THE UNITED Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has just released its latest batch of World Heritage (WH) sites—24 cultural properties, 2 natural, 1 mixed. These range from the controversial (the Alamo; the Meiji Industrial Revolution sites) to the long-overdue (Ephesus).
France, Iran, Denmark and Turkey lead with two sites each. The United States, China, Japan and the United Kingdom have one each. Russia has none.
The “politicization” of the listing as well as the effects of tourism resulting from the designation are being decried in some quarters. After all, these are supposed to be “the world’s most precious landscapes.”
In 1989, Vigan’s bid for WH inscription was rejected as, reportedly, “it couldn’t compare with other Spanish colonial cities like Cartagena in Colombia and Trinidad in Cuba.”
(Some point out Vigan isn’t like any Spanish colonial town in Latin America since it also has strong Chinese and Filipino influences, thus “should actually be compared with other Asian colonial trading cities like Hoi An, Malacca and Macau.”)
“Born on the Fourth of July,” the Oscar-nominated Oliver Stone movie starring Tom Cruise shot here and released that year, was the first to bring Vigan to international attention, particularly the half-kilometer Calle Crisologo, the nerve center of the heritage district.
It took a full decade before Unesco relented and gave the Ilocos Sur capital the WH inscription, recognizing that “it represents a unique fusion of Asian building design and construction with European colonial architecture and planning”; and “it is an exceptionally intact and well-preserved example of a European trading town in East and Southeast Asia.”
(It took longer for the ancient Greco-Roman city of Ephesus in Turkey, site of the Temple of Artemis, one of the original 7 Wonders of the World. It first attempted for the inscription in 1993 and got it after 22 years.)
And it took over three decades before the whole world paid proper attention and gave Vigan full recognition, when it was also declared one of the New 7 Wonders Cities on Dec. 7 last year.
The official ceremony for the declaration on May 7 was attended by no less than N7W Foundation president Bernard Weber himself.
Weber says it was a rigorous and exhausting process. While 103-million votes went to the first listing (New 7 Wonders of Nature) five years ago, there were 550-million votes for the second listing (New 7 Wonders Cities).
Some 4,000 cities were nominated by people worldwide, and the top cities of each country were selected. From the Top 225, a panel of experts chose 77, then by polling gradually reduced that to seven.
“Why Vigan won? It is largely because of the arrogance of other cities,” says Weber. “They’d say, We don’t need this [designation]. They don’t look to the future. To maintain the legacy. That’s why small cities like Vigan won [over cities like Paris, London and New York].”
(Surely, the reputed texting capability of Filipinos in no small way helped in swelling its rank on the poll.)
A Swiss-Canadian, Weber clarifies his foundation is not affiliated with Unesco.
“We cannot collaborate with Unesco,” he says. “We have different aims. They have that scope and we have this scope.”
That is, the two have opposite goals—reduction and expansion. While the N7W listing has reduced thousands of sites to just seven, Unesco now has 1,034 inscribed sites since it started its annual WH listing in 1978.
N7W was launched in 2000 at the Sydney Olympics. Weber says he was inspired by the original listing of wonders of the ancient world.
He wanted to “revive the Greek idea of ancient wonders,” just like the Olympic Games was revived in the last century. He chose the number 7 not only for its mystical quality but also for practical reason, as it is a quantity “people can remember.”
He says this is his millennial project: to motivate people to protect and preserve the planet’s legacy for future generations. It is in line with his concept of global memory.
“Just take five minutes a day,” he says, “and think about things not connected to you personally.”
Weber first visited the country in 2010 when he presented to President Aquino the New 7 Wonders of Nature certificate of candidacy of the Puerto Princesa Underground River, which won the votes the following year.
Vigan’s official N7W declaration was set during the week-long Binatbatan Festival of the Arts. It must be the city’s grandest celebration in its history.
There were traditional games and religious rituals, street-dancing showdown, boating and fishing competitions, fashion show and dog show, art exhibits, food fest and trade fair, Santacruzan, calesa parade of overburdened horses.
In the plaza at night, the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Olivier Ochanine wowed visitors and locals with celebratory music ranging from Shostakovich to Bernstein, from Piazzolla’s “Libertango” to Smetana’s Overture to “The Bartered Bride.”
On the last day of the festival, after a motorcade in the morning, the N7W monument in front of the city hall was unveiled. A Thanksgiving Mass was celebrated by Orlando Cardinal Quevedo at the Cathedral of the Conversion of St. Paul.
In the evening, Mayor Eva Marie S. Medina hosted a thanksgiving dinner at the Vigan Convention Center, a cavernous place wrapped around with a mural depicting the history of the Ilocanos.
Performed in front of the cathedral was a theater piece interpreting in songs and dances the story of Vigan from pre-Hispanic times to the present. It was a graceful performance participated in full force by local talents, though rather gruelling for its length.
The people patiently waited in the plaza until the official proclamation by Weber at midnight, to the cannon volleys and galloping horses of the “1812” Overture amid fireworks illuminating the nightscape.
Wealth of artworks
An artwork limning Vigan’s cityscape and couching its rich heritage can be found in Hotel Luna, an upscale establishment in the heritage district.
“A Tribute to Hotel Luna” is an interactive painting by National Artist BenCab, Rene Robles, Romulo Galicano, Demetrio de la Cruz, Fidel Sarmiento, Cid Reyes, Fred Baldemor and Grace Singson. Done on Feb. 7 to commemorate the hotel’s first anniversary, the large-scale work has been prominently installed in the function hall.
