It’s All Good: Everything We Loved About 2019

Brand-new year, brand-new decade! We celebrate the gifts of the past year that are paving the way for a bright 2020.

And just like that, it’s 2020.

The new year comes at the end of a fast-changing decade that’s seen Philippine art, science, sport, pop culture and travel take off in many different ways. As we step into brighter days ahead, let’s take a look back at the people, places and events that shaped the past year, to see how they’ll continue to light the way.

Siargao is a tourism hotspot — and everyone’s pitching in to keep it that way

Photo by Kim David

The once hard-to-get-to surf spot has been a secret international surfer’s paradise since the ’90s. Far out in the Pacific Ocean, the reef-dotted island features at least 15 different surf breaks, the most famous of which is the world-renowned Cloud 9.

Now, with direct daily flights from Manila, surfers and non-surfers alike have been flocking to Siargao. The laid-back vibe, natural, rugged beauty and emerging food scene have impressed travelers from near and far — and its simmering popularity culminated in Siargao topping the Readers’ Choice list of Best Islands in the World in Condé Nast Traveler’s 2018 survey. This has spurred a further explosion of tourism in Siargao, helping bring up tourist arrivals in the Philippines to 5.5 million for January to August 2019 alone.

Thankfully, Siargao is fending off any problems with overdevelopment. Identified as one of four priority investment areas of the Department of Tourism’s Transforming Communities Towards Resilient, Inclusive and Sustainable Tourism (TouRIST) program, Siargao has help from the national government in addressing issues of waste management, water facilities, livelihood and climate security. Cebu Pacific also launched its Juan Effect program, which aims to mitigate the impact of tourist arrivals by encouraging them to make a difference by changing one daily habit.

Other community-based initiatives are also doing their part — organizations like the Siargao Environmental Awareness Movement, or SEA Movement, are battling the plastic bottle problem, while Lokal supports sustainability by working with farmers and fishermen in the northern town of Burgos to create fresh, affordable and appealing dishes at the town’s snack bar. Bathala Land Tours offers cultural activities for guests to experience the true local life of Siargao, which, of course, is more than the surfing and the beaches.

Siargao’s surge is challenging everyone to think hard about what it means to develop sustainably and travel responsibly. If you’re going to do things for the ’gram, why not join a beach cleanup or help recycle plastics into bean bags?


Greener air travel

Cebu Pacific ushered in the era of the eco-plane when it added five new A321neo (which stands for “new engine option”) airplanes to its fleet. The Airbus aircraft is more environmentally friendly than its predecessor, reducing fuel consumption by at least 15%, meaning 5,000 less tons of carbon emissions every year. It also generates 50% less noise. Air travel is heading in the right direction.


Boracay is back, better than ever

Photo by Jakub Barzycki /


Boracay has fully reopened as of the end of 2019, and the ongoing rehabilitation efforts, infrastructure improvements and enforcing of laws have brought everyone’s favorite island back to the top of the list of the country’s best destinations.

The decision to shutter the island came with its share of opposition and controversy, with small-business owners and their staff bearing the brunt of the closure. Some were able to grin and bear it, some lost their jobs, others got creative. Restaurateurs like Nowie and Odette Potenciano, for example, held popups of their popular establishments in Manila to help provide their staff with income, while Manila-based restaurants like Wildflour lent a hand by taking in some of their displaced employees.

The new Boracay — which relaunched fully (if quietly) in April 2019 after a soft reopening six months prior — is a different place, to be sure. Gone are the days (and nights) of partying on the beach, with pounding dance music or mellow Bob Marley blasting from the bars. What we’ve regained is an expansive white beach and a sea you can actually swim in. Hotels and resorts have gotten on board with the sustainability movement, eliminating single-use plastic where they can, in addition to complying with major regulations like installing proper sewage systems and following the easement rule.

While it’s still a work in progress, it’s gratifying to see how a comprehensive vision for the island is being enacted. Boracay has given so many people such special memories over the decades, it’s time for travelers and locals to give something back. The island has grown up, and we along with it. The only thing that doesn’t get old? The Boracay sunset.


Flag ceremony for heroes

Every month, the flag is raised up the highest flagpole in the country at Rizal Park to honor modern-day heroes. The third Stop and Salute Flag Ceremony, held in December, paid tribute to the late artist and activist Carlos Celdran, whose walking tours of Intramuros brought the Walled City to life for a new generation of balikbayans and visitors. The ceremony also honored Filipino migrant workers and Jose Rizal.


