Wednesday, August 16, 2017


by Roger Pe
Business Mirror
August 17, 2017 issue

Enhancements that beautify walls and lobbies of elegantly designed skyscrapers. Hotels, offices and houses that have character because of the kind of stone the interior designers used. Bathrooms that look so clean you want to sleep on them. Balustrades, stairs, monuments, hallways, grave markers, and, tiles that, literally, floor you, what else can you not make beautiful with marble?

Undisputed as marble capital of the Philippines, Romblon has carved a proud name for itself and it is easy to believe. A quick visit to the outskirts of the town reveals mountains sitting on a bed of marble lodes, running through its entire geographical vein.

And it is not just ordinary marble. High-grade Italian quality, a fact that even Michaelangelo, had he found out about it, could have sailed to our shores and built an atelier in the town. Perhaps, he could have also sculpted “Pieta” right here, or maybe, imported tons of boulders from the Philippines to Italy, con amore.

The whole island of Romblon is one giant rock, blessed by nature with infinite supply of marble that comes in shades of white, green, pink, red and black. The Mines and Geosciences office estimates that the province has about 150 million metric tons of marble. “At current rates of extraction, the supply may last for three more centuries,” according to the bureau.

Though the province is comprised of two other bigger islands, Tablas and Sibuyan, which are equally rich in gold and nickel, it is marble that has made it famous and gave its people livelihood for more than half a century.

But there’s more to Romblon than just marble. It is an emerging tourist destination about to debut on world stage. Her beauty is slowly unraveling, its charm, history and attractions are hot on people’s bucket list. We are pretty sure that after reading this, it will also be on your top picks and you’ll be heading to your nearest travel booking agent.

Day 1

Our trip to Romblon was made possible by the Philippines Department of Tourism to promote unchartered places in the country, beautiful and stunning, different yet inviting. Undiscovered yet comparable to the best in the world, destinations unique in their own persona. 

Regional focus on Mimaropa (Mindoro, Marindoque, Romblon and Palawan) was scheduled for August, spotlighting on Romblon this time. Cecille Aranton, DOT head for Mimaropa market and product development, laid the groundwork and made sure travel itinerary for invited media guests ran on clockwork precision.

Typhoon Gorio delayed our flight for a week but on our next Monday flight, the sun shone brightly - perfect, just as we wanted. 

I arrived at the domestic airport way ahead of the group, to avoid long queues and possible bedlam. To begin with, the mood at the terminal was festive (as if nothing was happening in the south). Seats were full and reeking with foreign and local tourists. By a little past noon, our airplane jetted off quietly. The 76-seater Cebu-Pacific ATR plane then glided over 18,000 feet, moved gently with the clouds and temptingly showed Manila’s beautiful skyline.

In a little over 20 minutes, we were cruising above Batangas, and a few minutes later, a big island with a large inland body of water beckoned. I whispered to myself: “That’s Mindoro and that’s Naujan Lake.” As I checked my map, gee, I was right. 

The aircraft then veered towards southeast, signalling that we were approaching Tablas, Romblon’s biggest island and where the province’s commercial airport is located. We arrived exactly after one hour, rated pleasant and comfortable. No air pockets, no bumps and smooth all the way.

After disembarking, we traversed an almost 20-kilometer well-paved road at the foot of Tablas’ mountain ridges. We snaked through a highway astride a quiet sea that rumbled Romblon the week prior. Halfway through, just as I was about to be lulled to sleep by the long van ride, I saw a sign on the road: “Mag-ingat sa mga nahuhulog na bato” (watch out for falling rocks). It made me lose my desire to take a nap.

As we were getting closer to San Agustin town, our jump off point to the capital, it dawned on me that most of Romblon’s towns, if not all, belonged to a category of places that has remained quaint, undisturbed and unbelievably quiet to the point of being bucolic.

