El Nido’s one of my favorite things to write about because it’s one of my favorite places on Earth. So when I was approached by the wonderful editors of Mantle Magazine (oh hai friends Rej and Dante) to write about the El Nido experience, I quickly accepted. The catch? I had to write about El Nido’s development as a tourism destination.
Writing this was both easy and heartbreaking. Easy because it’s a topic I know well and once I got the outline and supporting statistics figured out, I hammered out the thing in two days. Heartbreaking because I had to put my experience to paper (err, keyboard?) and describe both the good and the bad that comes from increased tourism to a place that isn’t ready for it.
Tourism is often trotted out as the solution for funding protected areas, but that’s a simplistic answer. A destination can go after fewer but higher spending tourists, but that means only the rich get to experience the personal growth and satisfaction that comes from traveling and learning. But lower the price too much and you overwhelm the destination with an unsustainable number of visitors. How do we ensure that the local community benefits from increased tourism? How do we ensure that the proper infrastructure is in place? In short, how do we ensure visitor satisfaction and safety while protecting the environment that they came here to see?
There are no easy answers, but answering it needs the cooperation of the local government, community, businesses, and the tourists themselves.
Tourism is the biggest industry in the world, providing 10% of global GDP and 1 out of 10 jobs in 2016. It’s also big on GHG emissions, producing 5% of global GHG. Considering that tourism contributed 8.6% of the Philippines’ GDP in 2016 AND the Philippines is one of the countries most affected by climate change,WWF-Philippines’ Green Wanderer travel fair held last August 11-13, 2017 at Bonifacio High Street Central Square Mall couldn’t have come at a better time. And yes, this also means that this blog post is very, very late.
I attended the second day specifically for the Sustainability Forum (yes, I woke up at 7am on a Saturday) and the talk by Daluyon Beach and Mountain Resort . The panelists for the Sustainability Forum were Joel Palma (WWF-Philippines President and CEO), Josephine Alcantara-Cruz (mayor of Donsol, Sorsogon), Anton Diaz (founder of the travel blog Our Awesome Planet), Deanne Bibat (Executive Producer of the travel show Biyahe ni Drew), and Alexa Cancio and Nikki Huang (WWF-Philippines National Youth Council members).
My favorite part of the forum was Mayor Jo sharing Donsol’s keys to success. During his presentation, Joel Palma said that for sustainable tourism to succeed, it needs visitor satisfaction (no one’s going to come back or recommend it to their friends if they aren’t happy with it), environmental protection (no protection means you’ll lose what tourists come to see in the first place), and benefits to the community. This was seen in Donsol, as Mayor Jo credits their success to their whale shark ecotourism being Community-Based, Legislation, Environmental-friendliness, the Adaptability of the community, and iNnovation (CLEAN). In Donsol, the community receives 85% of the tourism revenue. The definition of “ecotourism stakeholders” was also expanded to include transportation companies and businesses, not just the boat operators, tour guides, and hotels. Legislation means that everything is controlled and institutionalized. In the worlds of Mayor Jo, the LGU is the “taga-puna” (the critic) and “taga-puno” (the one who fills [needs]). Any new tours or activities in Donsol are screened to ensure that they don’t harm the environment. The community was also able to adapt to tourism as an alternative livelihood, with assistance from WW-Philippines. And lastly, innovation means that they never stop learning.
As for the challenges that Donsol faces, Mayor Jo mentioned three: nature, politics, and culture. Whale sharks are migratory so they’re only in Donsol for six months of the year [me: that means they need to develop another product for the off-season]. Politics also factors in because projects implemented by the current administration aren’t always continued by the succeeding administration. As for culture, Donsol is fighting hard to maintain its culture despite the influx of foreign visitors. An example of this is the increasing demand for nightlife spots, but the LGU has consistently shot down those requests in order to keep the town quiet at night.
Anton Diaz shared some tips on how to be a sustainable traveler. Did you know that Oslob, Cebu (where whale sharks are fed) has 10x the tourism income as Donsol? THAT SUCKS. As for why that sucks, let me enumerate everything that’s wrong with Oslob’s model:
During the Q&A, Mayor Jo was asked what she would change about Oslob should she become mayor there. Her response? She’d change how tourists interact with the whale sharks. Bravo Ma’am!
Anton Diaz shared his tips on how to become a sustainable traveler. They were:
Support social enterprises.
Book sustainable accommodations.
Patronize products from the community.
