No Government in the Philippines do not miss an opportunity to talk about Intramuros historical district in Manila. Intramuros – the Walled City in Spanish language- is not only Manila’s major tourist attraction. It is also the historical soul of the country as it was the first establishment of Spaniards in the Philippines.
Manila was founded in 1571 with walls around the new Spanish administration town being erected from 1590. In its height days in the 19th century, Intramuros was a beautiful Spanish style city surrounded by bastions. Intramuros heart was Plaza Mayor with the Ayuntamiento (City Hall, recently reconstructed) and Manila Cathedral. Seven other churches including Philippines oldest stone church, San Agustin gave Intramuros its nickname of ‘City of Churches’.
The district was also the centre of educational institutions run mostly by religious orders. Jesuits created in 1590 the Universidad de San Ignacio followed by the establishment of the Universidad de Santo Tomas in 1611 by Dominicans.
Intramuros historical structures were almost totally eradicated in World War II in the inferno of the battle of Manila. The battle opposed Japanese imperial troops to the US army. Destructions of Intramuros were intense starting already in 1941 with the destruction of Santo Domingo church and the University of Santo Tomas. In 1945, as Japanese troops were retrenched inside Intramuros, General MacArthur decided of Intramuros shelling, inflecting further destructions
At the end of World War II, Intramuros had sunk in ruins: 100,000 of Filipinos had been killed while only 5% of the historical town was still standing, including San Agustin Church.
In the 1950s, Intramuros was declared a national historical monument with Fort Santiago being reconstructed and designated a National Heritage Landmark. Manila Cathedral, some Spanish style houses, five of Intramuros eight Gates were rebuilt while San Agustin was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1993.
Despite a special law creating Intramuros Administration in 1979, restoration and reconstruction have been slow, very slow due to a lack of funds. Over the last decade, only the Ayutamiento, the former city hall, has been reconstructed to its former glory.
However, the sluggish efforts by Philippines successive administrations to protect Intramuros was denounced in 2012 in a report of Global Heritage Fund (GHF), an international conservancy devoted to saving endangered cultural heritage sites in developing countries. “Asia’s Heritage in Peril: Saving Our Vanishing Heritage” denounced the lack of funds provided to save Intramuros.
Two major projects have been adopted by the outgoing Aquino administration. Last year, US$15 million were approved by the Department of Tourism (DOT) and funded through DOT Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (TIEZA) to create a new Intramuros museum in the reconstructed San Ignacio Church and the Casa Mission along Arzobispo Street while renovation would be done to spruce up Fort Santiago landscapes, new historical pavement and lighting. Aduana Street – today Soriano Avenue- will also be turned into a pedestrian area with electric cables being put underground. All the projects were approved prior to Manila hosting of APEC leaders’ meeting back to November 2015.
San Ignacio reconstruction – a marvellous example of classical Spanish architecture- is funded conjointly by the National Commission of Culture and Arts and TIEZA for a total of US$9 million. The future museum will house 8,500 historical pieces ranging from paintings to artworks made from ivory and precious stones. Supposedly due to be completed in October last year, none of the improvements are visible today.
Another major project, the rehabilitation of Pasig River between Intramuros and nearby Binondo district seems also to be in limbos. Back to 2011, there was a project to create an area similar to Clark Quay in Singapore with restored houses and a former market hall to be integrated into a riverside walk with restaurants, shops and art facilities…
Intramuros surprisingly continues to lack basic facilities for travellers visiting individually the historical area. ‘Basics’ include ATMs around tourist areas, taxis or a shuttle bus to the LRT or towards a convenient transportation hub. Not to mention pleasant coffee or handicraft shops which would appeal to travellers. Only Casa Manila offers for now some nice places to relax – in limited numbers.
And that despite the fact that Intramuros District remains one of the most visited areas in Philippines capital city. According to Intramuros Administration, the district targeted last year 640,000 visitors in museums and monuments within the Walled City. IA targets some 900,000 visitors per year in the future… Once improvements have been implemented!