When Weber visited the hotel, he was overwhelmed by the wealth of artworks of Filipino masters it contained, from the entranceway through the lobby, the atrium, the staircase, to the grand salon. Not to say the hotel setup itself, a heritage house creatively reconstructed into the only museum-hotel in the country.
Even here Weber was confronted by the effects of tourism, branding and advertising brought about by the international awareness immediately following the N7W recognition. The hotel had been fully booked for days.
General manager Dennis Doroja says there was a 10-percent jump in the number of their foreign guests five months after the announcement. Peak season averages an 80-percent occupancy.
Doroja relates that, before the declaration, by 8 p.m., there were no longer activities in the streets and plazas. But on the first week of December, around the time it was announced, there was a dra
stic change. Now the heritage district is open 24 hours a day.
“After the declaration, naubos lahat ng hotels, even the inns and transients,” Doroja recalls. “Hindi pa nangyari ’yan before. From 5 p.m. till midnight, ’di nauubos ang tourists sa Crisologo. We lent our staff to assist people sleeping in cars [parked outside]. Hospitality is part of our culture, the core value of the hotel.”
Kristine S. Meehan, the hotel’s vice president for operations, says there was a three-hour wait in restaurants all over the city last December.
“If you were with a big group, you couldn’t get a seat,” she adds. “It took 40 minutes for vehicles just to move inside the city, and two hours if you were outside trying to get in.”
The boom resulted in the launching of new hotels and the adding of rooms of old ones. Hotel Luna has put up an annex a block away, with 17 rooms and a 200-capacity function hall.
“You can see Vigan in one day,” says Doroja. “So we devise some program to make people stay longer. Foreigners have preconceived idea of what to see here, such as the rich culture of the Filipinos, our love of art and the family. These they can experience in the hotel itself. Gracious hosting is part of the hotel culture. They appreciate our art collection. Also our paella with Ilocano ingredients, Vigan longaniza, the bagnet, the pinakbet.
“There’s no problem with foreign guests. They’re easier to please. You can wow them with a lot of things. With Filipino guests, you have to tap their connection to the native culture and tradition. But, especially now that we’re known in the international market, we have to elevate our service for foreign guests because they’re accustomed to a certain level of convenience.”
Doroja, who has been with the hotel industry for some 20 years, says the main problem in Vigan is, it has no room for expansion. The area can’t have road-widening, so this sudden boom results in impossible traffic, and parking is a challenge.
“Ginagawan na raw ng paraan ng local government,” he says. “I think they’re planning to construct a three-story building for parking near the marketplace.”
Price of recognition
Weber cites four studies that estimate the N7W recognition can generate revenues of up to $1.8 billion per country over five years. But there’s always a price for such coveted designation.
Witness the negative impact of tourism wrought on communities and locales by the WH inscription, among the most prominent being the Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat, even Niagara Falls.
Oman’s antelope sanctuary and Dresden’s Baroque palaces were duly stripped of their WH status when surrounding areas were destroyed by resulting development.
The chief achievement of Vigan’s local administration is in maintaining the integrity of the city’s heritage structures through the years.
In the wake of the boom, many of these old buildings have been transformed into bed-and-breakfasts and boutique hotels, souvenir shops and convenience stores, restos and cafés—while still preserving their historical authenticity.
An exemplar of this adaptive reuse is the old provincial jail. Built in 1657, the building stands behind the city hall and just beside the house of Padre José Burgos, one of the three priests whose execution for being revolutionaries inspired the writing of José Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere.”
The building has historical import as it is the birthplace of Elpidio Quirino. His father was then jail warden. Reportedly, one time the pregnant wife brought merienda for him and his staff, her water broke, and she unceremoniously gave birth to the future president of the republic.
After the inmates were transferred to a new provincial jail in May last year, the historic structure was transformed into the Ilocos Regional Museum, the core of a complex which includes the Padre Burgos House.
Managed by the National Museum, it opened in January as “the premier regional repository of the historical, cultural and artistic heritage of Ilocos.” It has state-of-the-art displays of Ilocano life, from fossils to primitive implements, arts and crafts, from the making of basi and burnay to the weaving of abel Iloko.
Running through one long stretch of gallery is a series of 14 newly restored paintings in oil on canvas depicting the Basi Revolt of 1807, done by Esteban Villanueva y Pichay in 1821.
Commitment to culture
Heritage in this city isn’t just those Hispanic houses and antique artifacts, however. It is also the distinctive cultural traits of the people, including their indigenous foodstuff.
A few blocks away from Hotel Luna is Café Isabelita, owned by Raymundo Florentino, an architect-restorer and a great-great-grandnephew of protofeminist poetess Leona Florentino.
His commitment to cultural heritage is double-barreled. He has built a pension-café out of recycled materials from demolished old structures; and he is trying to preserve Ilocano heritage delicacies such as salapusop, kibin-kibin, bibingka pascua, canatillo, masa podrida.
Those heirloom kakanin are served freshly prepared in the café. Florentino takes pride in telling guests his cook Lita is the last remaining salapusop-maker around.
Food is also precious heritage of humanity. This is affirmed by Unesco’s inclusion for its newly inscribed cultural properties the vineyards and wine cellars of the Champagne and Burgundy regions; and the meat-processing factory in Uruguay that produced corned beef, meatballs, steak-and-kidney pie.
It is about maintaining the legacy, as Weber insists. Because our heritage is our future.
Of the original 7 Wonders of the World, only one exists—the Great Pyramid of Giza. It is that kind of status Vigan must aspire for, no less, to ensure that global memory will last.