ILIGAN CITY — “Cult intimidation” has driven tourists away from Socorro town in Surigao del Norte, a local government official said.
Socorro urban farmer Edelito Sangco, chairman of the government’s Kapihan Task Force, said tourist arrivals to the city have declined since Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc.’s cult-like operation was exposed in the Senate in September. (SBSI).
“Tourists, both foreign and domestic, are naturally cautious about their safety, knowing that there is a ‘cult’ in the destination they are going to,” Sangco said in a telephone interview with the Inquirer on Wednesday.
Sangco stated that the “cult scare” may have been triggered by the description of the group led by Jey Rence Quilario, known as “Elder Aguila”, as armed and capable of violence, as revealed by various news sources who recounted their ordeal before a hearing of the Senate Committee on Public Policy and Dangerous Drugs.
He worries that unless immediate action is taken, the fear could spread to Siargao, known as the country’s surfing capital, which is also fast becoming a paradise for digital nomads.
Socorro is the gateway to the tourist attractions of Bucas Grande, which is part of the Siargao group of islands. One of its main attractions is Sohoton Bay.
From the mainland of Surigao del Norte, Socorro can be reached by boat from Claver town and from Siargao via Dapa town.
Based on data from the local tourism office, in 2010 the city was on the map of holiday resorts and hosted nearly 4,000 tourists. With a more diverse offering, tourism has boomed, peaking in 2017 with over 50,000 tourists.
Following the twin attacks of the pandemic that began in early 2020 and super typhoon “Odette” (international name: Rai) in 2021, the local tourism industry began to recover earlier this year, with at least 3,000 visitors per month in the first quarter. The number peaked at over 8,000 in June and remained over 5,000 through September.
By October this year, amid nationwide attention on SBSI’s activities due to reports of child abuse, forced marriages and other forms of oppression, tourist arrivals had dropped dramatically to just over 1,000.
According to Sangco, this situation can be remedied the sooner the SBSI community in Sitio Kapihan in Barangay Sering is resolved by the authorities, starting with the cancellation of the protected area community resource management agreement with the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources.
On Wednesday, Sangco revealed that various government agencies have begun planning the next coordinated steps towards the dismantling of the Kapihan community and the return of its current residents to their original communities in Socorro.
Sangco added that Surigao del Norte officials told them that the city’s reintegration program was also adopted by the provincial government to ensure harmonization of their activities.
He noted that local authorities had received indications that many of Kapihan’s remaining residents, numbering more than 3,500, were just waiting for a signal from authorities to return to their old homes, although many of them had sold their homes before moving.