Bohol embraces 'disaster tourism' in aftermath of earthquake

By MICHAEL HOLTZ | Dec. 22, 2013

The island of Bohol in central Philippines, dubbed “God’s little paradise” by local resorts and tour companies, faced what can best be described as a series of plagues earlier this year.

On Oct. 15, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck first, killing 208 people and displacing nearly 371,000 more across the island. Shortly after dozens of sinkholes emerged, exposed by the earthquake’s convulsive tremors.

And just as the island was beginning to recover, Typhoon Haiyan barreled across the Philippines on Nov. 22. Fortunately Bohol avoided a direct hit. But the destruction wrought by the storm on neighboring Leyte triggered rolling blackouts and supply shortages across the island.

Bohol slowly returned to normal in the ensuing weeks, as temporary relief efforts gave way to long-term reconstruction work. Electricity came back. Businesses reopened. And tourists returned just in time for the peak holiday season.   

Despite its small size — the island is slightly larger than Rhode Island — Bohol ranks among the Philippines’ most popular tourist destinations. Its pristine coral reefs, labyrinth of underground caves and gumdrop-shaped Chocolate Hills attract a wide range of adventure seekers. The island also boasts dozens of centuries-old churches, remnants of the Spanish colonial era ushered in by the explorer Magellan in the 16th century.  

The earthquake left few of the fragile limestone churches untouched. The Church of Our Lady of the Light in Loon, the largest one on the island, was reduced to rubble. Others lost whole sections of walls. Most bell towers crumbled. Several Chocolate Hills were damaged too, split in half by post-seismic landslides.

But rather than mourn the loss of these local landmarks, many forward-thinking tour guides — and government officials — have spotted a silver lining amid the ruins: new attractions. Bohol Gov. Edgardo Chatto prefers to call it “geological tourism,” but perhaps a more apt description is “disaster tourism.”

“Tourism is a very resilient industry,” Chatto said. “And with the kind of people that Bohol has and the diversity of our attractions, I am very optimistic that tourism here will not only bounce back, but it will be even more vibrant than what it used to be.”

Take, for example, the landmass that emerged from the sea along the island’s western coastline. Covered in white sand, coral shards and a marooned fishing boat, it’s essentially a new beach shoved into existence by the earthquake’s tectonic force. Then there’s the fault line, a gapping fissure that zigzags across the island’s interior. Josephine Remolador, head of the provincial tourism department, said the island plans to build a museum nearby for educational tours.

Even the damaged churches remain popular sites. On a recent visit to the church in Bacalyon, I watched as a dozen tourists ducked under caution tape to snap photographs of a still-standing Virgin Mary statue. The church’s collapsed portico made the statue visible from the street. Its glass case was still intact.

“It’s a miracle,” one woman told me as she walked back to her tour guide’s van.

As for the Chocolate Hills, Bohol’s most famous landmark, the earthquake damaged only a handful of the more than 1,200 grass-covered mounds that dot the island’s interior. Tremors split several of the hills in half to reveal their limestone cores. Plans to build a new observation deck near them are already in the works.

The potential for new attractions is among the most tangible upsides to an otherwise devastating string of disasters. But perhaps their most valuable contribution to Bohol’s growing tourism industry was the free advertising they generated.   

“We had free global exposure during the earthquake,” Chatto said. “People did not know about Bohol until we were in the headlines. But after the earthquake, we're known globally as a tourism island.”

It’s hard not to wonder whether this strain of “when life gives you lemons” logic can go too far in the aftermath of a disaster. At times it comes across as insensitive at best and opportunistic at worst. But the question seems irrelevant in Bohol and across the Philippines, where pious optimism pervades everyday life. “Whatever happens, leave it to God,” a popular saying here goes. The country is one of the most disaster-prone places in the world. Its people have perfected the art of moving on. Now they’re just trying to make some money from it.