Experience sustainable adventures.
Choose stand-up paddle tours.
Use electric tricycles.
Eat in local places.
Explore cultural heritage sites.
Fight against animal abuse.
While this list is a good starting point, I feel like it lacks context in some parts. Things are not black and white.
Small businesses and social enterprises are not necessarily sustainable in the same way that big businesses are not inherently unsustainable. A large resort with its own sewage treatment plant is more environmentally responsible than a dozen mom-and-pop inns that discharge their sewage straight into the ocean. A restaurant chain with a firm and fully implemented “no sharks’ fin” policy is more sustainable than a social enterprise that makes sharks fin dumplings.
While vehicles are the largest source of air pollution in the Philippines, using electric tricycles would only contribute towards decreasing pollution if they were charged using renewable energy sources, like solar, wind, and geothermal. If they’re powered using coal, you’re just moving the pollutants from the road to the power plant. Burning coal to produce electricity also produces more CO2 compared to just burning gasoline directly.
As with all things sustainability, one should look at the whole picture and not just one angle.
I was supposed to stay until the afternoon for the talk by Daluyon Resort but since I was lucky enough to get a mini one-on-one interview with Kim, the Marketing Head of Daluyon at their booth, I decided to skip it.
I haven’t been to Daluyon but what Kim showed me was impressive. They’ve invested in an MRF, solar power (not all of their rooms have them, though), an organic vegetable farm, and bicycles available for guests to use. They also offer a bike loan program to the staff, where staffers can avail of an interest-free loan for one year to buy a bike for commuting to work. They’ve also made an effort to promote eco-friendly tours, such as a mangrove tours and nature hikes. Though since I haven’t been there, I don’t know how good their guides are.
Out of all the things that Kim said and promoted about Daluyon, what stood out for me was what she didn’t say: education. Daluyon doesn’t seem to have an environmental education program in place for their guests or staff, which is both a shame and a tremendous opportunity for improvement.
Spent the next two hours looking around the exhibitor booths. I really liked the exhibitor mix, which were mostly homegrown companies offering organic vegetables and sustainable seafood. Of special interest to me was Balangay’s Best.
My biggest disappointment and chief complaint is about the severe lack of actual sustainable travel companies advertising at the fair. The only companies there were El Nido Resorts, Daluyon, and Circle Hostel – places that are already known to practice sustainable tourism.
The travel fair was supposed to introduce me to sustainable tourism companies that I didn’t know of yet.If there were no others to be had in the Philippines, I expected the travel agencies there (who banded together under the Philippine Tour Operators Association, Inc. (PHILTOA)) to suggest options abroad.
Unfortunately, the agents there were unable to recommend anything. They couldn’t assure me that any of the hotels or tours they were offering were handled by responsible companies. If they couldn’t do that, then what was the point of them being there? A travel agency is supposed to cater to what the event is about. If it’s a country-specific event, then you offer tours to that country. If it’s a sustainable tourism event, then you should be offering sustainable accommodations and activities! This fiasco just underscored how much work there is left to do.
Another thing I noticed: all of those who attended Green Wanderer looked well-off. I’m not sure if that’s a reflection of the venue (a high-end mall like Central Square) or a reflection of the demographic interested in sustainable travel. If it’s the latter, then we have even MORE work left to do. Sustainable travel should be accessible to everybody, not just those with big bank accounts.
All in all, Green Wanderer was a decent event. My favorite really was the talk by the mayor of Donsol. Still sad I missed the talk by former boss Mariglo Laririt about El Nido Resorts (why was it on Friday?! huhu). Selection of exhibitors could have been better. Since it was supposed to promote sustainable travel, I expected exhibitors to sell items that make sustainable travel possible, like Patagonia and their jackets made from recycled PET bottles and Nalgene and their tough refillable water bottles (no to disposable plastic bottles!). I’m hoping that Green Wanderer will become a regular event with more success stories from the front lines.
Explore Philippines, the official inflight magazine of SkyJet Airlines, is turning two years old! To celebrate, Explore Philippines is hosting the fantastic Travel Spread: Traveling the Philippines One Page at a Time – a super fun free event for travelers interested in learning more about travel and food writing, promoting conservation through art, and bringing local communities and travelers together. It will be on November 25-26, 2016 at the Century City Mall Events Center, 4th floor, Century City Mall, Makati City 😀
I was lucky enough to be part of the media launch at The Mango Treein BGC, where we got to meet the editorial team (EIC France Pinzon and Managing Editor Alyssa Lapid), and publishing team (publisher Christina Po), as well as some of the speakers for Travel Spread.
