Jewel Islands of the Visayas Archipelago

Words by Dadjmar Amores

The Visayas archipelago or the Kabisay-an has emerged as the tourism hub of the Philippines. By “archipelago” we mean to include Palawan, Romblon, and Masbate—sidestepping the traditional administrative groupings of Regions VI, VII, and VIII. This archipelagic arrangement, however, fits well with current tourism trends, tourist traffic, and accessibility of facilities.

A few years back, the Department of Tourism (DOT) already recognized the importance of merging the entire Visayas Archipelago, together with the Bicol area, to create a “mega region” for tourism. But before the former administration could fully implement the concept, a new administration was installed that had different plans of promoting more fun in this country. The former administration had attempted to transfer Palawan from Southern Tagalog to Western Visayas, but it was held in abeyance due to stiff opposition.

Be that as it may, despite the thwarted “mega” concept, the Visayas Archipelago will naturally stand out in the country’s tourism. The archipelago has everything that a pleasure-seeking tourist could ask for, from alluring beaches, countless miniature islands, dense forests, to emerging cities and natural and man-made thrills. Above all, the Visayas possesses an above-average mark in peace and order, an aspect that’s on top of every traveler’s list.

The Visayas Archipelago stretches from West Philippine Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Its nine major islands are divided by narrow seas and straits. Around them are hundreds of tiny islands, most of them not yet found in maps, some still nameless. Boracay is the most famous of the smaller islands, having all the basic and high-end tourist facilities. Malapascua and Bantayan in Cebu are already seasonal tourist destinations, while the quiet Calicoan Island is now being transformed into Eastern Samar’s “Boracay in the Pacific,” a new surfing spot in the country.

The jovial 18 million Visayan people are descendants of noble Malay migrants from the declining Sri Vijaya empire who settled in Panay in the 9th century AD. It was from Sri Vijaya that Visayas got its name and thus serves as a living memento of this ancient kingdom that once exerted influence in most of Southeast Asia.

There are three major Visayan languages that are closely related and diverged into 36 speech varieties. It’s amazing to know that each of the three barangays of the seven-kilometer island of Boracay has its own dialect. Language scholar David Zorc explains that “the Visayan language family is more like a dialect continuum rather than a set of readily distinguishable languages.” These diversities pose no problem to Visayans, as they have for centuries learned to develop the skill of coping with it: it’s not uncommon for an Ilonggo to know Cebuano or Karay-a, or for a Waray to readily switch to Cebuano. “Visayan language variations don’t bother us at all because a we can still communicate effectively with one another despite differences in some terms,” says Michael Sacapaño who is of Aklanon and Romblohanon descent.

Visayans also take pride in that, despite the lack of architectural relics, somehow the great Sri Vijaya empire has left a living legacy in the name of the archipelago and its people, who are even romanticized by the Sanskrit origin of the word “Vijaya” which means “victory” or “excellence.” Visayans are pleased that significant dawning of events in Philippine history took place in their homeland.

History tells us that island-hopping in the Visayas must have already been popular even during prehistoric times. Long before Magellan landed in Homonhon in 1521, traders from China, Arabia, Siam and even Greek traders as remote as 21 AD were already bartering in various parts of Kabisay-an. This is attested by the various relics of pots, porcelains, and semi-precious stones from different eras unearthed mostly in the shores of Iloilo, Cebu, and Bohol. These ancient souvenirs are now found in museums and private collections in Cebu and Iloilo cities.

It’s obvious that tourism activities are brewing vigorously everywhere in the archipelago. Nature has tremendously blessed Palawan, which is now upgrading its tourism infrastructures. Palawan’s capital, Puerto Princesa City that sprawls over 253,982 hectares of land, sandwiched between the West Philippine and Sulu Seas, offers various tourism products. Its underground river is now one of World’s Seven Wonders of Nature on top of being a UNESCO World’s Heritage Site. Busuanga-Coron is definitely a destination as shown in the dramatic increase of daily flights to more than a dozen. Visayas urban centers Cebu and Iloilo are now ready for large world meetings after upgrading their airports and the building international convention centers.

Meanwhile, Boracay’s visitors are spilling over to Antique and Romblon. Cebu’s Malapascua and Bantayan islands are no longer Holy Week destinations as bookings show rapid increase in off-peak season. Owing its proximity to Iloilo City, Guimaras is getting a remarkable share from the city’s visitors. It’s the only island province in the country that is part of a metropolis.

Bohol’s tourism infrastructures are also on the rise and its ecotourism culture can be felt everywhere. At the extreme east, despite its typhoon-prone image, Samar’s Calicoan island in the Pacific has attracted developers from Cebu. They’re turning this remote island into Visayas’s surfing spot because of its perfect waves. In the island province of Biliran, serenity is becoming an attraction for nature trippers. Its untouched beaches and inactive volcanoes are getting well known among adventurers. Bi-cultural Leyte is heartily promoting natural and man-made assets, thus Tacloban and Ormoc are getting busier as gateways of Eastern Visayas. Southern Leyte, the site of the birth of Christianity in the Philippines, is swiftly becoming a favorite retreat of trekkers and scuba divers.

Centuries after, these islands are once again rediscovered by people from faraway lands. This time they not only come to trade but to bask in beaches, climb rock towers, ride perfect surfs, enjoy kaleidoscopic corals, savor the food, and above all, feel the warmth of their fabulous hosts. I’m tempted to tag the Visayas as the “Caribbean of the Philippines” or of Southeast Asia, but my PR friend Dulce Cuna Anacio of the University of the Philippines-Tacloban quickly retorts, “We have our own intrinsic and richer fun and leisure, we only share the same tropical environment.”

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