At exactly 11:59 a.m. Friday, July 31, Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia stepped on board the blue-and-white pumpboat that will bring her to the seas to watch the famous whalesharks or "tuki" of Oslob.
The ride signaled the official reopening of Cebu’s multi-billion tourism industry after more than four months on a slump as the country is reeling from the effects of Covid-19.
Garcia was joined by Oslob Mayor Jose Tumulak Jr. and Cordova Mayor Mary Therese “Techie” Sitoy-Cho in a 15-minute boat ride that showcased three whalesharks seen flirting with the guests as they peck with their heads above the sea.
More than 15 boats joined the renewed whale shark interaction that boasts of as much as P3 million in income on a daily basis during its peak seasons, Tumulak told journalists.
But because of the pandemic that has now ravaged Cebu’s economy, Tumulak said everything is down to zero in terms of income for the town which has relied so much on the infusion of this tourism activity to its coffers.
“Luoy kaayo ang mga tawo unya dili lang pud og dunay ripple-effect niadto ang pagkuan nato sa whale watching, duna poy triple-effect ang pagkawad-on. At least dili man gani musumpay kaniadto, at least magsugod nasad,” he said.
Garcia even praised Tumulak and the town because it was able to help other barangays who requested for road concreting and other assistance.
Started in 2012, Tumulak said they did not expect that this once-touted nuisance by fishermen in the area, because it disturbs them when they catch fish, is now a manna in heaven for every townspeople of Barangay Tan-awan and Oslob.
Before the pandemic, the area accepts 2,000 guests on a daily average, and these are purely tourists who watch and snorkel with the tuki. Most of the guests are Chinese and Korean nationals, Tumulak said.
Aside from the whale-shark interaction and snorkelling, the site offers deep dive watching where guests get to see the rich underwater fauna while the tuki is playing around with guests.
This money-making attraction has hugely impacted most of the boatmen who were able to send their children to school, build their own houses, or to some, buy their own cars.
Sofio Muñoz, 50, a resident of Barangay Tan-awan, Oslob, said he left his job as company driver in Manila and became a boatman in 2012. He is thankful for the re-opening of the town's tourism activities because this helps them uplift their lives.
“Nakapa-eskwela ko sa akong anak unya nakapahimo sad ta og medyo balay nga di ta mabasa ig muuwan. Kay sauna ang balay nato medyo matawag nato nga payag. Karon medyo dako-dako na sa payag at least di nata mabasa kun muuwan,” Munoz said.
At least 100 boatmen participated in Friday’s opening.
Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) Assistant Secretary Asteria Caberte said it is the governor’s “boldness” in action that brought back the livelihood of the people.
“Akong idangat ang akong kinasingkasing nga congratulations for the boldness of Governor Gwen and the rest of the stakeholders and the local government unit for taking on the challenge of bringing back the livelihood of our people,” she said.
“Nadungog nato ang SONA (State of the Nation’s Address) sa atong Presidente (President Rodrigo Duterte) klaro kaayo ang marching orders niya sa mga National Government Agencies, the marching order is bring back the jobs ug iya pa gyud gi-mention specific kaayo nga instruction, siguro nangopya siya sa notes ni Governor Gwen, kay he was very specific on domestic tourism,” Caberte added.
Caberte expressed her support to the program of the governor and DTI will set up a Negosyo Center in the town that will be implemented in the first quarter of 2021 instead of the second quarter.
She said the DTI will set up a One Town One Product (OTOP) center in Oslob, a shopping hub of sorts that will showcase health and wellness products like turmeric and virgin coconut oil, among others.
Provincial Board members of the 2nd District Edsel Galeos and Tata Salvador gave their full support to the reopening of tourism despite some doubts from other sectors.
“Ang kalisod ug kapaet nga na-agian mahinay-hinay nang masulbad. Hinaot mabalik na ang tanang normal nga kinabuhi,” Galeos said.
Salvador, for his part, said the fight against Covid-19 is far from over but Friday’s tourism reopening is the first step to recovery.
“Ang atoa nga health protocols tumanon para di ta manirado og balik. Hinaut pa nga ang atong nasugdan nga adlaw ato ipadayon,” he said.
Cebu Provincial Police Office Director Roderick Mariano congratulated Garcia for spearheading the activity despite the pandemic, saying “napakatapang ng ating gobernador.”
Cordova Mayor Cho was also all-praises for the governor’s persistence to push through with the opening.
“We believe to fight Covid is not by fear but we fight Covid to live new normal lives ug atong gipabalik ang pagdagan sa atong ekonomiya ug kana gikan ni Gov. Gwen Garcia, walay kahadlok sa covid,” she said.
Friday’s opening also gathered about 40 observers from the town of Cordova headed by Mayor Cho, her public information officer Atty. Jessica Natad and staff, since they are about to open their tourism attraction “Discover Cordova” anytime soon.
Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) Central Visayas Commander Jose William Isaga said they give their 100 percent support to the governor’s initiative to revive tourism in Cebu and in fact, will deploy PCG personnel and vessel in the site as proof of their support.
“We are just a text away,” Isaga said.
Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) 7 Director Marc Anthony Pascua said he is grateful that his office is included “sa magandang inisyatiba nang mahal natin na governor.”
MARINA has extended the registration for motorboat operators until three months in order to help them recover lost income for the past four months.
Garcia said the tourism industry in Oslob changed the lives of the Oslobanons.
“We have vastly improved people’s lives sugod sa boatmen ug unya ang share sa Barangay Tan-awan, nga muabot og P30 million or more. Asa man laing barangay ron nga naay P30 million a year, mura nani og barangay sa Makati, maoy pinakanindot og Barangay Hall, pinaka-dako og covered court apan labaw sa tanan si Kapitan shares the blessings of Tan-awan kay uban usab nga barangay tabangan man sad tawon niya. Naay muhangyo og road concreting mutabang si Kapitan,” she stated.
As many have suffered because of the pandemic, Garcia said there is a need to bring back the livelihoods of the people.
“Mao kana nga ato gayud gihukman. Pangitaan gyud natog paagi nga mahibalik kining usa ka kalihukan nga dili nato tawgon og leisure activity. Usa kini ka kalihukan nga nagda og hilabihan nga kadaghan nga panginabuhi, sa hilabihan kadaghan nga mga kaigsuonan natong Sugbuanon,” she stressed. (Vanessa Almeda, Mylen Manto)