutes after midnight be in her own bed – these in just a day! At this rate, who wants to get on a plane so soon after one has arrived? (In comparison, the 12-hour trip from Metro Manila or Baguio to Tuguegarao City in a freezing cold bus, making stops with squat toilets and where food are not exactly palatable may not be the average tourist’ or executive’s idea of fun; so despite the call to reduce carbon footprints or to rediscover the rural, you can’t stop people from preferring to fly. The point of this is that with the improvement of facilities catering to the traveler in the towns on the road up to Baguio City, it is ensured that travelers arrive in the City in generally good moods, in other words, the City is free-riding on these improvements in effect it’s claim as a prime tourist destination cannot all be credited to City Hall’s effort.)
With the advancements in information and communications technology, busy executives don’t have to physically rush into the City to make and seal deals as there is now an impressive menu of communications technology. Or, is the absence of business executives’ demand for plane rides to the City because the City has no more important business to offer them? I’m inclined to believe so considering that Camp John Hay the most profitable source in town is almost built up to its allowable limit. I’m also inclined to think that when the City and its neighboring towns have banded as a metropolitan hence renewed business that’s when air traffic would again be restored.
My third observation is that the City appears to many as a dead-end destination in the sense that there’s no reason to rush into the City in order to for example ride a boat on Burnham Lake, or ride a horse at Wright Park, or buy homemade jams at Good Shepherd’s Convent. Once in the City, you can visit all its more popular spots in a day. Moreover, the real selling points of the City which are its majestic location (literally a city in the sky, when thick fog envelops it), cold weather (which is fast changing), pine trees (another fast departing feature), Session Road (a modern agora where locals interact around food, coffee, beer – this is brought to wider public attention and appreciation in the City’s Panagbenga – flower festival – in February), farm produce, and horticulture don’t help maintain the momentum of adrenalin rush in the visitor rather the opposite – the visitor is encouraged by everything in the City to slow down and smell the flowers which to plenty of tourists are not their kind of fun. Unless they are headed to Mt. Pulag in Kabayan (Benguet) or the Mt. Province further into the Cordilleras, visitors after having had their fill have nowhere else to go but back down and out of this mountain City.
But therein lies the catch. The perception that the City is a dead-end destination should be seen as something relative to, that is, it becomes a dead end destination because the rest of the towns and provinces – the City’s neighbors – in the Region (The Cordillera Administrative Region) are perceived by bored tourists in the City as having nothing exciting to offer them, which is, financially speaking, a big loss for the entire Region. Benguet, the Province in which the City is physically located but being a chartered City is legally independent of, has 13 municipalities, all of which remain diamonds in the rough. As for the City being a transit point to Banawe Rice Terraces in Ifugao, many are not aware that there is just the road (newly-improved) from the City to Nueva Viscaya and from there a change of bus to Ifugao. Total travel time on this route is shorter compared to that of the straight trip from Metro Manila to Ifugao. The point is, the rest of the Cordilleras has retained elements of wilderness which is not the stereotype of a tourist spot. Here lies another catch.
The presentation of the Region’s potential is of course an outsider’s view – although I’m from the City, I’m an outsider of these Provinces and Municipalities. Maybe these communities want to remain diamonds in the rough and maintain some aspects of wilderness – I don’t know. Or, more realistically, maybe they’re conflicted as to whether or not they want to remain so amidst the news and glimpses of growth through media and some exposure to the City and other urban areas. Such tension and the fact that outside of Mindanao the Cordilleras has the largest concentration of indigenous peoples in the country call for a certain way of reconciling what appears as economic stagnation and however you see it revival or preservation of a culture and place.
In the face of the continuing indecision in the Region, perhaps the better way to perceive the City as a destination is, instead of as a dead-end, a window (not a wide open door, yet) to the vast Cordilleran community and place. The viewer is held in suspense, which, if the City’s tourism people know how, can be made into a new selling point.