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Los Baños: On the road to big business

/ 11:11 PM May 30, 2012

Officials from the local government and the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) have laid down plans that will transform this academic town into a bustling economic zone.

But both the government and the university maintained that such an undertaking should adhere to environment protection policies, as it is also here where the Mt. Makiling Forest Reserve, a 4,244-hectare natural tropical rainforest teeming with thousands of plant species, is found.

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In a tourism summit in March, the local government began drafting its 10-year tourism master plan that includes constructing hotels, additional restaurants and world-class facilities and attractions that will draw in tourists.

The master plan also includes setting up a cable-car system along the Makiling terrain, rehabilitating the heritage sites in the town’s poblacion, and renovating the local spa and hot spring resorts.

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Ecotourism expert Roberto Cereno said Los Baños would need around P500 million worth of investments from the private sector to get the ball rolling.

1M visitors a year

Cereno said close to a million people each year go to Los Baños, known for its hot springs and buko pie. Aside from UPLB, also located in the town are 22 science institutions, including the International Rice Research Institute.

But one problem, raised during the summit, was that there are only two hotels and a number of restaurants to accommodate the visitors.

“We even have to bring our science conventions to Manila only because we do not have a convention center (in Los Baños),” said Cereno, who also heads the UPLB Botanic Gardens, Parks and Ecotourism Division.

Los Baños, with a registered population of 107,000, is classified as a first-class municipality, although the bulk of its income is sourced from the service sector and real property tax collection.

Despite the town’s potentials, Cereno said the lack of facilities, such as hotels and restaurants, hinders a thriving economy that in the last decade, saw only those investments made three malls and a college.

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Arlene Madrazo, a bar owner here, welcomed the tourism plan, which she said could bring income to local businesses. “Maybe after the tourists could drop by our place after they have gone sight-seeing,” she said.

But a group of homegrown business owners were apprehensive about the tourism proposal and preferred the easy, laid-back routine.

“We’re close enough to Calamba, Alabang or Manila if we wanted to go to the malls, so why not just keep Los Baños the way it is?” said another businessman.

In a statement, the local government said the mayor’s father and former Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. chair Efraim Genuino, would head the Los Baños Tourism Council.

Los Baños will also offer tax incentives to investors and tighten its security measures, following the recent spate of murders and robberies in the town.

Special economic zone

Inside the university property, UPLB has sought accreditation from the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (Peza) to establish a Special Economic Zone (SEZ).

The SEZ will cover 69.99 hectares to be subdivided into an information technology hub (9.15 ha) and an agro-industrial park (60.84 ha). It will rise on a portion of the 155.8-ha in Barangay Putho-Tuntungin referred to as the UPLB Science and Technology Park, where the Apec facility is currently located.

The municipal government in a resolution in May 2011 endorsed UPLB’s application, which, it said would bring business and job opportunities to the residents.

Elias Abao Jr., development management officer of the UPLB Center for Technology Transfer and Entrepreneurship (CTTE), said the university “hope to secure within June” the environmental compliance certificate for the agro-industrial park, the last remaining requirement before Peza endorses the proposal to Malacañang.

UPLB is hoping to get the President’s approval before the year ends.

200 technologies

The UPLB Science and Technology Park presently hosts four locators: O’mark Enterprises that develops virgin coconut oil and byproducts; PhilHybrid Inc. that cultures macapuno tissue; Bio-Spark Corp. that develops biofertilizer; and the Pioneer Hi-bred Philippines, a subsidiary of the multinational hybrid rice research institution DuPont.

But if declared a SEZ, “the locators can take advantage of the fiscal and nonfiscal incentives the Peza offers (such as income tax holidays and tax-free importation of equipment),” Abao said. UPLB for its part can provide technical expertise to locators.

Contrary to criticisms against UP’s commercialization, Abao said the university would lease the land primarily to UPLB-generated technologies.

“Technologies developed outside (UPLB) will come as a second priority (and) UPLB will remain strict (in screening would-be locators),” he said.

Abao said UPLB has around 200 technologies developed by its own professors and researchers. He said the university targets industries in the fields of biotechnology, food processing, agriculture, food and dairy processing, engineering, and information technologies with application to life sciences. He said the companies must follow the university’s policies on environment protection and waste management.

“UPLB will not cease to be an academic institution (as) all incomes shall be used to strengthen the academic programs and upgrading of the facilities,” Abao said.

He said attracting businesses to set up their facilities here would bring jobs and economic welfare to the community.

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TAGS: Eco-tourism, Los Baños, Mt. Makiling Forest Reserve, tropical rainforest, University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB)
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