"What is the meaning of YOLO?" asked the Filipino flight attendant brightly. It was the 3rd time I'd been presented with the question in 24 hours, because I was on the 3rd leg of my journey to Siargao – a tear-shaped breath of tranquillity in the sapphire waters of the Philippine Sea.
Crunching on a mouthful of peanuts, I suppressed a smirk and raised my hand.
"You only live once."
The cabin thundered into applause. Beaming at my cleverness, the flight attendant presented me with a Cebu Pacific pencil case as a prize, before preparing the cabin to land on the island’s tiny, coconut palm-lined runway.
I first heard about Siargao from a Dutch friend of mine, whose love of catching waves far surpasses our actual ability. A bunch of crusty surfers had told her of the island’s famed Cloud 9 break whilst we were in Indonesia, and she was adamant we experience the so-called utopia for ourselves.
"Picture an unspoiled paradise," she had gushed. "Like what people have on their desktop backgrounds, or that one your uncle waffles on about surfing in the ’70s."
Despite her assurances, I wasn’t expecting much. When it comes to beach destinations in Asia, beauty can be a burden. One of the biggest paradoxes of travel is that we tend to crave experiences we deem authentic, those not aimed at tourists at all, and where the presentations of local life aren't watered down for our benefit. But in places such as Thailand's Koh Phi Phi, Bali's Kuta, and Cambodia's Sihanoukville, the fantasy of going off the beaten path to find somewhere unscarred by tourists and their trash is starting to fade.
What I found in the east of the Philippines, however, blew my jaded cynicism to pieces.
Siargao is an island carpeted in tangled jungle and mangrove forests, where waves peel like mangoes from a pastel fringe of reef and rum is cheaper than water. Go for a putter on a motorbike, and you're likely to pass the odd carabao sled before stumbling upon a virgin stretch of coast with no other foreigners in sight.
For 8 glorious nights, my friends and I slept under mosquito nets and rode helmetless all over the island, utterly captivated by its rural charm. We frolicked in waterfalls, dove from bizarre cliff formations, and snorkelled in jellyfish lakes. We slurped on smoothie bowls, bent ourselves into downward dog and rented longboards, finding we were just as likely to paddle out alongside local women as we were men. Above all, we delighted in our discovery of how pristine the island was, not to mention that its warm community lacked the Western-influenced atmosphere of hipster pretension often prevalent in other destinations marketed as surf and yoga retreats.
With a population of less than 100,000 and a circumference you can scoot around in a day, Siargao's history as a tourist destination is relatively short. The island, which is one of many in the Surigao del Norte province, was first stumbled upon by foreign wavehunters in the early '80s. It wasn't until a decade later, though, that an article published in Surfer magazine brought it to the attention of an international audience. Today, Siargao is known as the surfing mecca of the Philippines. In May, it hosted the country's first ever women’s World Surf League (WSL) event, and on September 24, the Siargao Cloud 9 Surfing Cup began: a testament to the excellent job the Filipino government is currently doing in promoting the island.
Tourism is a fairly predictable fungus. In places with world-class waves, it tends to come in sets. First, there are the surfers, then the hippies and the real estate agents, the backpackers and the retirees. Inevitably, development catches up – roads are paved and regulations get introduced, and the travelers who first came to chase authenticity shake their heads at what they see as paradise lost.
But it’s actually when the development doesn’t catch up that problems arise.
When I first traveled to Siargao in August 2016, getting there wasn’t exactly easy. We could either catch two flights from Manila, or jump on several planes and a ferry depending on the day of the week. Fast forward just a few months and access to the island has become vastly simpler: one direct flight from Manila and 3 from Cebu operate every day, a number shortly set to increase to 6. Filling the seats are thousands of pleasure-seekers – both local and foreign – responding to the government’s quest to promote Siargao as an eco-tourism destination and prompt investment in the region, a campaign that has been underway since as early as 2004.
