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MANILA, Philippines – If given the chance, would you join an expedition cruise touring the hotly contested but otherwise remote destination that is the West Philippine Sea?
In a forum organized by Stratbase ADR Institute on Monday, April 17, Khenjap Hupanda, Kalayaan Tourism Development Project program manager, presented the local government’s plan for the expedition cruise called The Great Kalayaan Expedition.
Hupanda highlighted the package as the centerpiece of Kalayaan’s plan on making it an adventure tourism spot by 2040.
The expedition cruise would jump off from Puerto Princesa City and go through Ulugan Bay, Lawak Island, Patag Island, Likas Island, and Pag-asa Island for seven days.
“Tourism initiatives such as The Great Kalayaan Expedition by the local government of Kalayaan make the West Philippine Sea more accessible to Filipinos,” said Stratbase ADR Institute president Dindo Manhit.
Manhit said environment and tourism endeavors would enable a “stronger maritime and defense posture.”
“In all these endeavors, the efforts of the national and international community to secure biodiversity and promote tourism must complement and respect the Philippines’ 2016 arbitral victory,” he added.
The tour would include fishing, diving, kayaking, snorkeling, wreck diving, sea turtle watching, and a “catch and cook” tournament. Tourists will have a chance to join coastal cleanups and a tree-planting activity.
As for security concerns, Hupanda, citing the presence of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) in the West Philippine Sea, said, “We are the safest municipality in the country.”
The package costs P120,000 per person, including environmental fees and a sustainable tourism development fee.
The PCG’s BRP Melchora Aquino began its maiden voyage last month, March 16.
Why is this important?
Categorized as a 5th-class municipality, Kalayaan, Palawan, “has virtually non-existent local revenue,” said Hupanda. Efforts to turn Kalayaan and the West Philippine Sea into tourism spots would help generate income and livelihood for many citizens.
Beside boosting the municipality’s economic status, experts agreed that such an effort would sound off a political move that would be an advantage for the entire country.
Retired Navy Captain Carl Shuster said in an ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC) interview in July 2022 that conducting tourism activities in the West Philippine Sea would help assert the country’s sovereignty.
Tourism would justify “banking, judicial, law enforcement, and medical services,” Shuster said. Commercial activities and high foot traffic in the contested waters would also boost transparency as more people would personally witness the maritime activities of Chinese vessels in the area.
Shuster cited Malaysia’s dive tours in the Swallow Reef (Layang Layang Island), an atoll in the Spratlys Islands located 300 kilometers from Sabah. Malaysia has built a naval post and diving resort on Layang Layang Island, strengthening their presence.
Former Supreme Court senior associate justice Antonio Carpio has been supporting the idea of conducting tourism activities in the area for a long time. He also backs the conversion of military facilities to marine research facilities and eco-tourism facilities.
Aside from Malaysia, other neighboring countries like China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Brunei have laid claims on parts of the South China Sea.