“I ’ve been living out of a backpack for the last three months,” JP Alipio says with a laugh. It’s March now as he calls from his aunt’s house in Baguio, where he’s been staying since the start of the year. I can see rows of pine trees sway gently along his backyard; hear the fresh mountain air whistling faintly with each breeze.
Having spent the last year surrounded by concrete walls in Metro Manila, even the idea of fresh air and green spaces seems like nothing short of paradise to me—but it’s a little more complicated for JP. A native of La Trinidad and founder of the Cordillera Conservation Trust (CCT), he’s among the many Cordillerans who regularly find themselves in Baguio for work and business. In January, he and his family opted to temporarily move to the city after border restrictions made the regular commute too difficult.
“We needed medical certificates to cross the border [to Baguio from La Trinidad], and those are only valid for a week or two at a time,” he explains. “It was too much trouble.”
Like the rest of the country, Baguio City had to close its borders when the pandemic hit in March 2020. Well past a year later, not much has gotten better: cases continue to rise, many tourism hubs remain closed, and a slew of response blunders and abrupt protocol changes have left many Filipinos struggling to regain some sense of normalcy.
When Baguio became the first city to reopen to domestic tourists in October 2020, then, it was easy to assume—or perhaps hope—that it had leapfrogged the rest of us in Covid-19 response, paving the way to an actual “new normal.” Unfortunately, almost year after the first reopening, that doesn't seem to be the case.
Baguio is best known as a tourist town—and with good reason. Found at the foot of the Cordillera Mountain Range in North Luzon, the city accounts for over 75 percent of tourism in the Cordillera region, with arrivals peaking in the summers as people look to escape the sweltering heat of the lowlands. Year-round, it’s also one of the biggest university towns in the north, housing thousands of students attending different institutions of higher learning each year.
In many ways, Baguio is a place of constant transience; a city bustling with the movement of tourists, students, workers, and locals filtering in and out of its borders. And as it ground to a halt to protect itself from the pandemic, the impact reached far beyond city limits.
“It’s like Baguio doesn’t seem to acknowledge how connected the rest of [us are] to its economy,” says JP. “Restrictions like these... really throw a wrench in the value chain between all the towns.”
While Baguio regularly caters to tourists and students, it also sees a considerable amount of foot traffic from nearby Cordillerans: As the region’s center of business, the city sees throngs of workers and professionals from BLISTT—Baguio and its neighboring towns of La Trinidad, Itogon, Sablan, Tuba, and Tublay—come through on a daily basis.
Aside from nearly half the population in its border towns having work in the city, Baguio’s access roads also make it a gateway for travel around the province of Benguet. It was understandable, in the beginning, that strict protocols were needed to help prevent the spread of the virus, but over time, intra-provincial travel restrictions caused many locals a lot of grief.
“If you’re from BLISTT and you have to cross the borders, in a way, you’re more inconvenienced than tourists from Manila,” says local artist and horsewoman Solana Perez. Despite living in the city proper, she’s no stranger to how the city’s mobility rules have affected residents. Her regular trips, like visiting the talyer right outside the city or checking in with the pony boys and their horses in Itogon, have been derailed multiple times in the last year.
“It’s a minor inconvenience for me, [but] that multiplies for people who have to [commute] daily and take public transport,” she says. “It’s frustrating to know that our fellow locals have to go through this everyday.”
Frustration is a steady emotion among the locals, along with some anger at feeling short-changed; while they’ve had to jump through hoops just to move around their own hometowns, the local government and Department of Tourism (DOT) have strived to make leisure travel to the city as convenient as possible. It’s a double standard that inevitably produces mixed results—bringing in a much-needed economic boost while making it difficult for residents to actually get to work.
“Tourists [just need] to get their permits and [Baguio] opens all the doors for you, but if you’re from nearby and going to Baguio for work, there’s such a huge difference,” Solana says.
“[There’s] unhampered passage for cargo, but cargo doesn’t spend money,” JP adds. “People spend money. People also build relationships, and you need that for the business ecosystem to work.“
“With or without the pandemic, there’s a constant struggle of finding the balance between locals and tourists.”<callout-alt-author>Feliz Lim Perez<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>
“I've only been up maybe thrice since the pandemic started,” says Feliz Lim Perez, co-owner of Mt. Cloud Bookshop. Born and raised in Baguio, she’s now found herself a four-hour car ride south of the city—opting to stay in Makati to help keep herself and those around her safe.
“In Baguio, I live with my mom [who is] a senior citizen, and I don’t know what I’ve been exposed to here in Manila,” she says. “I used to just get on a bus after class, but now there are all these papers and risks... it’s scary. It took a while before I could make [the trip] up.”
While grounded in Metro Manila, Feliz and her sister Padma had no choice but to run Mt. Cloud from where they were, relying heavily on their staff in the city. As city-wide restrictions on non-essential businesses kept their physical store closed for nearly half a year, they decided to pivot to online sales to keep the business going. Once allowed to reopen, the other businesses in Mt. Cloud’s shared compound—a bike shop, café, and children’s innovator space—have also helped to bring in more customers.
