Fort Ilocandia would always have a special place in the historical chronicle of tourism in Ilocos. When it opened in 1983, it was the grandest place in the Ilocos-Pangasinan region, if not in the entire north of Metro Manila. Its old world charm is still there, from the grand entrance greeted by a knight-on-horse statue to the colonial interior famous for the red tiles, brick walls, and the staircase leading to a wooden second floor, to the gardens separating the accommodation buildings where a neoclassical fountain sits at the middle.
The 77-hectare resort may be the only facility with a golf course and other wide-array of facilities such as a shooting range, 4X4 road, and pool. It may also be the only one in Ilocos that can host the requirements of top diplomats with its grand suite.
For a long time, Fort Ilocandia was known as a casino destination, becoming a magnet of tourists from Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong. Chartered flights would take down at the Laoag International Airport from East Asia. In 2003, DOT statistics said 1,000 tourists from Hong Kong and Guangzhou visited Laoag every month. In 2005, Newsbreak-knowledge.ph reported that Laoag Airport was having thrice-weekly international flights to Kaoushung and Guangzhou in China and six flights each week to Hong Kong. The numbers meant that foreigners comprise almost three-quarters of all guests to Fort Ilocandia and marketing expenditures focused on this market.
Everything was doing very good in Ilocos Norte until a dismissed Philippine National Police officer stepped into a tourist bus on August 23, 2010, which escalated into a hostage crisis. In the aftermath of the event, direct flights were cancelled and the Philippines was tagged with a “black alert” status by the Hong Kong Government.
Although there were reports that the Chinese market was already in a gradual fall, the Rizal Park incident marked the beginning of the absence of tourists from Ilocos Norte’s main markets. Two years later signage at Fort Ilocandia still include Chinese, but the alert is still retained and the future of returning to the Chinese heyday looks dim.
There are other reasons why the Chinese might not come back. Ben Lau, Fort Ilocandia GM, said that the “expectation of the international market is higher now than before,” implying that Ilocos Norte may have failed to upgrade in meeting the evolving interests of Chinese. This is particularly the case of Chinese living in primary cities like Shanghai, he added.
Moreover, Hong Kong and Macau, for example, also have their own integrated resorts with bigger gaming spaces and functions. Where can Ilocos Norte compete it?
Fort Ilocandia now turns to the domestic market as its primary target. But one of the initial challenges this strategic decision encountered today is consumer perceptions. For Filipino tourists visiting Ilocos Norte in the past, Fort Ilocandia might not have been the top-of-mind accommodation for them. Majority of the rooms were allocated for the bigger market, which was the Chinese.
This is being changed now with progress. The student market is proving itself as a stable clientele throughout the year and the resort is eyeing to host more local corporate clients.
Ilocos Norte’s new domestic campaign, Paoay Kumakaway, has also contributed to the total occupancy in summer, when 680,000 travelers visited the province during the Holy Week alone, said the Philippine Information Agency and the Provincial Tourism Office.
Already, it is growing its relationship with travel agents to help in bringing in guests. To fully attract the domestic market, Fort Ilocandia may have to rejuvenate or recreate itself into a brand best suitable for a change in market—perhaps a more active and younger-looking resort? Optimizing the type of domestic travelers to maximize revenue per space in the 77-hectare resort is also an issue particularly for the casino.
And yet Fort Ilocandia may have bigger plans up its sleeves. In September, HNM was informed that a European investor is looking at the prospects of Fort Ilocandia. Whatever this deal may bring, one thing is for sure: there’s no looking back.