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JOLO, SULU: After decades of conflict and militant unrest, Sulu in the southwestern Philippines is pinning its hopes on the return of visitors as the scenic island province finally sees a return to peace.

The province, with more than 150 islets, is part of the Sulu Archipelago, which stretches from the tip of the Zamboanga Peninsula in the north to the island of Borneo in the south. Most of Sulu’s 1 million residents are Muslim.

In the late 1960s, the region began to experience unrest, which sparked the rise of groups seeking autonomy for Filipino Muslims in the southern Philippines.

During decades of armed conflict with government forces, some separatist factions have turned to criminal activity, including the Abu Sayyaf group, which since the early 2000s has gained notoriety for extortion, assassinations and kidnappings against ransom, especially in areas around Sulu, the group’s stronghold.

It took years for the military to crack down on the group and finally bring a relative sense of security and hopes for development.

“Sulu is much better today,” Sulu provincial tourism officer Julkiram Arastam told Arab News during a recent interview in the province’s capital city of Jolo.

“Ten years ago, we could only dream that one day peace and order would no longer be an issue in Sulu, and it could show the world how beautiful it is.”

Arastam knows it will take some time before the investment comes in and the province can create proper tourism infrastructure.

“We are still building an image, changing the bad perception of Sulu,” he said.

Infrequent commercial flights only started reaching the island this year, and only on small planes from the town of Zamboanga, about 150 kilometers away.

“Commercial flights to Sulu are fairly recent; it has a very limited capacity. But we hope additional, bigger planes will also fly to Jolo,” Arastam said.

“We are improving our airport and we also dream that there will be a direct flight from Manila.”

His wish is that the flights start bringing in tour groups. So far, there are only a few visitors from local areas. Last month, about 20 people arrived, according to Arastam. But it’s still better than nothing, which was the case not so long ago.

“We are developing our potential in tourism,” he said.

“Everyone enjoys the beauty of the scenery, and locals like us, or even tourists passing through Manila, can travel to other municipalities without fear, without fear of militancy.”

The largest ethnic group in Sulu is the Tausug, who in the 15th century dominated the region and established a sultanate. The Sultanate of Sulu was headquartered in Jolo and exercised its authority over the island chain.

Although little remains of the sultanate and most of its important architecture was destroyed by a typhoon in the early 20th century, local authorities have placed all their eggs in one basket – the area’s natural beauty – betting that this alone will attract visitors.

Long stretches of powdery white sand lapped by turquoise waters and fringed with coconut groves are among the sites the city’s task force to end local armed conflict has identified as the province’s “seven wonders” and “the worst areas.” more promising for marine and maritime activities. development of ecotourism.

All locations are in the municipalities of Patikul and Panamao.

The “wonders” include the infinity pool-shaped Lake Timpuok, Bitih Beach and Bakungan Island, which authorities say are the best spots for canoeing, kayaking and snorkeling.

Tambanan Lagoon and the rock formation of Walo-Walo Island, both described as superb diving areas, and the white sand beaches of Su-uh and Taung are also major attractions.

“About three years ago, this was the area of ​​engagement between our military forces and the Abu Sayyaf group,” the brigadier said. General Benjamin Batara, of the army’s 1103rd infantry brigade, told Arab News at Lake Timpuok.

“Now a lot of people come here. This place has been promoted on social media and a lot of people are coming,” he said. “We just cleaned this place up a few months ago so people can get a better view of the whole landscape.”

The “wonders” also have the potential to change the lives of Sulu communities.

The earning opportunities are crucial in preventing community members from joining the militants in the impoverished and underdeveloped region.

“The governor has constantly called on people, especially locals, to value the peaceful Sulu which everyone is now enjoying. What we say, especially to our Tausug compatriots, is to be vigilant in safeguarding our province. Let’s not let the situation in the province go back to how it was,” Arastam said.

“We began to feel the peace personally in Sulu.”

The army also notes a growing sense of security among the population of the province.

“There are movements of people now, unlike before,” Maj. Gen. Ignatius Patrimonio, commander of the 11th Infantry Division, a unit designated to combat militancy in Sulu, told Arab News.

“Sulu residents themselves are now enjoying tourist destinations here.”

But the threat posed by militants has not completely disappeared, although many have surrendered to security forces.

According to the 11th Infantry Division, in 2019 there were around 300 ASG members active in the area. The number has since dropped significantly, but the army estimates that around 100 activists are still at large.

Patrimonio said the militants “still pose a threat as long as they’re here”.

Still, he thinks it won’t last long as others decide to lay down their arms.

“We are witnessing the demise of the Abu Sayyaf group,” he said. “Soon.”

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