Food as a Tourism Driver

Marla and Jun Rances, friends I inherited from a friend, have been reeling in domestic tourists to our part of the woods, their latest caper of which totaled 15, including themselves. They are active in a Catholic fellowship and members of their group often ask to be invited to Sorsogon, which probably has been making a lot of news lately.
Sorsogon as a tourist destination has also been featured in various social media platforms creating attention and curiosity. And food can be a powerful tourism magnet – it’s not called food porn for nothing.

The iconic “linangta na pili”, the star of the Bicolano dining table.

But Jun Rances, a native of Naga who had luckily married Marla Jimenez, is a businessman first before a tourist. He pointed out the obvious: that there are a lot going for us, as a tourism destination. We have such diverse attractions. We have ribbons of beaches, waterfalls, rivers, hot and cold springs, a volcano, a lake, protected forest and mangrove areas, etc. etc. We have the largest area planted to pili in the world, which is considered the new miracle tree. There are hundreds of events and experiences we can build from each of this destination making endless possibilities. Considering that these attractions are scattered all over the province, we can use them to jumpstart the economy by creating businesses catering to tourists. Of course, businesses need labor. By training people within communities where these attractions are we create employment. In food tourism alone, all I hear is ka-ching, ka-ching. People after all, eat thrice a day – even five times a day if you’re going to be strict about it.

Alimango, filled with crab fat and roe.

Apparently we are geared towards sustainable agritourism. But though food tourism is a “subset of cultural tourism (cuisine is a manifestation of culture), culinary tourism and agritourism are inextricably linked as the seeds of cuisine are found in agriculture.”
But the observations that Jun and Marla made with regard to our management of tourists are valid points that we must address. First is that guests do not want to eat the same food they can order in other areas. For instance, Jun noticed that practically all restaurants and eateries in Sorsogon (with the exception of Bugsay) offer the same tired dishes that cooks and chefs can better execute elsewhere. Crispy pata, for instance. We must remember that Sorsogon is being marketed as the source of seafood in Southern Luzon, but where are the crabs, shrimps, lobsters, deep sea fish and even baluko? This particular establishment has a seafood platter, but it was nothing to rave about. It also offers kosido but rather than using duhaw or other kinds of fish representative of Sorsogon they offer salmon. On top of that, service was atrocious. Having travelled for hours, the guests were tired and hungry. It took the establishment an hour and a half to serve, and had to be called to attention for them to serve the drinks while waiting for the meal. When finally, the food was ready they served the rice last, which was to say the least quite annoying. The waitresses were chatting near the cashier while guests were straining to call them for cutlery or something. And when the bill came, it was much larger than Bugsay’s, which is Jun’s favorite restaurant and has only good things to say about it. Naturally, Marla protested. The waitress responded – although politely – by saying “Ma’am, you’re paying for the ambience.” I doubt if the waitress knew how ridiculous that sounded – in her defense – but the point is that our service staff need to be trained in catering to tourists. You can’t just pluck them out from somewhere and put them in front of guests who have been everywhere and are prone to compare and contrast how they are attended to. Tourists do not mind paying premium as long as they are satisfied. Jun said of Bugsay’s gulay na langka with kasag, “it’s unforgettable.” He also said “what I want to eat in Sorsogon is Sorsoganon food… linangta na pili, kuyog with langkawas, bicol express, crispy baluko or ginataang baluko, kinunot, inihaw na isda…the like.” There’s nothing sexy about sinigang na baboy, caldereta, and kare-kare if Sarsa in BGC can do it much better.
Jun’s group went to Balay sa Uma, and it was a resounding success. They posted photos of the tinutungang manok, river snails, tinilmok, and inihaw na tilapia fished from the ponds within the resort. Considering each individual was charged P500 plus, that’s a lot of revenue for Balay sa Uma. You can bet those photos are going to get hundreds of likes on Facebook.
Food is not only a necessity. It’s also experiential, nostalgic (for balikbayans), expensive…and good for business.

Sorsoganons like “inun-on”, fish simmered in calamansi juice.

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