Vigan in Ilocos Sur evokes images of heritage houses and the sound of hooves on cobblestone streets. It was the Spanish conquistador Juan de Salcedo who founded it as a trading port in 1572; it would be called Ciudad Fernandina de Bigan, becoming a city in the 18th century. A number of Vigan’s beautiful ancestral houses have survived the centuries, marking it as “the best-preserved example of a planned Spanish colonial town in Asia. Its architecture reflects the coming together of cultural elements from elsewhere in the Philippines, from China and from Europe, resulting in a culture and townscape that have no parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia.”
Don’t take our word for it. That’s what’s written on the Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) inscription naming the Historic Town of Vigan a World Heritage Site in 1999. A good balance of preservation and development largely managed by its own population and leaders, it was by then already a popular destination among Filipinos drawn by its old-world charms. And it is becoming more and more known even among foreign travelers.
Now Vigan with its storied past has achieved another recognition: It was voted one of the New7Wonders Cities of the World last week, joining Beirut in Lebanon, Doha in Qatar, Durban in South Africa, Havana in Cuba, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and La Paz in Bolivia. With this victory come international attention, possible infrastructure projects, and likely much tourist business.
In 2011 the New7Wonders Foundation named the Puerto Princesa Underground River in Palawan one of the planet’s New7Wonders of Nature. It has since turned its focus on the world’s manmade wonders, the cities, with 1,200 cities nominated from 220 countries; from this field, Vigan and six other cities were chosen and honored. “For the first time in human history, more than half of our planet’s population lives in cities, and this election emphasizes the dramatically challenging character of our changing world,” read the online statement from Bernard Weber, president of the Switzerland-based nonprofit organization.
Vigan made the 21-city selection last July, then made the cut as one of the 14 finalists last October. In the end, it bested such world-famous destinations as St. Petersburg, Prague, Perth, Phnom Penh and Kyoto with votes coming through the Internet, apps and text messages from around the world.
What a victory this is for Vigan, one that is meaningful on many levels. This latest distinction bids fair to enhance Vigan’s budding reputation as a global tourist destination, as well as to serve as an economic boost to the Ilocos region, and to promote local destinations, goods and services. “It will help us hoteliers because the exposure will bring us more tourists, and our homemade products will be given a bigger market,” says hotel manager Divina Quemi, a leader of a local group of cooperatives.
Then again, it’s yet another reminder for the government to seriously see to the infrastructure necessary to keep up with the distinction—airports (international and local), hotels, bed-and-breakfast enterprises, and also trained guides and personnel. The giants of the cruise ship industry have indicated willingness to help develop the Philippines as a destination, but only with better infrastructure.
In March, Polish tourism executives came to the country wanting to see Vigan and the island getaway of Boracay. New air routes to Manila are being opened, but better airports are clearly required. Roads need to be built, horrendous traffic jams quelled, alternative modes of transport developed, and security improved. Our beaches remain among the world’s best, but need to be maintained. Surely the local populations can be professionally trained for tourism-related employment, including conservation.
So much needs to be done to take advantage of this victory, and certainly it all starts with Vigan itself. The possibilities are breathtaking.
The can-do spirit of the locals ought to show the way. The rest of the country can learn much from and take pride in Vigan’s newest achievement. Vigan Mayor Eva Marie Medina says it best: “This is inspiring. It is a tribute to a people who committed to achieve development and make wonderful things happen in their lives and their community, even radiating beyond boundaries.”