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March 02, 2011

BY HANNAH M. MURALLA Special Features Assistant Editor

Range Rovers

FarmVille, a popular social network game that allows players to tend virtual farms, had more than 75 million users by June last year. According to its developer Zynga, the US alone had 30 million farms in FarmVille, 28 million more than the number of actual ranches in the country.

The fascination for the online game not only underscores the human instinct to nurture; it also reflects a desire to try one’s hand at rural life—from tilling the land to planting fruits and vegetables to milking cows—without needing a green thumb and with little chances of failure. But its popularity could also benefit agritourism, which aims to promote local attractions while helping boost the agricultural industry, which has been in decline since the country's liberalizing thrust in the 1980s.

Agritourism sites typically offer farm tours, but aside from letting guests pick vegetables, eat home-cooked dishes, feed animals or stroll through fruit orchards, some of them also give lectures on farming methods—organic fertilizer making, processing technology and other short agricultural courses—extra service that could well be their main selling point. “The way you let visitors understand what goes on inside the farm adds value to their experience, so it’s very different from the usual holiday,” said Warner Andrada, head of the Office of Product Research and Development at the Department of Tourism (DoT).

Urban-based parents, in particular, will find the trip valuable for youngsters who’ve never seen rice paddies or ridden on a carabao’s back. “Most kids today hang out in malls. In school, they only see pictures [of the countryside] so maybe they’d appreciate it more if they can experience firsthand the things they read about,” he said, adding that the laid-back landscape and the fresh air can likewise be therapeutic for city dwellers. For the folks who own these farms, it could also mean additional income, especially during the lean season.

The sector now has a number of farm attractions: Tagaytay’s Sonya’s Secret Garden, which grows a variety of herbs and cut flowers and serves up healthy dishes; Hacienda Balbina in Pontevedra, Negros Occidental, where cashew and pili nuts, mangoes, durian and jackfruit are cultivated and processed; and on a bigger scale, pineapple plantations Dole Philippines in South Cotabato and Del Monte Farm in Bukidnon, where guests can end a sweet pineapple feast with a round of golf.

”We’re looking at agritourism as one of the main products that could promote the Philippines further, not only to the foreign market, but also domestically,” said Mr. Andrada.

At the recently held Travel Tour Expo, DoT Secretary Albert Lim revealed plans for a more aggressive local tourism program, stressing the segment’s key role in reaching industry targets like job creation and wealth distribution to the countryside.

The DoT’s Households Survey on Domestic Visitors show that 23 million Filipinos travelled between April and September in 2009. Of the 7.8 million who took leisure trips, 7.7 million were independent travellers, spending an average of P1,818, while only 80,000 availed of packaged tours, with an average expenditure of P17,981. The national capital region was the most frequently visited place by domestic tourists. “For now, Filipinos still prefer day tours but there’s a growing number who go for packaged tours, which let them stay for at least a night. These packaged trips would really ‘immerse’ them in farm activities,” explained Mr. Andrada.

The DoT has identified several agritourism sites across the country that could be further developed. Already in the pipeline are specialized mango tours in Zambales, which claims to have the world’s sweetest strain called Sweet Elena. Aside from the province’s annual mango-centered festival as the main attraction, fruit picking will be incorporated to target the Japanese and Koreans, who are already big fans of Philippine mangoes.

The agency also works with the Department of Agriculture (DA) and Central Luzon State University (CLSU) to expand the emerging industry. The DA identifies potential agritourism sites and contributes through policy-making while the Nueva Ecija-based school is either near or home to the Philippine Carabao Center, Philippine Rice Research Center, National Freshwater Fisheries Technology Center, and the Bureau of Post Harvest Research and Extension Center, which can hold entrepreneurial courses on rice planting, goat farming and tilapia-raising, among other farm activities.

For its part, the DoT conducts trainings on tour guiding techniques and managing an agritourism business. It has also come up with a list of its accredited accomodations for travelers who who intend to stay for more than a day. “They expect to get good value for their money. They’d want to have good food and a good rest, even in a rural area,” said Mr. Andrada.

Finally, the real country experience helps put the spotlight on agriculture, a sector that younger generations now tend to ignore. “For us, tourism is a means to disseminate information. When more people are exposed to agriculture, even just for a day, perhaps more would get interested in it in the [industry’s] future,” he added.

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