Our athletes take gold

Filipinos rallied around sports heroes last year, especially as the Philippines took the overall championship at the SEA Games. Earlier in the year, Carlos Yulo became the first Filipino and first Southeast Asian male to become a world champion gymnast when he won a gold medal at the 2019 Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Stuttgart.

The story of triathlete John “Rambo” Chicano also touched many hearts — at 19, he was a junior cyclist who found himself needing to support a newborn baby. He worked as a janitor at a bike shop owned by the coach of the national triathlon team. Rambo learned how to fix a bike and how to swim. Ten years after joining the team, he scored the first gold medal of the 2019 SEA Games, with his daughter waiting for him at the finish line.


We are champions in dragon boat racing

Photo by Jacob Maentz

A Cebu-based dragon boat team composed of athletes with disabilities won four gold medals at the 14th IDBF World Dragon Boat Racing Championships held in Thailand in August 2019. The Philippine Accessible Disability Service (PADS) Adaptive Dragon Boat Racing Team, or PADS for short, has been accomplishing immense feats since it was formed in 2016 by team manager JP Maunes. “Our combined disabilities are our greatest strength”, the team’s motto goes. The first cross-disability dragon boat team has become one of the Philippines’ strongest teams, winning gold in the International Para Dragonboat Championships in both 2017 and 2018.

Dragon boat racing was an emerging sport in Cebu when JP, who comes from a sport mentoring background, saw that this seated sport could be something for athletes of different abilities and their communities to get behind. He invited a few persons with disabilities (PWDs) to paddle one Sunday, and eventually a team was formed, with specialist volunteers coming in to help with their training. PADS has gone toe-to-toe with non-disabled paddlers, but they know they have to put in twice the work and train twice as hard.

Team captain Arnold Balais lost his leg to an illness when he was a teenager, but he went on to win medals in swimming and weightlifting, and even became the first amputee to scale Mt Apo. Arnold is leading by example and passing on his grit to the team. They started out with nothing — no money, no sponsors, not even their own equipment — but managed to overcome all of these challenges, gaining the respect of the competition in international races. As Arnold says, “Sports is the great equalizer.”


The Philippines takes a dive to the top

Photo by Francisco Guerrero

The Philippines was named the World’s Leading Dive Destination at the 2019 World Travel Awards, besting other world-famous destinations like the Azores, the Maldives, Bora Bora and the Galápagos Islands. The heart of the Coral Triangle, the center of the center of marine biodiversity in the world, is located within Philippine waters, and is home to more than 500 species of coral and 2,000 species of fish. The Coral Triangle also directly sustains the lives of over 120 million people, making it an extremely important ecosystem to protect.


Everyone wins in the tabo wars

During the height of the water crisis, Japanese minimalist brand Muji advertised its “bath dipper” to Filipinos — at the price of Php365. While it’s arguably a better-looking tabo, no Filipino has ever spent more than Php50 on this basic home essential, and so the collective bemusement soon went viral. Local plastics manufacturer Orocan quickly jumped in, offering their “extraordinary” bath dipper for the same price — though theirs comes full of coins adding up to Php330.25. A few months later, Muji Philippines announced a permanent price reduction for over 200 items. Whether it was a result of the tabo conflict or not, Filipinos certainly welcomed this “dip” in prices.


Paningning woke up the internet

It was a tough year for many, but Paningning the Shih Tzu was one of the bright spots. The back-sleeping puppy could lie in savasana like it was nobody’s business, and we took comfort in that. The image of the passed-out pup went viral — giving birth to Paningning wallpapers, memes and even a Paningning Challenge.


The banana-leaf balot is a traditional solution to a modern problem

Along with its Southeast Asian neighbors, the Philippines has seen supermarkets starting to wrap produce in banana leaves instead of plastic cling wrap — something that provincial markets have long been doing, proving that sustainable alternatives have always existed and need not be costly. Let’s make 2020 a year where plastic is not just used less, but produced less.


We believe in people

Cebu Pacific continued to make dreams come true. Two cadet pilot batches graduated after undergoing 52 weeks of training at Flight Training Adelaide aviation school under the Cadet Pilot Program — a full scholarship program for pilots who will eventually join the CEB family. The airline also celebrated a milestone in inclusivity when it announced the hiring of the country’s first transgender cabin crew members, Jess Labares (pictured above) and Mikee Vitug.