In November last year, Governor Sol Matugas – who is in charge of Surigao del Norte – announced that 1.2 billion pesos had been allocated to add and improve infrastructure in the region, with special regard to tourism facilities in Siargao. Three hundred million of this has gone towards the construction of a sports complex in Dapa, and Matugas told the Manila Bulletin the rest would go towards the “construction of more roads and bridges [and] seaports.” Additional funding has been secured for urban planning, the 2017 World Surfing Cup, the World Game Fishing Tournament and the improvement of Siargao’s airport. Investors in tourism-related businesses have also shelled out more than a billion pesos annually for the last 3 years, which has seen resorts and restaurants spread like wildfire.
According to Pia de Lima,* who runs an environmental NGO on the island, the model for Siargao is set to be based on that of Nusa Dua in Bali. "This will give way to big investors like Shangri-La. There is already a casino being built," she said. "Siargao is a surfing island, in Mindanao nonetheless, and [originally], only the few adventurous ones braved to come here. With the ease of transport these days and the way it's being marketed, the target audience now is the mainstream crowd."
Naturally, with an influx of tourists and new businesses comes a surge in the amount of waste produced. But rather than increasing the number of official dump sites in areas frequented by tourists, the government has actually reduced them.
On November 9, 2016, General Luna’s rubbish tip was sanctioned and closed down. This was in keeping with national laws that require ecological waste management and segregation facilities as opposed to open dumps. Due to having no other option, some private rubbish organizations continued to use the site to dispose of solid waste, but the unmaintained roads leading in became so bad that their trucks kept getting bogged.
In March 2017, the dump site was bulldozed. Local government members suggested rubbish instead be left behind the town’s fire station, but truck drivers refused, and in April, the Siargao Tourism Operators Association (STOA) was forced to cease garbage collection completely for all its paying members. Now, many local residents are simply finding their own way to the closed illegal dump site to dispose of their rubbish, and uncollected piles of trash can be seen lining the roads and beaches, seeping waste into the ocean.
Abelardo C. Navarro-Tolentino II is a local businessman whose family has been on the island for 5 generations. He is also the president of STOA, which, in addition to looking after the environment, tackles issues related to the island’s tourism industry and maintains a relationship with the local government.
"Siargao has been nationally recognized as a Protected Area and has been under the jurisdiction of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources since 1996, but the application of the rules and regulations for such a category have not yet been applied nor enforced," he said, citing waste management – both solid and sewage – as the biggest challenge facing the island at the moment.
"Water quality is the number one asset of Siargao as a surf destination, and it has to be guarded."
Joseph Garcia,* a local business owner who volunteers with a number of Siargao's NGOs, is also concerned about the rubbish problem. "People are just disposing of trash as they can," he explains. "There's been a complete lack of action [by the government]. This isn't a new thing. We're the 3rd set of people to be pushing for some action in terms of garbage in the past 10 years. Each group tries and gets fed up."
Initiatives headed by STOA and S.E.A. Movement, another local NGO, are encouraging resorts to segregate their trash and businesses to refuse single-use plastics. As a result, many businesses are now recycling glass bottles and using them for construction, metal and bamboo straws are fast replacing plastic ones, and waste in general is being closely monitored and thus reduced.
"On the upside, we have had a great surge in volunteerism from other organizations such as Siargao Green in terms of helping clean up the town and the beaches, and helping with the locals with education and livelihood projects," explains Abe. Even the South Korean government has offered to help, as well as Gina Lopez's iLove foundation and Filipino personalities like Pantaleón Díaz Álvarez, the current Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Segregation of waste has also has also started in several baranggays, and some do have their own Material Recycling Facilities (MRF) that satisfy national law. But in General Luna, where there's still no collection service and no proper rubbish tip, even efforts to segregate trash end up futile, as everything gets mixed up again when it is illegally disposed of in the closed dump or the side of the road.
Ideally, what is needed on Siargao is a sanitized landfill for residual waste and a recycling plant. The MRF will have segregated recyclable garbage, while the landfill will take care of residual waste. Residents also stress the need for the government to provide regular garbage collection and rubbish bins for the general public, and work closely with organisations like S.E.A. Movement.