According to France, Explore Philippines differentiates itself from other magazines by being the “premiere lifestyle and travel magazine that’s pro-Philippines”. France also credits part of the magazine’s success to featuring celebrities (as guest Explorers) who really do travel and have their own travel personalities. They match celebrities with their locations, like surfer gal Rhian Ramos with Siargao (the 2nd anniversary issue cover girl!) and adventurers Marc Nelson and Rovilson Fernandez with rugged Albay. Christina also takes pride in featuring sustainable tourism in the magazine, as she sees it as a “great way to break barriers”. “How and why we travel has a great impact”, says Christina.
The editorial sections of the revamped Explore Philippines include Main Course (OMG food), Now Boarding (what’s happening now), Checklist (the best and the brighest in local tourism), Pulse (all about travel trends), Disruptor (focuses on life on the move), Jetsetter (Pinoy tourist share their secrets), Pilot (movers and shakers in the tourism industry), Roots (a new section dedicated to “the faces and places that helped build a community’s identity”), Recreation (sports and the outdoors!), and Detour (traveling with a purpose). I get the feeling that Detour and Main Course are going to be my favorite sections.
The speaker lineup for Travel Spread also got me hyped up to attend (yes, you can be hyped about attending talks. It’s a thing.). I’m definitely looking forward to hearing from these people:
Raffy Dionisio of Circle Hostelis going to talk about Tribes and Treks, a new activity offered by in their Zambales hostel where guests can interact and live with the local Aeta community. They launched the activity a few months ago to help their guests connect with the Aetas and for the Aetas to further benefit from tourism. Tribes and Treks is also featured in Explore Philippines’ 2nd anniversary issue 😀
April Cuenca of Tripkada will be talking about tripkada.com, an Airbnb-style app where travelers looking to save money can join trips put together by independent trip organizers. While Tripkada is officially registered as a travel agency, April considers Tripkada to be more of a “travel tech” company than a traditional travel agency. The trip organizers benefit by reaching out to a wider client base and organizing their own schedules, while travelers benefit by not having to organize everything themselves and getting lower prices. My friends and I have been talking about organizing our own environmental education tours for the longest time and Tripkada sounds like the perfect platform for it.
Paul Catiang of Puzzled Owl (YASSSSS!!! WHOOOO!!!) will be talking about some of my favorite things: food, travel, traveling through food, and writing about food and travel. Paul is a regular contributor to Explore Philippines and yes, he gets paid to eat lots and lots and lots of food 😛 Yoga keeps him trim though. Part of his talk will involve his eight-week trip to India to meet his father for the first time. In his words, eating Indian cuisine is like “having a Bollywood dance number on your tongue”.
Travel Spread’s sponsors also got to talk about what they’re bringing to the event: Merrell will help you find the right trekking shoes, Oculus Academy will teach you how to throw shuriken (whaatt???), Chill Out Cooks will feed you fried carbonara, fried pizza, and fried Oreos (sign me up!), and Ozamiz City‘s tourism department will feed you dragonfruit ice cream and laya fish
The Mango Tree kept this writer from starving by feeding us authentic Thai dishes: vegetarian spring rolls, fish cakes, pad thai, chicken skewers, and mango cake. I think I visited the buffet three times *ducks*
The awards organizers encouraged me to attend the awarding ceremony during World Travel Market in London but since they weren’t sponsoring the trip, I chose not to go. Too expensive and I wasn’t even sure I was going to win. Ah well. The live stream of the awards ceremony wasn’t working for me so I found out about the “Highly Commended” citation via the live tweets. Because of the time difference, this meant staying up until 4am to wait for the announcements.
The certificate arrived in the mail yesterday and it is glorious. I’m going to frame it.
I’ve had my photographs published before but this was my first time to win (of sorts) in an international photo competition. The fact that it was during the World Responsible Tourism Awards made it even sweeter, as responsible tourism is a cause very near and dear to my heart. I hope my photo gives a glimpse of what tourism could look like if all the stakeholders involved commit to responsible tourism. Responsible tourism is not about today, but tomorrow.
Note: This is a Back Blog AKA something I wrote way after the fact then backdated to place it in its proper spot in the calendar. This post was actually written in April 2014.
