Rekindling wanderlust: Winter Escapade 8 beckons balikbayans back to the Philippines

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Revenge travel was all the rage at the recently concluded Winter Escapade 8, the annual balikbayan travel initiative of the Department of Tourism (DOT) and Department of Foreign of Foreign Affairs (DFA) which made its triumphant return after a three-year hiatus due to the pandemic.

This year, over 250 enthusiastic participants, including nearly 50 from the United States, embraced the opportunity to delve into the rich tapestry of Philippine culture and heritage.

DFA Secretary Enrique Manalo extended his appreciation to the tour participants “for choosing the Philippines as the place of respite from the winter chill” and acknowledged that the increasing participation in this program “is proof positive of the consistent and growing interest in the tourism, culture, and heritage of the Philippines.”

“This was one of the best years in terms of the participation and the enthusiasm of the participants,” Philippine Ambassador to Canada Maria Andrelita Austria told the Asian Journal. “We listened to what they really wanted so we made sure that there was something for every type, the more adventurous ones or the ones who want to relax.”

The ambassador expressed her fondness for swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob, emphasizing the abundance of natural resources and environmental treasures present in the country. She underscored the importance of preserving and highlighting these assets, emphasizing the need to showcase the Philippines’ rich biodiversity and pristine ecosystems.

“We tend to forget how beautiful the Philippines is,” she emphasized.

The ambassador also brought gifts to the governors of Bohol and Cebu who hosted reception dinners for the guests.

“We wanted to tell a story of the potential of the Philippines so we thought, rather than to bring a gift from Canada, we brought a gift that is exported to many countries like the U.S. and Canada,” Austria explained. “It’s a little-known secret that the Philippine crab meat is the closest relative of the Maryland blue swimming crab, yung alimasag natin. People from the U.S. buy that and make them into Maryland crab cakes.”

“It’s like the story of our people, how we are so adaptable and how we are essential to many of the countries but we Filipinos do not know about it,” she added.

Creating memories

From February 18 to 27, eager travelers embarked on a journey that spanned the enchanting landscapes of Manila, Bohol, Cebu, Guimaras, and Iloilo, forging unforgettable memories and fostering cross-cultural exchange.

Among them was Edith Sobeng from Vancouver, a seasoned traveler whose curiosity was piqued by fliers promoting the tour at the consulate during her dual citizenship appointment. Despite initial apprehensions about joining a group tour for the first time, Edith found herself captivated by the diverse array of experiences awaiting her.

“For me, every moment is a highlight. The first time I joined, we explored Bohol, Dumaguete, Siquijor, and Cebu, so Iloilo is a new addition for me. There’s just so much to see and do,” Edith remarked, reflecting on her sixth Winter Escapade adventure.

Expressing her admiration for the Philippines’ natural beauty, she emphasized the importance of promoting tourism for economic growth. “I have no complaints about this tour, especially with such a lively group. It’s wonderful to see so many millennials this year,” she added, already looking forward to future excursions.

For Iloilo City Mayor Jerry Treñas, hosting balikbayan tour groups such as the Very Important (VIP) Tour and Winter Escapade is an opportunity they grabbed so they can proudly showcase their city to the world.

“Our involvement with the Very Important Pinoy Tour of the USA and Winter Escapade Tour from Canada was due to a partnership with DOT and TPB and Rajah Tours,” the mayor remarked. “We are very honored and proud to be chosen as one of the destinations for these tours projects; Iloilo City has the best of both worlds, they say it is where the past meets the present.”

“Of course, we welcomed the chance to host because we want our balikbayans to experience our city’s beauty, its development and improvements, its gastronomic offerings, and we know by hosting, we will be able to promote investments and increase economic activities within the city,” Mayor Treñas added.

Noriel Favis from Edmonton echoed Edith’s sentiments, describing his fourth Winter Escapade as an enriching experience that surpassed his expectations.

“It was hectic visiting three cities, but we enjoyed every moment. The abundance of delicious food was a highlight, although we may have been short on sleep,” he chuckled.

From exploring the vibrant streets of Iloilo and Guimaras to rediscovering the charm of Bohol’s landscapes, Noriel cherished every moment shared with his family of 16, including several first-time participants.

Joining the tour to accompany his grandmother, Lola Lillian Soriano from Maryland, Ynigo Munoz found delight in exploring iconic landmarks such as Cebu’s historic pilgrimage sites and the picturesque shores of Balicasag Island in Bohol.

“I relished every moment of our travels, from exploring Intramuros to embarking on island-hopping adventures. It was a truly unforgettable experience,” he exclaimed, grateful for the opportunity to create lasting memories with his loved ones.

For Sarah Gonzales, the Winter Escapade offered a chance to explore beyond Luzon, a departure from her usual travel routine. Snorkeling in Moalboal, encountering sardines and sea turtles, stood out as a memorable experience, reigniting her love for the Philippines since her last visit in 2016. Encouraged by her aunts who had previously embarked on the journey, Gonzales and her family eagerly joined the tour, seeking to immerse herself in the diverse beauty of the country.

Reflecting on her adventure, Gonzales voiced a desire for a smaller group size to enhance the quality of activities and allow for a more leisurely pace. Despite feeling rushed at times, she appreciated the opportunity to explore four different regions and recommended the Winter Escapade to those seeking a comprehensive tour experience.

Lucy Reyes, representing the Philippine Canadian Nurses Association in Calgary, found the trip to be both eye-opening and nostalgic. Immersed in the natural and cultural wonders of the Philippines. She was particularly moved by the warmth of the welcome extended by Governor Gwen Garcia and her team in Cebu.

However, she noted room for improvement, particularly the Sinigang Valley tour, suggesting a separation between advertising and tourism activities to enhance the overall experience. “As tourists, we wanted to sightsee, not listen to lectures,” she quipped.

Despite these observations, Reyes commended the organizers for their exceptional organization, citing the Winter Escapade as the most well-coordinated tour she had ever participated in. Encouraged by Consul General Zaldy Patron to join the journey, Reyes found inspiration in reconnecting with her roots and discovering the unparalleled beauty of her homeland. n

Momar G. Visaya

Momar G. Visaya is the Executive Editor of the Asian Journal. You can reach him at [email protected].

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