Accordingly, in May, plans were made to meet with First District Representative Congressman Bingo Matugas and Governor Sol Matugas to discuss an immediate solution to the island’s trash problem. However, the scheduled meeting is yet to go ahead, having continually been pushed back by the government to excuses such as cancelled flights.
"It’s not that bad yet; there's not that much trash yet, but with the amount of promotions going and the way tourism is increasing here, it’s going to be a problem this year," says Joseph.
:Long term, the problems that will arise will be water and air pollution where there are open dumpsites, since they burn the rubbish and trash will contaminate the water under the ground," adds Pia. "There will health problems caused by this [and] a generally dirty town and beaches if people keep littering and have no option to throw their rubbish in bins."
Along with waste disposal, another government oversight continuing to cause problems on Siargao as tourism spikes is the island's lack of adequate medical facilities. The closest hospital with the capacity to care for serious injuries is located in Butuan, 5 hours’ drive from Surigao City, which itself is roughly 3 hours from Siargao by sea.
A tragic demonstration of the dangers of such difficult hospital access was demonstrated earlier this year. On April 19, Siargao-based 20-year-old Mike Escoltura died from his injuries when he was hit on his motorbike by a speeding car driving on the wrong side of the road in broad daylight. Mike was widely considered a prospective champion surfer, having performed exceptionally well in competitions in the past, and had graduated from college just 3 weeks earlier.
"Whenever people get into accidents, they have to rush," explains Joseph, who was close to the deceased. "The nearest hospital is on the mainland, hours by boat, and they don't even have really good facilities … [Mike] was rushed to Butuan on a 12-hour journey. When he got to hospital, he was still breathing. You never know, but maybe the wait – [and] the choppy speed boat – was too much."
Local residents say they would love to have a hospital or at least a stabilization clinic in the municipality of General Luna, where most of the tourism activities happen on the island, but acknowledge that there is more to the problem than just a lack of proper access to medical care.
"There's a freedom that makes Siargao [what it is] – you can ride around without helmets and ride around drunk," explains Joseph. "It's part of the joy of it. But at the same time, there's the other side to the coin."
I've been told that since my visit in August last year, when I wrung my hands at my inability to find something to protect my skull, helmets are much easier to access. Rental companies will provide anyone who rents a scooter or motorbike with one, along with a recommendation to wear it.
As for enforcement of the law, the Land Transport Office is the department in charge of road safety nationwide. But on Siargao, there are only 3 employees, making regulation of its 437 square kilometres massively challenging.
"The other problem too," says Joseph, admitting there is a need for stricter road safety and discipline, "is that if you implement all these laws like registration and licencing and getting a helmet, the poor local farmers and fisherman who can’t afford to do that won’t have access to go anywhere."
Abe has also voiced his concern for local residents, and thinks the government needs to look at zoning the island.
“If businesses continue to buy all the land on the island what will be left for everyone else? Everything will just be businesses and resorts. Areas should be designated as purely residential and some areas for locals only,” he said.
There is no doubting that in places that are still largely developing like Siargao, tourism is a double-edged sword. The new opportunities an influx of tourists can provide can help significantly reduce poverty and stimulate the local economy, but there needs to be a balance – especially where the environment is concerned.
"I see both sides of this blade and understand that this boom and how it is handled can either make or break this island," says Abe. "I've seen it in similar places where it has blown up beyond what the government can handle – such as Bali and Boracay - and places where they have managed somewhat well to do well despite the influx and development, like Singapore."
Acknowledging that the island's business and resort owners are the reason for the boom, Abe admits he feels a certain amount of responsibility to keep Siargao the way they found it: an island paradise.
"I would like the government to focus on conservation more than development," he said.
"Development will come no matter what and that can be shaped and guided, but conservation has to be top of mind. We need to control growth and development before it controls us." – Rappler.com
*Names have been changed to protect identities
Gemma Clarke is a freelance journalist and the editor of Global Hobo www.globalhobo.com.au, a travel publication for dirtbags with itchy feet. She spends her time between Australia, Bali and Japan, and currently lives in her van off a diet of instant noodles and red wine.