The World Travel & Tourism Council’s (WTTC) Tourism for Tomorrow Awards are one of the highest accolades in the travel and tourism industry. The Awards were established to highlight and promote sustainable tourism best practices worldwide. On behalf of the company, my boss received the Tourism for Tomorrow 2013 Award for the Community Benefit category last April 9, 2013 during the WTTC’s 13th Global Summit in Abu Dhabi, UAE. The Philippines is ahead of Abu Dhabi by a few time zones so I actually found out that we won at around 12:15 am on April 10. My boss posted the simple status message “We. Won.” and a photo of the trophy. A flurry of internal screaming (my roommate was asleep and would have killed me if I woke her up), furious tweets and retweets, and Facebook shares later, I called Aids and said “We won.” Took me another hour and a few games of Temple Run to slow my brain so that I could sleep. A good couple of hours later, the sun is up and I’m back at work but my brain is still on a high. Luckily, my Facebook and Twitter contacts have been very patient and understanding about my endless posts about our company winning the award. Why is winning Tourism for Tomorrow such a big deal?
It’s recognition. Sustainable tourism is only now just getting off the ground in the Philippines but our company has been at it since we opened 31 years ago as a dive camp in Miniloc Island. It’s not easy to do – just ask my boss! – so recognition that we’re an industry leader is always welcome. As an industry leader, we hope to become a case study for how to grow a tourism business without sacrificing the foundation of the business – the environment and the local community.
It’s validation. We already know that we’re doing the right thing – hiring locally, investing in staff training, protecting the environment, and supporting local businesses – but having an outside party composed of international experts agree with us is still pretty cool.
It’s more promotion for us. Hey, we’re a business after all. Increased media exposure for us means (hopefully!) more guests. More guests means more staff, more local purchases, and more funding to continue what we’re doing. We wouldn’t have been able to install mooring buoys around Bacuit Bay in the 1990s if we didn’t have any money. More guests means more students of sustainable tourism. I’m also hoping that as a result of the promotional blitz for our win, we get more guests who chose to spend their holidays with us because of what we’re doing.
The Boss is asking us to plan a victory party. It’s going to take some doing since we have to coordinate with the resorts, ITI, TKP, and our partners in the local community. It’ll be worth it though because we’re going to celebrate a win that was 31 years in the making 🙂
I’ve been involved in the business of sustainable tourism for the past five years. Some of the tasks and projects I’ve done include staff training in environmental practices and nature interpretation, direct guest interaction via nature tours and nightly talks at the beach bar, organizing the publication of a book, getting our department website up and running, and writing, editing, producing, and directing an online nature show. As a person, I love what I’m doing. I get to share El Nido’s unique flora and fauna with people from around the world (people always laugh when I tell them that our white sand beaches are actually piles of parrotfish poop), meet scientific giants (hi Dr. Gerry Allen and Dr. Mark Erdmann!), and become famous on the Internet (watch our show!). But from a business perspective, is it worth it? Does our reputation as a sustainable tourism company help us keep our current customers and attract new ones?
My realizations after more than seven months of maintaining and monitoring our social media presence (yes, it’s another thing I’m doing on top of everything else):
Most guests and potential guests don’t care that we’re an eco resort. I say most because there are definitely some that do (I love them so!), but they’re in the minority. This is because…
The top considerations in booking a holiday will (almost) always be the cost and the hotel’s facilities. Us being an eco resort is the icing on top of the cake – it’s not the cake itself.
What’s my basis for these realizations?
I’ve represented our company at several conferences, including ones on green business, green urbanism, and corporate social responsibility. I came prepared to enthusiastically share the things we’re doing and to learn from other participants. Instead, the Top 2 questions I got were “How much does it cost to stay in your resort?” and “Can I get a discount?”
On our Facebook and Twitter pages, the posts that always get the most “likes” and “shares” are the ones about the scenic views and the luxurious hotel facilities. A sunset photo? Fifty “likes”. A hammock on the beach with a writeup on swaying with the breeze? Seventy “likes”. A feature on our Earth Day cleanup events? I’m lucky to get past 25.
In the questionnaire that our guests fill out before they leave, they hardly ever praise our environmental initiatives. It’s always the service.
Lesson learned:it will never be enough to just be a responsible tourism company. You need to have the better product, better people, and better environmental profile than the other guy if you want to get ahead. Let’s face it: concern for the environment will always be secondary to whether the product works. We’re an eco resort because we believe in it, but our guests aren’t likely to care about that if our waiter messes up their drinks order.