Cebu becomes a UNESCO Creative City

Cebu became the second city in the Philippines to join the Unesco Creative Cities Network, after Baguio was added to the list in 2017. Recognized as a Creative City for Design, Cebu has made culture a pillar, and not just an accessory, of its development strategy. The proof is in the pudding: The new Terminal 2 of Mactan- Cebu International Airport, which was designed by IDA Hong Kong with support from Filipino firm Budji+Royal and Cebu’s own Kenneth Cobonpue, took the top prize at the 2019 World Architecture Festival, beating Singapore’s Jewel Changi Airport in the Completed Buildings: Transport category.


Manila Bay comes clean

A seven-year campaign to rehabilitate Manila Bay was kicked off in January 2019, with some 5,000 volunteers collecting more than 40 tons of garbage from the famously polluted coastline. Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Roy Cimatu dubbed it the modern “Battle of Manila Bay”, and says he hopes to make its waters swimmable again this year. Who’s up for that challenge?


One of the year’s best books has Filipino roots

Jia Tolentino, a rock star writer for the New Yorker who is often called the voice of the millennial generation, shook the literary world with her debut book, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self- Delusion, a collection of astute, searching and sometimes deeply personal examinations of popular culture in the post-capitalist, internet age.


Philippine coffee is brewing

Long before third-wave coffee, before Starbucks and before 3-in-1, the Philippines was a major exporter of coffee. Slowly, local coffee producers are showing the world that we can once again produce quality beans. At the 5th International Contest of Locally Roasted Coffees in Milan, Mirabueno Coffee from Bukidnon received the Gourmet prize while SGD Coffee from Sagada got a bronze. Behind these efforts is the Coffee Heritage Project, an initiative that helps coffee farmers improve their crops.


We went nuts for online shopping

Singles Day, or 11/11, a manufactured holiday created to drive online sales, broke records in the Philippines as a staggering number of shoppers flooded online shopping sites. Lazada reported that, combined, Filipinos spent 205 million minutes shopping on the website that day, with one particular shopper spending Php1.2 million on a haul.


Archeological discoveries in Luzon teach us about the history of man

Photo by Michael Wels /

Fossil fragments found in Callao Cave in Northern Luzon have been discovered to belong to a new extinct species of human that lived 50,000 to 67,000 years ago. Homo luzonensis would have been contemporaries with Homo floresiensis, discovered in Indonesia, and our own species, Homo sapiens, which emerged in Africa 300,000 years ago. These revelations indicate that human evolution is more complicated than we thought — that old-school chart depicting human evolution in a straightforward line from prehistoric to modern man is simply outdated.


Elcano & Magellan remind us to take a closer look at history

A two-minute trailer for the Spanish animated film Elcano & Magellan sparked controversy for its depiction of the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan as a hero and Lapu Lapu as a cartoon villain. Calls to ban, boycott or censor the film were circulated, but a few prominent historians defended its existence despite its obvious fictionalized elements. “The Battle of Mactan may be significant to Filipinos, but it is merely a detail in the larger story of daring, exploration and the first circumnavigation of the world,” wrote Ambeth Ocampo, while Xiao Chua advised Filipino viewers to be less reactive, and instead see this moment as a chance to educate ourselves and learn more about history.

We’re leading in Clark

The year also marked significant hub expansion and development for Cebu Pacific. Clark Airport in Pampanga is Cebu Pacific’s Northern and Central Luzon hub, with direct flights to domestic and international destinations, including Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and Tokyo, making the airline its capacity leader. With work on a beautiful new terminal and a commuter railway in Clark underway, this airport will prove to be a very attractive alternative to flying out from Manila.


Filipino food takes its place on the global table

Photo by Flora Tio Borci /

No longer “the next big thing”, Filipino food has reached a point where it’s become part of the international culinary landscape, and not merely a celebrated exotic flavor of the season.

In the United States, for example, Tom Cunanan of Washington DC’s Bad Saint won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic in 2019 for his modern take on Filipino dishes. At the same time, through her restaurants Maharlika and Jeepney, New York’s Nicole Ponseca is using contemporary techniques and sensibilities to interpret the food she grew up with. This is echoed on the West Coast, where Charles Olalia of Ma’am Sir and the Valencia brothers of the restaurant Lasa, both in LA, re-present heritage dishes from a uniquely Californian perspective.


This story first appeared in the January 2020 issue of Smile magazine

Written by

Audrey Carpio

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