On Las Casas and Conservation

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

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We Travel, We Care is a series of essays discussing and exploring issues related to travel and tourism.
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I'm still not sure about how I feel about Las Casas.

On one hand, I couldn't deny that all those buildings in one place does result into something beautiful to look at – an architectural orgasm, if you will. On the other, there's something wrong with its idea of conservation. I mean, is it really conservation when you're plucking a thing from its original source? I don't think so. 

Yet the construction of Las Casas, and it's eventual opening to the public, had brought considerable attention to our country's architectural heritage and the issues that come with preserving it. Truly, the houses and complexes built during the time of the Spaniards were marvelous. The buildings then were romantic. Poetic, definitely beating the monotony of modern aesthetics. To see them faithfully reconstructed, and in remarkably good condition, is something worthy of appreciation.

To stroll through Las Casas is to walk straight to nostalgia. For some reason, you somehow see everything through a sheet of sepia-colored glass. (Sepia, as you know, is the color of the past.) The whole thing – from the costumed staff to the sub-par food – is a bit tacky but it sort of works. It's quite charming, actually. On top of that, each house apparently has a story to tell. Listening to stories of the people who used to live in them feels like gossiping, like a guilty pleasure you simply couldn't resist. In these tales, there's often an element of scandal. A kind of disrepute that greatly contrasts the magnificence of the structures. I like that metaphor.
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The appeal of Las Casas lies in it being "Instagrammable". It's a beautiful place, really. It's not hard to see that it is. The canals, the intricate woodwork, the cobbled streets – they're beautiful. Everything's clearly been done with care. 
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But beneath that marvelous facade, there's a tenacious ethical and cultural conundrum. One that prevents certain groups of people from fully enjoying what this "heritage park" is offering.

You can't please everybody, say its patrons.

That's right. You can't. The best thing we can hope for is balance. And when Las Casas is touting itself as a conservation effort, then it's accountable to exhibit balance not just in its methods but in its interests. So far, I see no such thing. May I suggest ditching the conservation hooey and just tell it how it is; that it's a restoration business?

Let us be honest here. One old house amongst a sea of shanties and concrete, marred by zigzagging electrical wires, simply doesn't have the power to sustain itself. It will basically be a liability. Eventually, it will be sold then demolished to make way for something more practical. Also, take into account our country's deplorable zoning laws and there's really no chance to achieve true heritage conservation. Unless, of course, you declare the whole town as a heritage park. But even in places like Taal and Vigan, the concept of a "heritage town" isn't defined well enough to achieve sustainability and success. In Calle Crisologo, for example, evidences of commercialism ruin the place's effect. How do we address these? How do we preserve heritage – all kinds of it – without selling out? These are big questions that I can't answer. Not yet at least.

Back to Las Casas.

Gerry Acuzar, the man behind this complex, is an artist. He is because he creates, and like all artists, he desires an audience for his work. So even if the place started out as just a "passion project", Las Casas, from the very beginning, was meant to be seen. Artists make to express, and true expression is incomplete without an external interpreter. Add to this the fact that his chosen medium doesn't come cheap. Aside from the necessary talent and skills, some artists' only other investment is discipline, but in the case of a restorer, money – massive amounts of it – is also involved. Despite, and because of, the higher stakes, the reward is somewhat greater too. We're now presented with a product that is consumable but – if proper steps are taken – essentially infinite. Las Casas is proving to be an investment that would continue to yield returns given adequate management.
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If you ask me, I see nothing wrong with that. 

Las Casas may be a lot of things, but I really don't think it's conservation work. I hope it quits insisting that it is.

Have you been to Las Casas? How was your experience?

Know more about how to be a responsible traveler by also checking out these simple rules when you're on the beach. Also, do check out the travel guides to awesome less-traveled destinations in Celineism's Spread the Impact series. Read also about 6 Places in the Philippines that Could Disappear Sooner than You Think.
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