El Nido hugots in Mantle Magazine

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.

El Nido town’s waterfront in 2018

The full article is available on Mantle’s website. Yes, I kept the title from my previous blog post because I really liked it.

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.

Don’t let Yolanda (Haiyan) stop you from visiting the Philippines

I’m certain that everyone reading this post knows about the devastation supertyphoon Yolanda (International Name: Haiyan) brought to central Visayas and northern Palawan in the Philippines. It’s caused the deaths of thousands of people, displaced hundreds of thousands more, and caused billions of pesos worth of damage. The local and international, government and private communities have banded together to help out wherever they can, be it compiling information about the status of survivors for the benefit of their worried relatives here and abroad, collecting donations, delivering donations, giving medical care, or ferrying survivors from Villamor Air Base to their relatives in Manila. The response is overwhelming, awe-inspiring, and humbling all in one.

But what does this have to do with traveling? I decided to write this after a short chat with a high school acquaintance. He PMed me to ask about the situation in El Nido after Yolanda (I’m the only person he knows who is/was based in Palawan). He and his friends are scheduled to go to Coron (an island in the Calamian Island Group, located about 8 hours by boat north of El Nido ) in the first quarter of 2014 but they were thinking of canceling and going to El Nido instead. My first thought was “PLEASE DON’T CANCEL”.

haiyan overview map_edited

The map shows the path Yolanda took in and out of the Philippines. The main industries in these places are agriculture, fishing, and tourism. Yes, tourism. A resort owner in northern Cebu was interviewed recently. His establishment was thankfully spared, with only repairs needed for the roofs and dining area. Unfortunately, “Philippines” and “disaster” are now synonymous worldwide and he’s received cancellations for Christmas left and right. The peak tourist dates in the Philippines are Christmas, New Year, and Easter, and the industry relies on these times of the year to see them through the leaner months (June to August). No tourists, no money. Without money, how can he, his employees, the tour operators, the boatmen, the fishermen, the tricycle drivers, the jeepney drivers, and the host of other people involved in your holiday rebuild? He anticipates that business will pick up again by Easter next year. But Easter is four months away. What will be their source of income before then?

Of course there are considerations to be made before canceling your holiday. By all means, check with your hotel/inn if they’ll be ready to accept guests by that time. If they say yes or even offer a “maybe”, please don’t cancel your booking. Do not feel guilty about taking a holiday. The relief operations are just the start of the recovery process. The survivors will need a source of income to get back on their feet and they need your tourist pesos to do that.

Why development and change in El Nido can be a good thing

I find it curious whenever tourists staying in El Nido Town say “Ang saya naman ng buhay dito. Sana ganito nalang lagi. Sana hindi magbago”. (“Life is so good here. I hope it’ll always be like this. I hope it doesn’t change.”) Pardon my cynicism but tourists have a romanticized view of what it means to live in a small town like El Nido. While El Nido’s slower and idyllic lifestyle makes it conducive to tourists who stay for three, five, or maybe even 15 days, that same idyllic lifestyle remains a barrier to vital services for daily living, like 24-hour electricity, a sewage system, and a hospital.

El Nido is classified as a first-class municipality because of its tax collection, but it’s a first-class municipality where electricity only runs from 2pm to 6am the next day. This means that the elementary and high school students attending public schools sit in classrooms with no electric fans. The windows are opened to let the sunshine in. Municipal hall has its own generator so they can have electricity during business hours. The rationale for the limited electricity? There aren’t enough paying customers for the electric company to justify running their generators full-time. Not enough customers means they lose money.

The road going out of El Nido and on to Taytay barely qualifies for the name. The “road” is just hard-packed earth with potholes, gravel, and dust the whole way to Taytay. During the rainy season, the bus you’re riding in is likely to get stuck in the mud. The road only gets better from Taytay onward to Puerto Princesa, Palawan’s capital. The reason for not spending the millions necessary for a good road? Again, not enough people using it.

El Nido is a first-class municipality with no hospital. The nearest hospital is in Taytay, two hours away by land. The best hospital in Palawan is in Puerto Princesa. If you want to give birth in a good hospital, you have to make the 5-6 hour land trip to Puerto Princesa. The Rural Health Unit as one doctor and a health center for over 30,000 residents.

El Nido has no centralized sewage system. Each household gets its water either from a deep-well or from a nearby stream or river. Sewage is either stored in underground septic tanks or discharged directly into the soil. Fifteen percent of the municipality’s total population lives in the poblacion (AKA El Nido Town), which leads me to wonder just how much fecal coliform is in the seawater directly fronting the poblacion.

The point of all this is that development and change are not inherently evil. I repeat, NOT EVIL. Development is not a bad thing. Development only becomes evil when it’s uncontrolled and the ones doing the developing don’t give a shit about the environment and the local community. Case in point: the dredging and pier extension in El Nido Town to accommodate the huge RoRo (roll on, roll off) barges. The barges would supposedly bring in more tourists but according to scientists from the University of the Philippines-Marine Science Institute, the dredging and pier extension will change the water circulation and sand deposition pattern in the embayment. You’d lose the sand on one side of the beach and still have to re-dredge the barge lane every 10 years.

But development has its upsides too. The influx of tourism resulted in increased income for the municipality. Not changing El Nido at all means limiting the opportunities of the people who live here. It’s in the delicate balance of development and preservation where success ultimately lies. I hope to be able to see it in the years to come.