E verybody says Batanes province is beautiful, even those who’ve never been there. Our idea of the place has been shaped by popular images of steep, picturesque cliffs meeting the pounding surf. First time visitors therefore have high expectations. And I venture to say that they are never disappointed.
I went to Batanes for the first time upon the invitation of the Batanes Cultural Travel Agency (BCTA), a private entity dedicated to the appreciation and preservation not only of the province’s many beautiful sights but of its cultural heritage as well. I didn’t want my husband to miss this opportunity so I bought him a plane ticket so he could tag along with me. BCTA provides chartered flights and guided tours of the province’s three main islands, Batan (where the capital Basco is located), Itbayat and Sabtang.
Unique eco-cultural experience
Despite our preconceptions about the allure of the place, we were still floored by the actual experience of being there. A clear light seems to suffuse the entire province – real life in HD. The drama of the juxtaposition of the landscape and seascape left us gushing and groping for words. We have literally never seen any place like it, although we have done a fair amount of traveling here and abroad.
Better and more insightful travel writers have written about Batanes, and it behooves the curious tourist to seek out their colorful and informative narratives. Thus, an enumeration of the province’s many wondrous sights need not be repeated here. These are just the impressions of a first time traveler who was enchanted by Batanes and will surely return.
Our gracious host was former Governor Telesforo Catillejos, a civil engineer by profession and now a board director of BCTA. It was Mr. Castillejos who gave us a backgrounder on the culture, economics and political life of the province. He seems to personify the typical Ivatan: warm, welcoming and eager to share the charms of their native land. Having served Batanes as governor for 3 terms, Gov. Castillejos has a unique understanding of the province and how it relates to the rest of the country.
The one other absolute about Batanes, apart from its natural beauty, is its physical isolation. Its relative inaccessibility is both a blessing and a curse. The land and its people have been shaped by an oftentimes harsh environment. Farming, fishing and livestock raising are still the main sources of livelihood. Ivatans are hardy and resilient, attuned to the vagaries of a temperamental climate. They have a strong sense of community. Neighbors look out for each other and every person is either an auntie, uncle or cousin. Bartering is still prevalent. The often-idealized concept of “bayanihan” is actually alive and well in Batanes.
Economic life of Batanes needs a little boost
And the remoteness of the provinces has, until recent times, sheltered it from the corrosive influence of the modern world. It was accessible only by boat from the Luzon mainland or by infrequent flights which could be cancelled without warning due to inclement weather. But the times are rapidly changing. Its remoteness has been bridged by new telecoms facilities, the internet and other technological advances, as well as a growing influx of visitors. Batanes will not remain isolated for very long.
Gov. Castillejos will be the first to acknowledge that Batanes has had a limited influence on national affairs. Not only is it far, but it has little to offer by way of political leverage. The province has a mere population of 16,000-17,000 and this number has remained constant for decades, due to continuing outward migration. There are more Ivatans outside Batanes, spread all over the globe, than are actually living there. Moreover, there are no pressing socio-political concerns, like the presence of insurgent elements, which would draw the attention of the national government. There is hardly any crime in Batanes and the provincial jail is more often unoccupied, save for the occasional poaching fishermen from Taiwan and Vietnam.
For these reasons, the national government found it easy to adopt a policy of benign neglect towards Batanes. There was little impetus to direct funds and resources to developing Batanes. In fact, it was only in 1988 during the administration of President Cory Aquino that electricity was introduced to the islands. And while the situation has greatly improved since then, with new concrete roads and other civil infrastructure being built all over, the economic life of the province still needs a boost.
Enter the tourism initiative as championed by private sector groups like BCTA. Cultural and ecological tourism is the most viable way to stimulate economic activity while at the same time preserving the unique cultural and environmental heritage of the Ivatans.
The iconic stone houses are the most world-renown manifestations of Ivatan architecture. There are also the centuries old Catholic churches, the rolling hills, communal pasturelands and romantic lighthouses. But the most endearing element of the Batanes experience is its people. Not only are Ivatans warn and gracious, they are scrupulously honest and forthright. We left our bags, cameras and other valuables in our open air jeepney while touring, without fear of theft or mugging. For the eternally fearful and stressed urbanite, this was a refreshing change. It is the human element, apart from the majestic milieu, that makes the place so memorable.
Batanes will surely be buffeted by the winds of change in the near future, just as it has been hit by typhoons over the centuries. But the Ivatans and their culture will surely survive and flourish, with the efforts of committed groups like the BCTA and the cooperation of visitors who respect the place and its people.
Originally posted Enhancing the ecological and Cultural Tourism in Batanes