Boosting Iloilo’s tourism, industrialization

HATS off to Department of Tourism (DOT) regional director Helen Catalbas and Iloilo City tourism officer Junel Ann Divinagracia, whose persistent efforts to attract local and foreign tourists have paid off.

The city and province of Iloilo have accomplished in a year or two, tourism-wise, what others have taken a decade to do.  

While it had taken DOT around two decades to promote her from assistant regional director to OIC-regional director in 2011 and full-fledged one on October 1, 2012, Catalbas has blazed an unprecedented trail thereafter. 

Catalbas, a lawyer, is “the Helen who launched a thousand international flights.” Upon succeeding her retired predecessor, Edwin Trompeta, she focused on luring visitors and tourists to Western Visayas’ tourist hubs. Boracay, she thought, was already bursting with too many foreign tourists. The only way to contain the tourism boom was to divert tourists to other lovable destinations.

She challenged the aviation industry to exploit the Iloilo International Airport by exploring hitherto unexplored international flight routes.

Cebu Pacific took up the challenge. The Cebu-based airliner made its inaugural flight to Hong Kong on Nov. 8, 2012 and to Singapore the next day.

The Iloilo International Airport today has flights to these countries seven days a week and to all key cities of the Philippines.

The Hong Kong and Singapore flights have done good to business establishments in Iloilo, mainly because the Iloilo airport also serves the need for connecting flights to and from Cagayan de Oro, Puerto Princesa and Davao City. While in Iloilo, these people inevitably kill the time gap by visiting local shops for souvenirs or by eating in local eateries.

Iloilo as destination for foreign tourists is now part of “package tours” arranged by travel agencies.

Catalbas also launched the “Bring-Home-Your-Employer” program, which enabled  overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to lure their bosses who could be plain tourists or prospective investors to visit our country.

I personally responded to that call by asking my niece Cheryl in Singapore to spend her home vacation with Singaporean friends.

Iloilo City’s Junel Ann Divinagracia, on the other hand, holds the distinction of being “Most Outstanding Tourism Officer of the Philippines,” an honor awarded to her by the Association of Tourism Officers of the Philippines (ATOP) in 2018.

It was not for nothing that then mayor Jed Mabilog appointed Divinagracia to her present position in 2016. She had scored outstanding performance as executive of the first Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Iloilo City in 2015.

Today, under Mayor Jerry P. Treñas, her mission is to promote the city as MICE destination. The acronym stands for “meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibits”.

Divinagracia believes that 50 to 70 percent of the 1.2 million tourist arrivals in 2018 were MICE-driven.

An added incentive, according to Roel Z. Castro – president of MORE Electric and Power Corporation (the new power-distribution franchisee in Iloilo City) – is the “congestion of residential and commercial buildings in Manila.”

Hateful of three-hours rides due to heavy traffic in Metro Manila, Castro has transferred his residence to Iloilo City,  

Castro’s employer, billionaire Enrique Razon Jr., has made a commitment to also invest in port expansion and cargo handling in the sea ports of Iloilo City and Dumangas.

The other day, Mayor Treñas and Gov. Arthur Defensor Jr. met with San Miguel Brewery chairman Ramon Ang in Manila, where the latter revealed his intention to put up a bottling plant and brewery in nearby Leganes and lime exploration in Guimaras.

Is Iloilo City regaining its lost title “Queen City of the South”? ([email protected]/PN)


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