SIARGAO Island is world-renowned as one of the best surfing locales in the Pacific, and has become a popular venue for major competitions in the sport. This has made the island one of the country's most productive tourist destinations, attracting tens of thousands of domestic and international visitors annually, or at least it did before Covid-19 restrictions prevented most travel.
To add to the hardships experienced by Siargao due to the pandemic, last year's Typhoon “Odette” scored a direct hit on the island, causing widespread damage that took months to clean up. The local economy is still recovering from it, although the visitors have begun to return.
If ever there was a place in the Philippines that needs the proverbial “shot in the arm,” Siargao is it. And it seemed to get it with the “1st Governor's Cup National Surfing Tournament,” an event sponsored by Surigao del Norte Gov. Robert Lyndon Barbers, and scheduled to have been held in General Luna, Siargao from October 5 to October 13. Barbers announced the event after being lobbied for it by local hero Jon Mark “Marama” Tokong, who recently won at the Phuket International Surfing Competition in Thailand.
Unfortunately for Tokong, his fellow surfing competitors, the Siargao community anticipating an economic boost from an influx of visitors, and national efforts to market the Philippines as a tourist destination, the mayor of General Luna town is one Sol Matugas, the wife of former governor Francisco Matugas, whom Barbers defeated in the last election. For Mayor Matugas, pettily expressing a family grievance took all precedence over any potential benefits to be gained from the surfing tournament.
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First, Matugas hastily arranged her own surfing competition, the “1st Mayor Sol's Cup National Surfing Competition,” held from September 28 to October 5 — the same day the governor's tournament was to start. In the process, some of the games and entertainment set up for the mayor's rival event reportedly encroached on the protected Hawksbill turtle habitat around Tuason Point.
Next, Matugas sought, and was granted, a temporary restraining order against the governor's event, on the basis that the provincial government needed to secure a permit from the municipal government in order to stage it. At this point, Interior Secretary Benjamin “Benhur” Abalos made a personal visit to the province to try to mediate the dispute, but Matugas was unmoved. Governor Barbers, who said he did not wish for the people of General Luna to be caught in the middle of the squabble any longer, finally canceled his planned event.
This sad outcome was already a grave disservice to the community, who instead of being served by their mayor had just witnessed their livelihood opportunities trampled on for the sake of her hurt political feelings, but it gets worse. Because of the cancellation of the event, it is now likely the World Surfing League, the international governing body for the sport, will blacklist Siargao for up to five years, and refuse to sanction any competitions held there.
This raises Mayor Matugas' behavior from being merely embarrassingly shameful and immature to potentially amounting to economic sabotage. At a time when tourism is rightly being prioritized as a rapid path toward economic recovery from the pandemic — as well as the lingering aftermath of Typhoon Odette, as it concerns Siargao specifically — this kind of action is absolutely unacceptable. We would even go so far as to suggest that the Office of the Ombudsman look into the matter, as the circumstances suggest the mayor may have abused the authority of her office.
The more important point, however, is to prevent this sort of thing from ever happening again. The Department of Tourism (DoT) and Congress should strongly consider implementing appropriate measures to ensure that tourism-related events of national or international significance are coordinated through the DoT, rather than being subject to the whims of obstreperous local politicians. The legitimate needs and concerns of local communities are, of course, important to national tourism strategy, but one family's disappointment in having lost an election is not, and should not be allowed to derail opportunities to the ultimate detriment of the whole country.
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