Miraculously, we survived the typhoon!” exclaimed designer Milo Naval, Sorsogon’s tourism consultant.
Although hurricanes frequently cross Bicol’s path, Sorsogon City was spared the wrath of “Yolanda.”
As adopted son of Sorsogon, Naval initiated the rebranding of the province. One of his main projects was to repackage the annual fiesta.
Grey skies and rain showers couldn’t dampen the spirits of the Sorsoganons during Kasanggayahan. There was a sense of anticipation as a succession of dancers in shiny purple and yellow costumes paraded by.
Through movements, they celebrated the life of abundance, the English translation of Kasanggayahan, as they depicted their livelihood of agriculture, fishing and trading.
After what seemed like an endless wait, giant papier-maché friars in white cassocks, a Spanish conquistador, a white Crucifix and a galleon float rolled into view. The display of these higantes honored the first Mass in Luzon in 1569.
In the 16th century, Augustinian friar Alonso Jimenez and Spanish captain Luiz Enriquez de Guzman were out on a Christian mission to Southern Luzon. Their touchdown was on the beach of Gibalon (now sitio San Isidro, Barangay Salvacion) in the western coast of Sorsogon.
The friar and the captain then put up a humble chapel made of bamboo and nipa to hold the first Mass in Luzon. Records showed that natives were baptized, thus making Gibalon the first Christian settlement on the island.
Kasanggayahan also commemorates the anniversary of Sorsogon when it separated from Albay. It was declared a province on Oct. 17, 1894.
All this time the first Mass was commemorated in Prieto Diaz town. This year marked the first time it was celebrated with pomp and pageantry on the main street of Sorsogon City—and at a lower budget, according to Naval.
His tourism initiative is significant because it represents a drive to capture a new market niche.
The fiesta included a parade of pantomina, with groups having their version of Sorsogon’s courtship dance, photo exhibits along the streets, and a costume contest interpreting Sorsogon’s cultural icons along the bay walk. Himig Kapitolyo, the provincial government’s choral group coached by musical director Ding Mercado, provided musical numbers.
Naval’s involvement with Sorsogon is his way of giving back to the place which drove his furniture business.
Since his wife Katherine grew up in Sorsogon, the Manila-based Navals would spend their holidays in Bicol. When he started Evolve Designs, he used materials such as abaca and employed local workers to make his furniture and accessories.
Naval’s in-laws, both politicians, have been serving for several terms. His father-in-law, Gov. Raul Lee, is a native Sorsoganon who married an Ilocana. Naval’s mother-in-law, Sorsogon City Mayor Sally Lee, has been effecting changes in the capital to attract more tourists.
Sorsogon’s strengths are the coastal towns, their natural resources and their accessibility, thanks to the smooth road network. Naval said Sorsogon City could be a hub for the 14 towns that can offer ecotourism.
One can drive to Donsol for whale shark watching; go on picnics to Bulusan Lake and Bulusan Volcano National park; dip into the hot springs of Irosin; sunbathe on the beaches along Gubat, Sta. Magdalena; enjoy solitude at the Sablayan Island Fish Sanctuary; surf in Gubat; have a pictorial in the lighthouse in Matnog; and recall the history of the galleon trade in Magallanes, where the biggest shipyard was built.
Mayor Lee has been collating the potential tourist attractions. The province has documented 91 sites. She also wants to give Sorsogon City a facelift first by improving the landmarks.
Naval had the Capitol Building repainted and is working on reviving the city park. He had the Rampeolas (breakwater), which the mayor built, repainted in vibrant green to enliven the dull bay walk.
New York-based millionaire Loida Nicolas Lewis, who was born in Sorsogon, inspired the Lees to build a repository for the province’s artifacts and history. Thus, the provincial hospital, built in 1927, was turned into museum that has been funded by the local government.
For accommodations, tourists previously rented a bahay kubo for P50 a day or stay in modest lodges.
Two accommodations, Sirangan Beach Resort in Bacon, famous for its black sand, and the new Siama designer resort built by Naval, were put up to cater to the seasoned traveler.
Mayor Lee also organized the Kasanggayahan Village, a one-stop shop that showcases the best products from the towns such as pili oil and delicacies, handwoven bags, coconut plates and cutlery and shell products.
There are other activities of interests.
Tourists are amazed to see the steam rising from the earth at the Lopez-owned Energy Development Corp.
A century-old acacia tree in the city proper has been a place for photo opportunities. Lee also wanted to show the art of cracking the pili nut with the precise whack of the bolo.
In all, Naval pointed out that although Sorsogon’s untouched beauty is the main attraction, its unique selling point is its history.
“When you reposition, you need a good selling point. We started by having the first Mass in Luzon as the festival theme, and then make other activities globally appealing.”