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ILOILO CITY, Philippines – A fast emerging and popular tourist destination in Western Visayas is the Islas de Gigantes or Higantes Group of Islands located in the second class municipality of Carles in northern Iloilo.
The sudden influx of tourists before and more so, after the devastation of Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) in Western Visayas, has proved that the islands are worth visiting.
Islas de Gigantes is an island chain consisting of 13 islands and islets within the larger western Visayas archipelago in the Visayan Sea.
It is located 25 kilometers away from mainland Carles, and can only be accessed by a 1.5 to two-hour boat travel through the open waters of the Visayan Sea.
The two largest islands are Gigantes Norte and Gigantes Sur, consisting of 4 barangays: Asluman and Granada in the former, and Gabi and Lantangan in the latter.
The island group also has 11 islets: Balbagon, Bantigue, Bulubadiang, Cabugao Daku, Cabugao Gamay, Gakit-Gakit, Gigantillo, Gigantito, Gigantona, Pulupandan, and Uay Dahon.
Like other small island communities, Gigantes is also more prone to natural and man-made disasters, especially typhoons as proven by the onslaught of Yolanda.
Yolanda further popularized Gigantes, as the battlecry for “small island resiliency” became the mantra of many humanitarian organizations.
On November 8, 2013, Yolanda ravaged and devastated the island of Panay and inflicted heavy damage on Aklan, Antique, Capiz, and Iloilo.
In Iloilo, the northern municipalities, including Carles town, were greatly damaged by the typhoon.
According to a report by Kagawad Roberto B. Pestaño of Barangay Granada, Yolanda’s fury was most graphic in the 4 island barangays of the Gigantes Group.
Strong winds dealt a heavy blow on houses especially those located along the shoreline.
Public infrastructure, including barangay halls, health centers, and schools sustained heavy damages.
The storm surge and strong winds resulted in destruction of properties, the natural environment, fishing implements, and disruption of people’s livelihoods.
More than P15 million worth of pump boats were destroyed in Asluman, Gabi, Granada, and Lantangan.
The psycho-social impacts deepened people’s anxieties and worries. “Super Typhoon Yolanda badly damaged all of our sources of livelihood here in Gigantes Island,” said a Gigantes resident.
“Our fishing vessels and pump boats were destroyed and it’s sad because a lot of families, individuals, and even students were only depending on fishing as their source of living,” he added.
Gigantes’ risk profile
About 80% of Gigantes’ population of 13,114 – 6,839 males and 6,275 females – live below the poverty line, with 70% dependent on fishing as a source of livelihood.
The 4 barangays registered one of the highest cases of poverty incidence in Iloilo province. Their populations are physically, culturally, economically, and politically isolated from the mainland.
Almost 80% are informal settlers composed mainly of transitional residents coming from neighboring islands.
Midwife-to-population ratio is one for every 6,500 persons in the 4 barangays. The malnutrition rate for children between 0-71 months old is at 30%.
More than 50% of households have no toilets. Solid waste management is not even practiced.
There is a dwindling supply of potable drinking water, while available water sources are controlled by a few families.
The population is highly dependend on sea resources for survival, oftentimes using extractive, destructive, and illegal methods. Encroachment of commercial fishers is rampant.
The islands have a fragile ecosystem, a biodiversity hotspot with endangered species of frog and gecko.
Many of the houses are made of light materials. 70% of households live within the 40-meter no build zone (danger zone) with bleak prospects for relocation to a safer site.
The 4 barangays are also prone and vulnerable to meteorological and geophysical hazards. The islands’ vulnerability and exposure to hazards are worsened by anthropogenic factors. They also have deficient capacities for disaster preparedness and response.
The islands are prone to several hazards: typhoons, Habagat, Amihan, big waves, rising sea levels slowly eating up the islands’ coastline, drought, red tide, oil spill, overbearing heat, too much rain, sea level rise, and dangers brought by human activities.
“The devastation in remote northern Iloilo towns like Carles did not immediately catch the attention of the national and international media and humanitarian organizations,” said Professor Jorge S. Ebay of the University of the Philippines Visayas Foundation Incorporated (UPVFI).
“After Yolanda left, only local resources were being mobilized and they were being rapidly exhausted. Thus, we appealed to the other people’s kindness and generosity. Carles direly needed our assistance,” he added.
The emergence of Gigantes as a tourist destination had been in the offing even before Yolanda.
Improved means of transportation with regular trips daily and the initial spurt of growth of resort establishments encouraged arrivals but these were further buoyed by strong social media exposure, especially via Facebook.
“The natural charms of Gigantes, though, are enough to lure tourists as the islands offer a more laid back atmosphere. Fresh food and affordable rates are additional come-ons,” Ebay said.
Local officials saw this potential for tourism growth.
As a result, additional tourism services have been added. Tourists who are island-hopping and land tours are now given options such as the assistance of tour guides.
Barangay Gabi, where many of the natural tourism draws are located, once assigned barangay volunteers to guard the sites and guide tourists. The local government augmented these services.
Environmental fees were imposed to help maintain the sites. Currently, there are plans to establish additional tourism infrastructures as local officials anticipate more arrivals in the coming years.
“However, a lot of improvements are still being desired, especially in terms of tourism education, site management (including controlled entry), natural resource protection, and sanitation,” Ebay observed.
“I just hope that the increasing popularity of Gigantes right now can be matched by commensurate efforts to ensure that its natural attractions are preserved and protected while at the same time ensuring the survival and development of its burgeoning population,” he said. – Rappler.com