“It’s really helped us pull each other along: people come for the bike shop, and have a cup of coffee [while] their kids visit the bookshop or the space,” she explains. “Some people come [for] the books and get a cup of coffee, or they come for the coffee and [visit] the books.”
Still, it’s not always enough for businesses to turn a profit—or even stay afloat. From budding start-ups to long-standing institutions, hundreds of local businesses have been forced to close as the city grappled with the whirlwind of the last year. Among them is the famed restaurant and artists’ hub Café by the Ruins, jointly owned by Feliz’s family and friends, who had to close its location near Mines View Park. Their main branch across Baguio City Hall has stayed open, but keeping it alive has been no easy feat.
“We’d been there for 33 years, so we thought we had to keep trying,” she explains. “We bled out a lot the first few months, but [now] we’ve been able to break even—not turn a profit, but at least pay overhead and our employees without dipping too much into loans.”
With an outlook this bleak, it’s easy to assume business owners are jumping at the chance of reopening, but aside from the obvious health risks, the numbers have still been scarce: the city logged 19,000 tourist arrivals last December—a far cry from the usual average, even off-peak. And with a much smaller market to work with, many also feel that the city’s restrictions tend to limit the type of tourists too much.
Baguio traditionally caters to a lower tier of tourist spending, welcoming a constant stream of backpackers, day-trippers, and others merely stopping over before heading further up north. As the city reopened and new travel restrictions were set, many worried that tourists who could afford to spend thousands of pesos on Covid-19 tests and hotel bookings were unlikely to patronize roadside vendors and other small businesses.
“We can’t deny the fact that a lot of [Baguio’s] income comes from tourists, and letting them in helps,” Feliz explains. “But then my question is... who is benefitting from letting tourists in now? Because it’s not the small businesses, really.”
With these factors in play, the livelihoods of many residents have suffered greatly in the last year. JP knows this well—his work with CCT has been up in the air since March 2020, and cancelling last year’s Mountain Ultra means they’ve been unable to offer jobs to the communities they partner with. And with the rest of Benguet firmly staying closed to non-residents, planning for future events hasn’t been as simple as choosing a new date.
“It really depends on the communities,” he says. “We work with barangays whose risk tolerance is much lower than ours. We don’t want to take that risk [at their expense].”
Baguio is a place of transience; a city bustling with the constant movement of tourists, students, workers, and locals filtering in and out of its borders.
Dozens of stories have recently been published about Baguio City: which hotels have reopened to tourists, what documents do travelers need, what tests are accepted. But with the push for domestic tourism comes another question—one that the country has struggled to answer over the last year: How can we find a balance between economic stability and watching out for the people on the ground?
It’s no secret that industries, businesses, and individuals have all suffered with the year-long lockdown across the country. And for a tourist town like Baguio, reopening was imperative to allow working-class Filipinos the chance to earn a living.
“I’ve always thought that we need people [coming in]. The economic impact of just one tourist is significant, even if just to keep businesses afloat and help people keep their jobs,” JP says. “And with [the protocols] being followed, the people traveling now should technically be low-risk, so why not, right?”
Still, there is a case to be made for being wary of reopening, especially while the pandemic still seems to be spinning out of our control.
“There’s a frustration with [reopening] being double-edged,” says Solana. “We’re grateful for the economic gain it’s [brought] in but at the same time, our cases have been rising, barangays are getting locked down, the new variants are in the city... it seems like the good still comes at a price.”
“We do need to make an income, we have to keep people in their jobs and to pay our overhead. But sometimes the risk [feels] too big,” Feliz adds. “[When you] have an employee test positive—that’s a scary thing.”
How can we find a balance between economic stability and watching out for the people on the ground?
Four months since our conversation, much has changed, yet much remains the same: more tourists have come and more businesses have reopened, though a surge in Covid-19 cases in NCR in late March briefly forced Baguio to partially close its borders, and local governments in BLISTT enforced stricter restrictions on its residents. Across the country, Filipinos continue scrambling to cope as new variants are detected, vaccine supply remains limited, and reverting to heightened lockdowns remains a constant threat.
Nearly a year and a half since the pandemic started, we still don’t seem to have the answers, and people are left to make do with the circumstances that they’re given. Baguio’s residents are aware that safe and effective recovery will take more than one or two quick fixes, but they are in agreement with where it should start: whether you’re a government official or a visiting tourist, you need to listen to the locals.
“With or without the pandemic, there’s a constant struggle of finding the balance between locals and tourists,” Feliz says. “[The local government] needs to listen to its constituents; so many of the decisions that changed Baguio haven’t been made by those who were born and raised here... and who deals with the consequences? The locals.”
“Locals also put a lot of trust in its visitors. There’s a lot of fear here and it takes a lot to convince a community to reopen,” JP adds. “To them, it feels like opening their homes and putting their lives in your hands as a tourist. Respecting that and acting responsibly is more important now than ever.”