Hidden treasures of the Philippines

By Alejandro R. Roces – We have written on our man-made tourism resources in the past. Resources, such as our churches, along with our overwhelming natural resources, remain our best option for encouraging tourists to visit the Philippines. The reasons are relatively simple. Our natural resources — even in Asia — remain wholly unique and beautiful. Almost every tourist we have met remarks on the incredible natural beauty the Philippines possess. With relatively little cost, we can preserve our ecological resources and develop them into eco-friendly tourist attractions. But, at times it seems that we are more concerned with chopping down and wasting them for short-term use, than developing them for long-term profit. In the end, the loss of our natural resources is a loss from which we can never recover.

In Asia, and very likely around the world, our church structures and Spanish-era structures are unique. They remain an under-utilized attraction. Macao has been able to leverage one church façade into an international tourist spot. Some of our towns alone have more attractive facades. In Europe, Spain has been able to become one of the top tourist destinations in the world, essentially on the strength of their churches, food and fiestas (elements of which we have in abundance). Among our regional neighbors the Philippines boasts a culture, a cuisine, an architecture that is completely exceptional. We should be capitalizing on this. Instead, we see that we are trying to remake ourselves into a gambling destination; a venture that will fail. We cannot compete with the Macaos and Singapores of Asia. Instead, we will end up attracting the dregs of the gambling establishment. And with a gambling culture, we will see a resurgence in vice trades. If we are worried about the sex and drug trades now, wait until we become the seedy gambling destination of Asia.

We were very pleased then to see that some organizations have begun to take notice of our churches. Chief among them is the Ortigas Foundation. It was with sadness that we read last week of the passing of Attorney Rafael Ortigas Jr. He was the president of Ortigas Company, as well as president of the Ortigas Foundation. One of his major projects was the Ortigas Library; one of the few organizations in the Philippines dedicated to research and preserving Philippine history. This is an admirable endeavor; one that has already brought invaluable research resources to the Philippines. We were informed that prior to his passing Mr. Ortigas donated his personal collection of Filipiniana to the Ortigas Library. His donations and the development of the library are notable achievements that should also be hailed with his passing. He was a great patron and protector of Philippine history and culture.

One of the last great projects Mr. Ortigas embarked upon was a pictorial and informative database of all Spanish-era churches in the Philippines. A monumental task, but one for which he had great passion. He appointed his executive assistant (and photographer) Betty Lalana and photographer Boy Arboleda to seek out and photograph the churches. To do so they used the Catholic directory of churches, old maps and other sources to map the churches out. In the process they discovered and photographed ‘hidden treasures’: Churches of surpassing beauty in far-flung locations. Recently, they exhibited photographs of some thirty-five churches, a kumbento and even a horno (oven) that they decided were amongst the most unique and beautiful of the Philippines’ hidden treasures. Some of the churches they highlight are the cemetery chapel in Tayabas, the brick churches of the Cagayan Valley and the fortress church of Cuyo in Palawan, among many others. Overall, they have photographed over 300 churches throughout the country. The verve and tireless energy the photographers demonstrated in cataloging these treasures is worthy of our highest commendation.

Mr. Ortigas and the Ortigas Library have created an invaluable tool for conservation, heritage preservation and tourism. More than anything, by bringing these hidden treasures to light they have aptly demonstrated that the Philippines’ greatest tourism attractions are right in front of us. We look forward to seeing the exhibit again and for the publication of the full catalogue of all the churches in the Philippines. With this project, Attorney Rafael Ortigas has left an incalculably valuable legacy to the Filipino people.

For more information on the Ortigas Library and their exhibits please call 6311231 to 38.

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