Feature: It’s a long ride to Siargao—but surf and sun beckon

SIARGAO ISLAND, Surigao del Norte—The thrill starts as early as four in the morning when the first swell from the Pacific crashes against the reefs of Siargao. At this ungodly time, surf worshippers flock the white-sand beaches of General Luna to ride the famous Cloud 9 wave.

Cloud 9 is known for its hollow right hand tubes (surfspeak for a curling wave that breaks from right to left) and powerful reef breaks, marking Siargao the surfing capital of the country. Siargao had once been a secret practicing ground for amateur and professional surfers.

The surface water sport that originated from the Polynesians is attracting not just foreigners but Filipinos as well. "When we [Sagana resort] opened in 2000, we were probably 90% foreigners. Now its about 70% foreigners and 30% Filipinos," Gerry Degan, resort owner, said.

The harshest biggest waves swell during the months of September to November. In time for the waves, General Luna hosts the annual Siargao International Surfing Cup, an event that started in 1995. Resorts are fully booked during the competition.

In the last four years, the number of tourism establishments has doubled. Espejon shared that there are now 50 tourism-related establishments in the municipality and they expect it to increase in the following years. This was a far cry from the one or two resorts Degan saw when he first came to the island in 1995.

But despite being a crowd-drawer, tourism is not consistent. Businesses are always down during the lean months. Degan said that Sagana, his resort that directly faces Cloud 9, is packed from September to November and during the summer months – but not in any other months. The timid flow of tourists makes him close the resort during the end or beginning of December to travel with his family for the holidays.

Despite the slow tourism during the end of the year, amateur surfers go to Siargao after the summer season to practice the craft. "We had 15% more visitors this June and July, months when we used to not get visitors at all." Degan said. These months are good times for beginners because the weather and the ocean are calm.

But the issue, according to Degan, is bringing in other tourists who are not surfers.

Not just surfing

Surfers hit the beach only during high tides, primarily during early mornings and late afternoons. Swimming is not advisable since the reefs are jarring. But Espejon said that there are more to do in this island than ride boards and surf.

"We are working on other activities to attract visitors throughout the year." Espejon explained. "We plan to add snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking, and island hopping to the list."

General Luna, the prime tourist hub, has six pristine islands that can be visited for day tours: Guyam, Daku, Mam-on, Suyangan, Anahawan, and La Januza. These seldom visited unspoiled islands are ideal for honeymooners and family activities. Some islands like Anahawan have good surf breaks and can be an alternative surf site – if Cloud 9 is too crowded.

Further inland are mangrove swamps for kayaking and marine sanctuaries for snorkeling, beautiful waterfalls, and lovely lagoons. If one is lucky, Espejon and Degan said one can see tarsiers in the Siargao wild.

The island also hosted the first International Game Fishing Competition participated by 76 local and foreign competitors.

Long way to paradise

The major tourism concern in the island is the travel itself. Located at the easternmost side of the country, tourists can go to Siargao through Surigao City aboard fast craft boats. Travel time takes about three to four hours from Surigao City.

This does not seem ideal for tourists as they have to endure an hour from the pier of Dapa to General Luna. "There are some tourists who are afraid to ride a ferry because of the last disaster. International tourists want to fly directly to Siargao," Degan said. There are currently no direct flights to this surfing haven.

Sayak airport is currently undergoing runway upgrades and would hopefully open late this year or early next year in time for the summer surfing season. Philippine Airlines, the country's flagship carrier, is interested in flying directly to Sayak.

The opening of the airport will shorten the travel time to Siargao and make it more accessible. "We'll get a lot more people if there are flights." Degan said.

According to Romeo Edillor, tourism operations officer of Surigao city, 2006 recorded tourist arrivals reached 115,000 thousand. They are targeting 200,000 tourist arrivals in 2010. (LEI CHAVEZ, abs-cbnNEWS.com)

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