One might call it too ‘provincial’, but, hey, here lies Romblon’s beautiful charm. Far from the maddening, rambunctious city crowd, an experience that money can’t readily buy. Serenity pervades all over.

After about 45 minutes, the very welcoming town hall people served us a hearty lunch of “Inihaw na Bangus”, “Adobo”, “Tinolang Manok” and Romblon’s pride, “Sarsa”, a local dish that is made of small shrimps caught in river streams, mixed with young coconut and chili. It is then wrapped in coconut leaves and steamed to delectable goodness.

And then we were finally off to the capital town. Romblon is a place I’ve known only in textbooks and newspapers. It lies at the foot of a lush mountain range that is so green you readily get refreshed. The immediate feeling that you get is “the people have been waiting for you”. I felt so much at home.

After a lightning visit to the town plaza, we made a courtesy call to a soft-spoken Governor, Eduardo Firmalo at the provincial capitol. The short visit became a long interview.

A doctor by profession, Firmalo’s paternal uncle was also Romblon’s provincial governor before and during the war (1938-1941). He is on the honor list of the Duterte government for his anti-drug and no-mining policies.
In 2011, Governor Firmalo signed a moratorium on metallic mining in the province and mobilized people to oppose large scale mining activities in the area.
“It is tourism that can help spur growth in Romblon, not destructive mining,” Firmalo says. 

The governor is focusing on building more infrastructure projects to improve accessibility and make commuting between the islands a pleasant experience for all.

Only Cebu-Pacific flies to Romblon (three times a week). Firmalo is hoping that the airline will increase it to four. He is also working to attract excess tourists from Boracay to visit the province for a change of atmosphere. 
About one million tourists visit Boracay a year. Firmalo hopes tourism real estate investors would turn their eyes on Romblon (just 30 minutes by boat ride) so tourists can escape the ‘party’ scene of Boracay and enjoy Romblon’s tranquility.

More than ever, the governor wants to improve health conditions of his fellow Romblomanons. As a doctor, he believes that a healthy and strong populace can build a better Romblon. In recent years, his team has initiated countless fitness programs for the youth aside from continuing its feeding programs and watching over the province’s senior citizen populace. 

What’s on the pipeline? Firmalo hopes that a modern hospital would soon rise on his native turf, plus construction of more boat terminals to ease congestion at the main dock, improvement of ferryboat service between Romblon and its neighboring islands to boost commerce and tourism.

Day 2

Ah, the simplicity of life in Romblon, the picturesque landscape at the bay. Viewed from a distance, the town looks like a Portuguese village, creating a Mondrian art feel. 

Oh, you may call it serendipity. Francisco “Paco” Sanz, the province’s first appointed governor after a long list of Spanish Governors, was born in Portugal, and speaking of things European, a stroll away from the dock is a line of small tratorrias and pizzerias. One can also enjoy German, Italian and Dutch lager here.

Inter-island boats of all sizes dock on the port round-the-clock. The structures in the town flaunt the colors of the rainbow. By sunset, the kaleidoscope adds a palette of drama to the panorama. Nature’s art direction by now becomes jawdropping. Get ready to be mesmerized.

Further up, a belfry and a cathedral (St. Joseph) still stand mighty proud near the town plaza. They’re one of about seven original structures of old Romblon still existing. Erected by the Spanish Recollects in 1726, they have survived Moro pirate raids, countless typhoons and World War II. 

The municipal town hall still carries its old architecture. A ‘cuartel’ (jail) underneath the building is a must-see. Infront of the edifice is a century-old Narra tree - so massive you can tell that it is a mute witness to the town’s colorful past. If only it could talk.

On top of a hill, fronting the bay is Romblon’s Fuerza San Andres, a fort built by early Spanish conquistadors in 1644 to warn townsfolks of an impending raid. During this period, bloody skirmishes between Filipino-reinforced Spanish army and marauders oftenly occurred.

