Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sagada & Other Spots of the Moment: From Sea of Clouds to Sea of Crowds

I was in Sagada about two weeks ago on a photo guiding trip with foreign guests and saw firsthand how immensely popular the Kiltepan Sunrise Viewpoint has become. It was a weekday, very foggy and cloudy with little chance of a clearing and yet there were hordes of people of all ages, sizes and shapes crowding what was once the haunt of overnight campers or early risers willing to trek from the main road to see the sun rise and the fog undrape the terraces of Kilong and Tetep-an. 

The former campsite has been turned into a parking lot, hence, visitors need only to step out of their vans and trudge a few steps to the viewpoint. The ease and convenience have turned this into a crowded place, complete with vendors and hawkers. While waiting for the sunrise, I espied people trying to outdo each other in climbing up the rocks for a better selfie, unmindful of their peril. Either they have no local guide (one isn't needed or required here) or they came straight from the city to catch the sunrise. Made me think I escape the city to avoid the crowds and here I find a sea of crowds.
Kiltepan sunrise image from 2012

Sad thing is, this phenomenon isn't just happening in Sagada.   When we made a day trip/hike on Mt. Ulap in Itogon almost two years ago, we, a party of three (my buddy and our guide) were alone half of the half-day trek.  When we waited for the sunrise on the first viewpoint, there were no crowds and the only sign of another human were the occasional flashes of torches on the distant campsite near the summit.  Imagine my surprise to see pictures posted on social media last week where the registration area at the munisipyo resembled more of rock concert crowd than mountaineers preparing for a trek.  While I'm inclined to say, "Hey we're lucky to have experienced the place before it really boomed," I'm not going to gloat and be content with the thought that another place to escape to is falling fast to commercialism.  Far from it.
Kiltepan View Deck from December 2016 • Photo by Gareth Likigan
In the case of Sagada, I used to hie off there several times a year especially when I used to work in an office, escaping when I need some time off.  The past few years, I'm hardly there as it has become a very popular place due in no small part to being featured in a local romantic movie.  One other offshoot of getting commercially popular is the trash problem.  I've heard accounts of people in Benguet complaining of the mounting trash left behind by tourists beguiled by the fictional place in a popular TV network teleserye.  This is another problem that Sagada, Mt Ulap and other popular Instagram/selfie spots, are facing.  At least, when mountaineers used to frequent these places, a number of them would be conscientious enough to practice what we learn in BMC - garbage in, garbage out.  And maybe it's different when you really work hard like trek for hours to go to a place instead of riding out to the jump-off in a van/4wd; you can really have a newfound respect for the place.
Alone on Mt Ulap trail first viewpoint just two years ago
Back to the subject of trash, I mean, it's your business to be enchanted by the fictional romance of those movies/TV series but by golly, please leave the place as it is.  In the aftermath of movie shooting, there are crews tasked with cleaning up the mess but in real life, it's up to us to clean up as we go.  Oh, and I've overheard local tourists with the gall to say they can throw stuff as they please because they're paying for the guide, for the trip, for the environmental fee.  It seems to me that while the road improvements, the ready availability of vehicles, and the drop in transport/tour prices have contributed to the increase of tourists and guests which may be good in the short term but detrimental in the long term.  

Maybe, it's time the local governments of these places as well as the locals, set up some way to regulate the number of visitors, hold a lottery-style admission like the ones used for the national parks in the US.  Also, it's a good time as any to put regulations in place (How about keeping peace and quiet in the outdoors?  Please keep your wireless speakers at home) with regards to maintaining peace and order, maintaining the trails, educating visitors on trash management (it belongs to the trash can, not the trail).

Well, if this keeps up, we'll really run out of places to escape to.  And we'll all be poorer for it.


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