With each passing year, Baguio City’s annual Panagbenga or Flower Festival cements itself as one of the country’s top tourist draws, attracting both local and international visitors. Its prominence is ever more apparent with the participation of big name sponsors, celebrities, political aspirants and a fair share of local controversies. We’ve seen the broadcasts, walked the closed streets of Session Road and watched as a theatrical play unfolded right in the middle of Burnham Park’s famous lake. From the dance performances to the parade floats covered in a multitude of the region’s colors, one question remains — at what cost?
“This festival is community-led and only government-supported,” said Baguio City Mayor Peter Rey Bautista. “In short, the local government doesn’t spend a single peso. And we earn millions.”
Literally speaking, that answer may already satisfy. But that’s just half the story. In a much deeper respect, Panagbenga 2010, its 15th iteration, may be seen as a culmination of all the hard work that the people of Baguio put into making the city shine again. This, after years of political wrangling, environmental issues, natural disasters, and the occasional public health alert. This year’s successful celebration bodes well for the future of this prime tourist destination.
For anyone living under a rock for the past decade and a half, Panagbenga — which means “a season of blossoming, a time for flowering” — is a month-long celebration showcasing the culture of the Cordilleras and its flowers which bloom in February, when the temperature is cool and conditions are perfect for various festivities. The event begins at the start of the month with a dance competition among local schools and culminates in the famous street parade with floats adorned by flowers from the city.
Bautista said, “We wanted to have an identity for Baguio in particular. That’s why, 15 years ago, together with the help of the Baguio Country Club and John Hay Development Corp., it started as a gathering of a few people. It eventually became what it is today.”
Realizing that the city needed to maintain tourist visits after the November-December holiday season, Panagbenga provided the perfect bridge to lure visitors all the way up to the summer months — a season that has always been Baguio City’s main draw.
Aside from the financial windfall the local government receives, there are other things that make Panagbenga unique, one of which is the vibrancy and color of the event. Bautista said, “There’s the Dinagyang, the Ati-Atihan, the Sinulog. But you know, Sinulog is burned, Ati-Atihan is dark, etc. It’s not colorful at all! There’s the Kadayawan but that’s for the durian. How can you find appeal in something like that? We decided to call it the Flower Festival. By that alone we understood it would be a hit already because of all the beautiful colors. In fact, there are only two colorful festivals in the whole country — the Masskara and the Flower Festival.”
To date, the Panagbenga is the number one festival in the country, according to the Department of Tourism (DOT). Also, according to the DOT, Baguio City is well on its way back up the charts as the third most popular tourist destination.
Anthony de Leon, chairman of the executive committee of the Baguio Flower Festival Foundation Inc., takes pride in how the private sector stepped up to support the Panagbenga and the efficient way the foundation was able to organize the massive event. “Tourism Undersecretary Ed Jarque announced that this is the most organized festival (he has seen) based on his observations, the manner on how the event is being managed by the different volunteers, the organizers and the city; it’s well organized,” he said.
Garnering a total of 1.5 million visitors for the entire month and thousands lining the streets during the parades, it certainly is an admirable feat of organization. Especially when Bautista disclosed another startling fact: “You’d be surprised. I ordered the police here not to bring any (of their) guns. And this is a festival with thousands lining the street.”
Preparations for the festival take up to a year, which means De Leon and company are already starting another round of assessments and planning for the 16th Panagbenga celebration. He said, “The great thing about the festival is that the mayor is practicing proper governance. That’s why he trusted the private sector to do this. The private sector has been empowered to organize this and get the best out of the group for them to innovate and come up with new and fresh ideas. We keep on amazing people every year.”
For the main event, the float parade, a total of 29 competing floats participated. Bautista said, “Foreigners say it is like the Pasadena Rose Parade of long ago. It’s still good, but robotic — very fake. Here, it’s 90 percent float, 10 percent truck.” The floats paraded along Session Road and were displayed overnight in various spots in the city.
Many companies spend from half-a-million to a million pesos for their floats. Considering that the first prize is only P50,000, the participation is more likely for promotion and the prestige of being in the Panagbenga.
The organizers take great pains in preventing politicians from campaigning or upstaging the event. Past incidents have left too much of a sour note among festival goers. “When politics come in, it will ruin it,” De Leon said.
Other events include a stage play right in the middle of Burnham Lake. Last year it was the Phantom of the Opera. This year, on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, it was Camelot.
Bautista can’t stress enough the importance of Panagbenga to the local economy. “The Panagbenga contributes about P1 billion to the local economy. Bus companies had 900 trips here last year and local businesses are profiting. Buses come and go filled with visitors every five minutes,” he said.
Is Baguio City truly back on track? Some people nostalgic for the place of old may disagree. Bautista, never scared of presenting what he envisions for the city’s future, said otherwise: “There’s always a price with development. Baguio’s been hit with hard times. Every time you’re hit, you think of ways to get back. For me, (tourist) traffic is a good problem. It’s good for employment and business. So, why destroy that? Why go back to the past? It’s not just Baguio, it’s happening in all mega cities.”
“The nice thing about Baguio is that there are still many places that remain green. What we’ll have to do now is protect what is left. But trying to go back to the past? It’s impossible. I also would not want to go back. As a mayor, as a father to the city, I have to make a gamble — whether it would be development and the economy or preservation. And preservation didn’t work. People were turned off, real estate went down, and businesses fell to the bottom. Tourism was very low. Airlines pulled out. Now, we’re going back slowly. I have doubled the income. The previous administration pulled in only P600 million. Now, it’s P1.3 billion,” he added.
There certainly is a sincere effort to uplift the city from all the issues that have plagued it in the past. Whatever are the people’s views on the matter, things are certainly looking up for the City of Pines and Panagbenga is just one of the events that keep Baguio in the national eye. “The Flower Festival never ceases to amaze. Whatever we do next year, it will be something new, something different. What’s important is the bigger participation of the community,” De Leon said.