Romblon chronicles indicate a Dutch invasion in the 1700s, and Moro raids were aplenty after the Spanish came. Living testaments to these fierce battles are old canons displayed in the renovated landmark. They now serve as relics of a bygone era. 

Today, the governments of Australia and other European countries, in cooperation with the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and National Museum, continue to contribute efforts to restore the historic place.

As we moved into the town’s innermost sanctum, more century-old houses greeted us. There was the former Governor’s residence, the old elementary school and a number of antique structures that had changed ownership through the years.

We then explored a marble quarrying concession and saw men unloading raw marble boulders straight from the mountain source. Adjacent to the site was a heavy equipment warehouse where giant slabs of marble stones are cut, further shaped and cleaned for export.

A Roro boat then took us to Sibuyan, one of Romblon’s three major islands. We landed in invigorating Magdiwang, a flourishing town, all green and refreshing to the senses. We enjoyed a bit of paradise in Sanctuary Garden Resort, Barangay Tampayan. 

Here, you can see myriad of birds chirping and delighting you as they perched on flower gardens and trees around its wooded villas. I actually saw Hummingbirds and yellow Oreole, and whispered, “Wow!” 

The resort, indeed, is a refuge. A river, a few steps away, runs through it so you can enjoy kayaking. The amenities are traveler-friendly and comfortable, the bathroom floors are, of course, made of what else? Marble.

Also in Magdiwang is Mt. Guiting-Guiting whom the folks describe as a “mystic” mountain because of its jagged rooftop. “It is our adventure bestseller, one of the more popular Philippine mountains and, obviously, favorite of mountaineers because of the degree of difficulty one has to encounter before he can reach the summit,” Magdiwang, municipal tourism officer Rommel Radan told us as he hosted our dinner during our first night at the Sanctuary Garden Resort. 

Known also as the crown jewel of Romblon, Mt. Guiting-Guiting has been declared a protected Natural Park by the government because of its diverse wildlife species.

Day 3

We woke up early in the morning and hailed a jeepney to take us to Romblon’s fabled Cresta Del Gallo. We passed through Marigondon, Taguilos, Cajidiocan, Alibagon, Azagra and Campalingo under the scorching hot sun. Well-paved roads greeted us but they would be intermittently cut short by ongoing construction in-between. 

As we plodded along the way, more road-widening work loomed in the horizon causing our vehicle to slow down. And when it did, dust would furiously swirl around it. We must have inhaled tons of them.

“Are we there yet?” I heard someone asked just as I about to ask, “how many more minutes?” We finally reached San Fernando town after four hours. Vice mayor and municipal tourism officer Arben Rosas met us at the pier. From here, we will take another one-hour boat ride to Cresta de Gallo. 

Meanwhile, the sun was getting hotter and hotter, and I murmured: “I hope this is worth the long trip.” Midway, I saw a school of flying fish and farther, a big splash spurted out of the sparkling turquoise blue waters. “What could it be?” I asked while removing my sunglasses to get a better view. 

Then I heard everyone scream: “Dolphins!” Yes, those dolphins escorted us until we reached Cresta del Gallo’s spectacular white sandbar. It certainly worth the trip and I didn’t mind getting my skin burned.

Cresta de Gallo is a five-hectare kidney-shaped islet with a stretch of white sand beach. By low tide, the beautiful sandbar is a stunning sight, and some say, much better than those in Kalanggaman and Camiguin. Only one person lives here, the caretaker and his dogs.

On a 20-meter radius, the whole island is surrounded by the clearest body of water, teeming with wide variety of marine life. I was told that you camp for the night and sail back to Sibuyan the morning after.

Sibuyan is also full of underrated sites with rivers and a number of waterfalls that bring forth the clearest of water. I, for one, wouldn’t jump for a swim had Cantingas River was not so inviting and crystal-clear.

We went back to Romblon town tired but still managed to squeeze in some time to see the beauty of Bonbon and Nonok, two beautiful resorts with white sand beaches. If long trips bore you, these two can readily satisfy your craving for sun, sea and surf, and they are right within the town vicinity, a few steps away from the dock.

