Preserving paradise: Three pillars of sustainable ecotourism
The growing tourism industry in El Nido presents tremendous opportunities for this first-class town to be a model of sustainable ecotourism

MANILA, Philippines – The turquoise waters of Bacuit Bay and the limestone karst islets are great sights to behold. Above the lagoons, swiftlets make their way to the hidden caves and crevices to build their nests, from which the famed Philippine paradise got its name.

Located at the northern part of mainland Palawan, the municipality of El Nido is a dream destination to many.  Tourist arrivals rose from about 10,000 in 1994 to around 65,000 in 2014 – a dramatic 550% spike within two decades. What was once Palawan’s secret gem is now a hotspot for mainstream tourists who can now visit this picturesque town for the cheap.

Roderick Moralde, who heads the town’s association of licensed tour guides, worries that El Nido might follow Boracay’s road to ruin. 

“El Nido has taken off, but if we fly too high and too fast, we’ll burn our wings and risk paying the price of unmonitored and uncoordinated development. The question is not whether to refuse change, but how to manage it. What we need is careful, balanced development,” Moralde said. He was born and raised in El Nido.

Roderick aired his sentiments during a gathering of seasoned ecotourism front-liners organized by top environmental solutions provider World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-Philippines) last June in his town.  

Set against the gentle coast of Bacuit Bay, the meeting was the third time WWF-Philippines’ Ecotourism Community of Practice (ECOP) gathered to report on progress attained and challenges experienced in their respective banner ecotourism sites. The organization convened the conference to help ensure that the tourism industry’s growth provides an experience that encourages repeat visits, is equitable for local communities, and does not trespass on environmental boundaries.

Members of the ECOP include key tourism operators and stakeholders in the national and local government sharing the common goal of developing Philippine ecotourism within the limits of acceptable change. Aside from El Nido, the other case studies covered for 2014 are Puerto Princesa Underground River (PPUR), the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Marine Park, Donsol town in Sorsogon, plus Peñablanca town in Cagayan province.

Thee pillars of sustainable ecotourism

The Aquino administration’s National Development Plan for Tourism seeks to establish the Philippines as Asia’s must-experience destination, while building an environmentally and socially responsible tourism that delivers more equitable income and employment opportunities.

Environmentally responsible tourism is one of the new growth poles of a green economy – providing sustainable infrastructure, business opportunities, jobs, and income. A well-managed tourism industry can contribute to economic development and poverty reduction.

 “Pursuant to the Tourism Act of 2009, we want to develop this industry as one that is ecologically sustainable, responsible, participative, culturally sensitive, and ethically plus socially equitable for local communities,” Ms. Rica Bueno noted. Bueno is the DOT’s Director for Standards and Regulation, the national government’s representative to the ECOP. 

When WWF-Philippines first convened the Ecotourism Community of Practice in July 2012, it outlined the three pillars of sustainable tourism, namely: Natural Asset Protection, Enhanced Visitor Experience, and Direct Community Benefit.

“A Community of Practice is especially valuable in creating new knowledge for sustainable ecotourism advancement, maximized through partnerships and networking. The three pillars are enumerated not according priority. They must remain balanced for the sustained survival of an ecotourism operation,” Joel Palma, WWF-Philippines Vice-president for Conservation Programs, said. 

Using the case study method, ECOP participants spent an entire day of open discussions on best practices plus roadblocks that weaken the attainment of the three pillars.  

Anton Carag, professional ecotourism developer based in Cagayan, discussed Donsol’s need to diversify its tourism product mix to address the decline in tourist arrivals despite the increase in sightings of whale sharks, the main attraction of this hotspot in the Bicol region. 

Carag himself is hard-pressed to break the impasse between his hometown of Peñablanca and the Cagayan provincial government when it comes to increasing the funding for the Callao Cave Tourist Zone. Cagayan’s tourism budget is only PHP 1.5 Million annually, which covers all 28 municipalities. All collections from the Zone’s measly PHP 20.00 entrance fee per person goes to the province’s general fund. Profits cannot be used to improve deteriorating facilities in the Zone.

Robert Alabado, former city planner of Davao, advised Carag that reinventing the user’s fee system plus sharing profit between the provincial government and the Peñablanca LGU may enhance visitor experience at the Zone.

“You have to know your product proposition and have a full tourism menu so you can stay ahead of the curve. The sign of a successful tourist destination is repeat visits,” WWF-Philippines Vice-chair and CEO Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan said. 

Angelique Songco, Park Superintendent of the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Marine Park, highlighted the successes of the new management of the Puerto Princesa Underground River Natural Park (PPUR), whose operations were once beset by an outdated and disorganized booking system.

Tourist arrivals breached the Park’s carrying capacity when it was voted among the New 7 Wonders of Nature in 2012. Mayor Lucilo Bayron, who was elected the following year, installed new management led by Park Superintendent Elizabeth Maclang.

As a first step, the new Park administration installed a more credible computerized booking system designed to allow bookings of no more than 900 guests per day.  To pro-actively prevent the Park’s ‘point-of-sale’ from becoming a ‘point-of-anxiety,’ transparency was highlighted.  The real-time status of each day’s bookings was made visible to all visitors and tour operators. A board displayed this constantly updated information in the Park’s booking office for all to see.

Among the case studies discussed in the conference, only PPUR emerged as the sole financially self-sustaining ecotourism site.

“We wanted to champion transparency to all stakeholders so we can preserve the Underground River’s prestige as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Today, due to increased revenue flow, we can target the funding of PHP 1 Million per year to four indigenous communities in Puerto Princesa,” says a beaming Maclang. 

ECOP participants ended the day with heated discussions on El Nido’s Tourism Master Plan, which WWF-Philippines is helping the local government develop. Key problems include illegal tour boat operations, traffic congestion, plus an inadequate water supply.

This hubbub of activity echoes the experience of tourism areas such as Boracay and Puerto Galera. Some units of the LGU, the tourism sector, and non-governmental organizations apparently seem intent on proceeding with their own projects, even before a Tourism Master Plan is finalized and approved.  

Tourism is one of the fastest growing industries worldwide. In the Philippines, many of our tourist sites are famous for their outstanding natural beauty. Because tourists come for the scenery and for memorable experiences, it makes sense for the tourism sector to look after its lifeline—its natural environment and its people.

The benefits of responsible tourism are not far-off and unclear. They are tangible, and in several cases, can be perceived immediately. In contrast, it may take years before the negative impacts of neglect are felt.

WWF-Philippines convened the Ecotourism Community of Practice so that the country’s developers and front-liners can help one another identify solutions and opportunities, plus learn from mistakes and success stories.

“This is about thinking beyond our fences; this is about building bridges. We have to develop a constituency for what we are doing. There has to be a sense of ownership and local stewardship,” concludes Tan. –  

WWF-Philippines’ Ecotourism Community of Practice is an annual gathering of seasoned ecotourism front-liners, plus representatives from the tourism sector in the national and local government. 




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