GUMASA, Sarangani –This place was touted as the South’s version of Boracay.

Not anymore.

It has acquired a brand of its own.  Its own unique life.  It has become a place to see and be seen in the summer. 

It has even become one of life’s great levelers – at least in this part of the Philippines. This year, the beach was deluged with beachgoers, in all sizes and skin tones.  From the peasants and proletarians to the bourgeoisie and compradors – they were all there.

Gumasa is where the biggest beach party in the country happens every summer – the Sarangani Bay Festival, now made even more popular with its catchy brand name Sarbay Fest.

Organizers say 100,000 people invaded the beach.  That may be a tad too many.  It means putting all residents of the town at a strip of white sand beaches measuring no more than 2 kilometers leaving only 6,518 off the shores of Glan. (Glan, Sarangani has a population of 106,518)

Whatever it is, this year must be the biggest crowd yet to enjoy the thrills of a beach party that ends all other beach parties in the Philippines.

Gumasa's crystal clear waters to go along with fine powdery white sands. Pic by Cocoy Sexcion.

Fine beaches

Gumasa, before it became home to Sarbay Fest, was always known for its fine white powdery beaches.  In the early 1980s, its pristine white sand beaches were the unspoiled and hidden destinations for adventurous college teens from nearby General Santos.

In the latter part of that tumultuous decade, however, Gumasa became a largely forgotten attraction as peace and order took its toll on this laid back town, one of the oldest in the region.  But there is no escaping the allure of its fine beaches.  Tourists, most of them retired expats, have found paradise in this place until a Japanese national was kidnapped in the vicinity, setting back again its development as a major tourist destination.

Still it did not prevent other nationals from finding haven in Gumasa. 

A Dutch national was almost 80 percent finished with his castle-inspired 48-room hotel beach resort in nearby Taluya village until he ran afoul with former Glan Mayor Enrique Yap Jr.

The world-class facility is now lying idle, nearly finished, after Hans Kooring gave up finishing his project.  He is selling the place.

He started it all

The case of the Dutch national did not escape the attention of former Sarangani Gov. Miguel Rene Dominguez who tried to bridge the gap between the mayor and Kooring.

By then, the governor was just warming up for a beach event that today would become synonymous with summer fun.

Two months into his first term, in 2004, the then 27-year Dominguez was looking for activities that would light and open up the province to tourists and investors.

This author suggested a beach festival to differentiate it from the rest of ethnic-inspired festivals across the country.

But the problem is: the province shares the same bay with General Santos.

The beach festival was initially envisioned to be a joint activity with the city.  But after a couple of meetings, the effort did not bear fruit.

So the governor decided to do it alone.

Thus was born the Sarangani Bay Festival.

Now a big event

Sarbay does not make any pretensions about culture.  It is pure and simple summer fun, decadent as it may be for others.  That is what makes Sarbay a phenomenal and unqualified success.

The first bay festival did not come off the starting block until 2006.  It was a very modest beach party kickoff with only 5,000 camping into the night at the height of the then 4-day long celebration (May 17-20).   Most of the revelers were locals.  The inaugural staging attracted a handful of visitors from Davao City, majority of them friends of the governor and some backpackers from Kidapawan City, according to an article by Bong Sarmiento that appeared in Sun*Star General Santos in May 2006.

 

“For two days last week, the erstwhile bucolic atmosphere of paradise-like Gumasa, with its fine white sand coastline and greenish and bluish waters from a distance, dazzlingly teemed with life.

Hundreds of partygoers, beach buffs, water sports aficionados and plain kibitzers flocked to the coastal village and grooved to the rhythms of reggae, jazz and modern live music deep into the night of booze frenzy.

The night of fun, with Gov. Miguel Rene Dominguez visibly enjoying with several hot babes, was a prelude to the morning-after-showcase of water sports activities that include kayaking and skimboarding.” Bong S. Sarmiento, Sun*Star Gensan, May 29, 2006

It nevertheless thrilled the many few who came into Sarbay’s coming out party.  The hundreds become thousands.

The following year, some 10,000 people came.  Then it became 17,000 for a two night party in 2008.  Since then, the crowd has been steadily growing in numbers.  Sarbay has also since shed off its image as an exclusively backpackers’ haven.

Gov. Miguel Rene Dominguez (sitting on a makeshift stage) in this 2008 file foto by Bambam Garcia

Corporate sponsors are now racing to have their brands and products displayed at the beach strip that has likewise evolved from the 2-aircondtionied rooms of White Haven to an array of beach resorts offering better amenities.

Last week’s 9th edition of the festival had only Asia Brewery beer products on sale in the strip’s hundreds of booth and bars.  SMART got the very best exposure with its sponsorship of the lung-busting Triathlon competition of the festival.  SMART, along with Tanduay, each mounted well-lit giant inflatable balloons of their corporate brands TM and Tanduay 5 Years Old.

SUVs and other luxury cars were left along the narrow concrete highway unattended as practically all resorts sacrificed most of their parking spaces for the more profitable tent area rentals.

Gumasa became one big tent city during this year's Sarbay fest edition.Pic by Edwin Espejo

And for the first time, aerial shots of the events became available offering a bird’s eye view of the events below the shores and crystal blue waters of Gumasa, thanks to camera-equipped drones.

And the crowd has become a merry mix with more than a handful of Caucasians, a few of them even joined the triathlon.   Local tourist from as far as Ilocos and the Visayas also camped in.  Sarbay no longer is just Mindanao’s biggest beach party.  It is the beach party in the country!

Gumasa has undeniably arrived.

There will be whiners

This year’s Sarbay Fest was not only well attended by a record number.  It was a runaway blockbuster.   My own estimate is a low of 30,000 to 50,000 max partygoers filling the resort strip at the peak of the 2 dusk-to-dawn party nights on May 16 and 17.

It left the beach in the morning of the 18th littered with all the thrash the night before. Some were quick to jump on the organizers posting and commenting on the solitary picture that overshadowed the success of this this year’s bay fest edition.   The photo created a stir in the social media.  But no sooner than it was posted, a strong backlash from the organizers hit the poster.

Michelle Solon, wife of incumbent Gov. Steve Solon, was left fuming and mad she posted this on her Facebook account:

“If you think you are angry by what you saw on photos before the Clean Up… Imagine us, from Sarangani, how upset we are? We are more UPSET. We however, did not go publicly declaring dirty laundry. Instead we continued to Clean Up.”

The beach was however cleaned up of litters and trash two days after.

It will only become bigger

There are no signs Sarbay Fest is cooling off.  If the trend continues, next year’s edition will even be bigger and hotter.  But there are rumors the beach strip, which houses the Rosal, White Haven, Coco and Reyes beach resorts won’t be renewing their hosting contracts next year.  Wherever itwill be, partygoers will be there for Sarbay – the Beach Party nobody should miss.