Day 4

On our last day, we headed back to Tablas for our flight back home. We needed to spend the night in the town for our noon flight the next day. Aglicay Resort prepared us a feast of the freshest, yummiest seafood welcome dinner. 

The place is a perfect hideaway for the sport-minded. It has tennis, two beach volleyball courts and a long stretch of white sand beach fronting the dining area. Though hay fever and sinus problems bothered me a lot, I was still able to enjoy its very idyllic setting.

Forward Mimaropa Region

Here’s an interview with DOT’s Aranton on their blueprint for Mimaropa in the next few years:

As head of market and product development of DOT Mimaropa region, what would you like to achieve over a short and long term period?

Aranton: The Mimaropa Region is composed of five island provinces of Southern Tagalog Region namely Occidental Mindoro, Oriental Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon and Palawan.  It is located at the heart of the archipelago and home of numerous marine sanctuaries, unspoiled white sand beaches, rich flora and fauna with unique products and lovely people making it as the Treasure Throve of the South. 

It is also home to several National Parks, World Heritage Sites, protected aqua marine areas, even wild safari parks that makes it unique and special compared to other regions in the country. With traffic-jam free, non-congested cities and bustling highways, one will only experience and find rugged roads, palm-fringed secluded white beaches, peace and serenity.

For a short-term period, DOT wishes to make all the provinces that comprise Mimaropa, “A Must See”, “Must Experience” and “Naturally, A Destination of Choice in the Country.”

Long term, we want to adopt the Tourism Vision: “To develop a highly competitive, environmentally sustainable and socially responsible tourism industry that promotes inclusive growth through employment generation and equitable distribution of income.“

What’s your priority in doing the tasks given to you?

We want to develop and market competitive tourist destinations and products. Continue to participate in sales missions, tourism fairs and road shows abroad and around the country where there is connectivity to the region such as the cities of Manila, Cebu and Iloilo.

Support and attend cruise conventions in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Korea and China to increase cruise calls in the city of Puerto Princesa, Coron and El Nido, Palawan and Romblon and Sibuyan Islands, Romblon.

We would like to organize domestic media and travel trade familiarization trips specifically in emerging destinations and support the conduct of Foreign Travel Trade and Media Invitational Programs of Tourism Promotions Board (TPB).

We would like to make strong representations 
with government line agencies to improve market 
access and connectivity. Strengthen the Convergence
Programs with Infrastructure Agencies for 
the development and upgrading of roads leading 
to tourist destinations, airports and seaports.

Call on domestic airline services to possibly look into the possibility of opening air routes to emerging destinations.
Improve tourism institutional governance and human resource capacities.

Continue to conduct training programs for the tourism industry workers to enhance skills and competencies.
Increase the number of DOT-accredited tourism establishments in the region.

Challenges you are facing and wish you have the support?

Sustain the accolade given to the Province of Palawan as World’s Best Island for several years now. We have to make the province consistently competitive with other destinations not only in the country but worldwide.

“When tourism progress, poverty retreats”, we are inspired more than challenged by this thought to develop and promote an environmentally and socially responsible tourism that delivers more widely distributed income and employment opportunities.

We are lucky to be in a Region where there is solidarity among the local chief executives to push Mimaropa as the “Next Big Thing in the Philippines.” The biggest challenge is a call for a collaboration of efforts, continued support and partnership with the government line agencies, local government units and the private sector (our tourism industry partners) for us to be able to achieve our Tourism Programs.”

Saving the best for last, we would like to thank the Governor Eduardo Firmalo, all the hospitable people of Romblon and the untiring Myrna Silverio, executive assistant from the office of the governor for making us all well-taken cared of throughout the trip. Till we meet again.

The third Mimaropa Festival will be held in Odiongan, Romblon on November 20 to 25, 2017 and will be hosted by the province of Romblon.