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Ecotourism in the Philippines

What's On and Expat November 20-26 issue.

Ecotourism in the Philippines: A Sustainable Alternative?
By: Jacqueline Ong

Visits to the Philippines' pristine beaches for a taste of the tanning sun, white sand and cool blue waters are the usual tourism highlights of tourism in the country. However, it doesn't take long before manifestations of environmental degradation and cultural alienation become evident in areas heavily promoted and visited by tourists to the Philippines. This has prompted the Department of Tourism (DOT) to banner ecotourism, promoting travel with as much passion, yet without putting the country's rich heritage at risk.

Ecotourism, from the words ecology and tourism, means "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people." This government initiative, which started in 1991 as a 20-year plan, aims to put a more socially aware face to an aggressive drive to promote tourism as a developmental force in this country.

Last year, total tourism receipts, meaning the expenditures of 2.3 million tourists, amounted to US$1.99 billion, according to DOT Office of Tourism Development Planning operation officer Alain Quesea. From a 2.6% contrbution to the country's GDP in 2004, the DOT targets an increase to 2.7% this year from an expected 2.6 million tourists. As of this September, DOT had already recorded 1.9 million tourists entering the country, mostly going to multiple destinations.

Tourist as Observers
Deemed an alternative, ecotourism guarantees empowerment among the local communities throughout the country. The traditional setup of "making an area siutable for tourism" and "teaching the residents how to adapt" to such a change is reversed. Instead, constituents of the biologically diverse natural areas remain in their usual way of living, manning their sites, and directing activities that remain environmentally and culturally sustainable. Tourists take on the observer status, granting due respect to the existing setup of the local community-its people, environment, and cultural significance. Through the ecotourism, the socioeconomic benefits are directed to the community level, and the tourists benefit as well, with the opportunity to experience nature's unadulterated grandeur and contribute to the preservation of a country's legacy.

With the government's noble pursuits, however, come abuses from various sectors. The term ecotourism has been misused to mean "anything green". Some claim they have ecotourist sites when they really don't. "Thy're riding on the banwagon," said Carlos Libosada, professor of the University of the Philippines Asian Institute of Tourism. Mike Lu, president of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, revealed in a forum entitled "Philippine Ecotourism: Getting There or Going Nowhere?" at the Kamayan Restaurant last November 9, that some of the so-called ecotourism sites in the Philippines are actually disruptive to the natural balance of the ecological system. He cited instances where suppsedly ecotourist sites bring in new animals that jeopardize the endemic creatures, introduce water sports that damage the natural habitat of the animals, put in walkways at the expense of uprooting forestry, and encourage the direct contact with the tourists with wild animals, which tames their orientation. " They have very good intentions, " says Lu, " but if they don't consult the proper people, they destroy [the area]."

"Are we doing enough?"
Apart from that, the Philippines also faces new threats to its tourism potential. Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan, president of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), remarked that the Philippines needs to address the issues of competitiveness and sustainability. The country has already jumpstarted on the ecotourism trail, he noted, but "the question are, 'Are we doing enough?', 'How do we keep it going?"

For ecotourism to be competitive, a viable business sense is needed. Tan saw the need for more results-oriented marketing scheme that would cater to internet transactions in bookings and reservations.

He also proposed less intervention from the government and more private sector involvement. This, he said, would solve the problem of continuity. "The private sector is designed for sustainability, while government is short-term [meaning, based on the official's or administration's tenure]." he added. Representative Edgardo Chatto of Bohol's first district similarly endorsed public-private cooperation. The government will provide the pollicy framework and the national, regional, and local visin, but running the tourism industry shoul be a private sector-led business, he said.

On the other hand, Allan Canizal, director of the DOT Office of Tourism Development Planning, emphasized the need for cooperation and collaboration not just between the government and the private sector but more importantly, with local communities. Getting the cooperation of the community is vital and "changing the mindset [of the people toward ecotourism developments in their area] will not be very difficult if the objective is transparent," he added. He stressed that poverty reduction will be a result of ecotourism fostering entrepreneurship among the locals.

End of the 20-Year Plan
Ask if ecotourism's entrepreneurial thrust might threaten the customary livelihood of the locals, as they would have to adapt to tourist's needs, Canizal was quick to reply that ecotourism doesn't replace but supplements. We don't uproot them from their traditional jobs, but when they are not farming, they could serve as tourist guides or boatmen as an added means of earning," he added. Tan similarly stated that local communities should not be totally dependent on ecotourism as their sole means of income, since unpredictable events like seasonal changes might adversely affect the tourism flow. "Ecotourism is just a bonus on the existing community," he added.

The year 2011 will mark the end of the government's 20-year plan. By that time, the Philippines is expected to be a highly competitive ecotourist destination. Five years before the target, how is the country farig? Libosada maintained that the Philippines has a very high potential, but how that would materialize into the country's gain depends on the steps all the stakehoderstake today. It is a challenge for the local community as much as it is to the private sector and government to promote awareness and acceptance of ecotourism.

The Philippines has 32 key ecotourist sites. Among those that DOT has most heavily promoted as viable and successful destinations are Donsol in Sorsogon, the Banaue Rice Terraces in Mountain Province, Mount Pinatubo in Pampanga, Pamilacan in Bohol, and Olango Island in Cebu. at present, four others are priority projects: the Hundred Islands in Pangasinan, the Mayon Volcano in Bicol, Rajah Sikatuna in Bohol, and Lake Sebu in Mindanao.

Ecotourism is a project of all the Filipinos for the Philippines. Collaboration and cooperation on all levels of community and governance is deemed necessary to realize the benefits of ecotourism and stave off its possible threats.