Cebu journeys through centuries toward economic, tourism success | Inquirer Business

Cebu journeys through centuries toward economic, tourism success

CEBU CITY—Over the centuries, Cebu has evolved from a trading post at the periphery of Southeast Asian nations into a thriving economic center and a tourism hub.

This is a testament to its historical heritage, strategic location and to the enterprising character of its people.

BIRD’S EYE VIEW Cebu City’s skyline is a testament to the dynamic nature of the Queen City of the South, containing a mix of old sections and exciting new developments showing thevibrance of the local economy. —Photos by Emmanuelle Sawit.

Cebu City’s skyline is a testament to the dynamic nature of the Queen City of the South, containing a mix of old sections and exciting new developments showing the
vibrance of the local economy. —Photos by Emmanuelle Sawit.

Cebu’s past can be traced back to as early as the 13th century through archaeology (evidence is still coming in). Being roughly at the center of the Philippine archipelago, Cebu was a natural meeting point for merchants from various parts of the globe in search of markets and supplies.


The chronicler of Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage, Antonio Pigafetta, reported of foreign trade between Cebu’s paramount chief, Rajah Humabon, and the traders aboard a boat from Champa, an ancient Kingdom of Vietnam.


The sophistication of Cebuano society at least a hundred years before the Magellan contact in 1521 may be gleaned from prehistoric artifacts found at salvage archaeological sites at the heart of Cebu City.

More recent diggings in the northern and southern parts of Cebu yielded similar results.

Professor Jose Eleazar Bersales of the University of San Carlos (USC) said that in 2008, he and a team from the National Museum monitoring the construction of a tunnel on the grounds of Fort San Pedro found fragments of gold facial covers or “death masks” on what may have been “a burial site of the old Sugbu settlement of Humabon’s ancestors, dating to about 100 years prior to the arrival of Magellan.”

Bersales, director of the USC Museum, said the discovery echoed Jesuit priest Pedro Chirino’s account circa 1600 of such a burial: “Inside the coffin lay the dead wearing rich clothes and with the best of gold ornaments, adorned with rich jewels. The eyes and mouth were also covered with pounded gold sheets, while more gold pieces would also be placed inside the mouth.”

Spanish legacy

The arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century, however, shaped the destiny of Cebu.


The city of Cebu, established by the Spaniards after Western models, eventually became an important center for trade and evangelization.

Its economic growth was further boosted by the construction of Fort San Pedro, which served as a defense stronghold and facilitated the protection of Cebu’s commercial reboot.

The early colonial experience transformed Cebu from an emerging port city to an economic backwater, even after a short-lived participation in the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade.

The introduction of a mercantilist economic system, of private ownership, of Christianity (which led to a new set of values) and of a social order that placed the Spaniards on the top tier were among the many factors that weakened Cebu’s position throughout the 16th and early 17th centuries.

But the presence of the Chinese mestizos (today’s Chinese Filipinos) saved the day.

They kept the economic wheel churning by dealing with the alcalde mayor (similar to a provincial governor today) of Cebu by acting as his middle man.

The alcalde mayor at that time enjoyed the Indulto de Comercio, a privilege to engage in domestic trade monopoly, in price control and onerous business practice.

This measure was possibly necessary given that the Philippines “survived” on an annual subsidy from Spain.

Magellan’sCross,locatedbesidetheBasilicaMinoredelSantoNiñodeCebu, is a favorite destination for tourists and locals alike.

Magellan’sCross,locatedbesidetheBasilicaMinoredelSantoNiñodeCebu, is a favorite destination for tourists and locals alike.

Chinese mestizos

Around the mid-1700s, as mercantilism waned and liberalizing forces were set in motion, the Philippine economy opened up to the world tagging along with it Cebu.

The Chinese mestizos of Cebu’s Parian district settled into their role as middlemen—buying and selling goods for profit.

Under Governor General José Basco’s reforms that laid the foundation of Philippine agricultural export, Cebu’s mestizos further prospered, spurring land speculation and acquisition.By the early 1800s—around the time Manila opened to international trade in 1834—Cebu once again became a transshipment port for goods from the Visayas and Mindanao bound for Manila.

The Chinese mestizos built Cebu’s first substantial buildings of stone and tile (the oldest dating back to the 1730s), changing in effect the image of the city.

The mestizos began to travel for business and education. As merchants, they brought with them the latest fashion and news.

They were conspicuous consumers of luxury goods sold in Manila, wrote the French medical doctor Jean Maillat de Bassilan in 1846. Maillat made three voyages to the Philippines beginning 1838.

International trade

By 1860, Cebu opened to international trade, meaning unrestricted foreign commerce.

As more British and other Europeans, along with Americans, came to do business in Cebu, the city took on a cosmopolitan character.

A fonda (inn) was opened, paving the way for future and bigger establishments like Hotel San Marcos.

Staple sightseeing

Magallanes Street in downtown Cebu City began to take shape as the central business district to rival old Parian or Colon in the late 19th century.

Tourism as it is known today took root at this time.

In an early directory of the city during the American rule, the stately white mansion of the Velez-Chiong Veloso family along what is now Fructuoso Ramos Street is a recommended attraction. It still stands today beside the Velez General Hospital.This attraction was, no doubt, an addition to the staple sightseeing of Fort San Pedro, the San Agustin Church, Magellan’s Cross, the Cebu Cathedral, Colon Street (known then as Calle Parian).

A trip to the countryside could mean a visit to Barangay Lahug (By the 1930s, Lahug would become a site for country houses of the Camara-Rallos, Sotto-Pahang, Sanson, Jereza, Castillo and Villa families. Today, the Jereza and Castillo houses survive as restaurants).

Cebu, at this time, had regained its primacy over Iloilo [in about 1917] thanks to the American redevelopment of its port.

A natural harbor to begin with, the man-made improvements complimented by the sheltering of the Cebu strait made the Cebu port second only to Manila.

The Aduana or Customs house the Americans designed and built in 1910 is now the National Museum of the Philippines-Central Visayas Regional Museum.

World War II wreaked havoc on this prewar idyll, but the construction of an airport, the addition of more schools and universities, the expansion of its port after the war gave Cebu a competitive edge.

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Its journey from an “inchoate kingdom” (in the words of National Artist for Literature Resil Mojares) to an economic leader and tourism hub is a testament to the Cebuano character. This Cebuano character may not at all be unique—an indomitable spirit, resilience, enterprise exist elsewhere—but it has been certainly shaped by the limitations and challenges that this “Island in the Pacific” faced. INQ

TAGS: Cebu, economy, Spotlight

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