Carrying capacity
- Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - July 16, 2018 - 12:00am

After government decided to close down Boracay for six months, there were some officials who said the tourists can be directed to other sites. We now know that is not easily done.

Tour packages are sold as early as a year ahead. And even assuming these tourists will agree to visit some other place like Bohol or Palawan, the ability of these places to take in visitors is limited.

I was also under the impression it will be easy to re-direct Boracay visitors to, for example, Bohol. But I was told that occupancy of Bohol hotels are almost always at peak level. And because the supply of hotel rooms is limited, rates are also more expensive.

It is the same thing with other areas with the beaches that attract visitors. One other thing is the inadequate infrastructure for bringing tourists to other promising areas. Boracay’s two million visitors could not be easily re-directed.

How many tourists can be accommodated in every tourist area in the country? Apparently, there are no reliable data to help a decision maker to map out a sensible marketing plan.

The long and short of it is that we may not even have enough hotel rooms in the more popular destinations to support peak season demand from our various markets. That is why compared to other tourist centers in ASEAN, hotel room rates in the Philippines are expensive.

Over the past decades, Boracay was the tourism industry’s “hot pandesal.” The development of the island had been disastrously haphazard. Government failed to safeguard the island from the ravages of crass commercialism.

Now that government claims they have cleaned up Boracay, it is important for us to see how they plan to keep it that way. Does anyone now know the carrying capacity of the island that should guide the granting of all business permits? I doubt it.

Determining a tourist site’s carrying capacity is the important first step in planning our tourism industry’s development. Bhutan is a good example of a country that has determined what it wants to get out of tourism and that’s the basis of their tourism industry.

Bhutan’s government is acutely aware of the environmental impact tourists can have on Bhutan’s unique and virtually unspoiled landscape and culture. Bhutan’s government has adopted a unique policy of “High Value, Low Impact.” In 2017, the country saw its highest tourist arrival yet at more just 250,000 people.

This reminds me of Batanes. The growing popularity of Batanes is a threat to the preservation of what makes the province attractive to visit in the first place. Once you have a Jollibee outlet there, it will be the beginning of the end.

So, what is the viable carrying capacity of Batanes for visitors? It is easy to regulate the number of visitors in Batanes by limiting the number of flights. Bhutan’s “High Value, Low Impact” guideline applies to Batanes too.

It makes sense to spend money on a good study of the carrying capacity of various locations for tourism development. Instead, some P200 million was spent by the past tourism secretary to favor a company of one of her siblings and that carinderia folly, projects with questionable objectives.

What is the basis of those annual visitor targets of the tourism department if no one in the agency has an idea how many tourists we can adequately serve? Let us also think of domestic tourists… and speaking as one, I end up going abroad because hotel rates here are ridiculously high.

Of course hotel rates are a function of demand and supply. Precisely because we don’t have enough affordable rooms in places other than Boracay, tourism development elsewhere is stunted. Boracay, on the other hand, is obviously going beyond its natural carrying capacity.

The Bohol Panglao Airport will be inaugurated next month, if we can believe DOTr. That’s well and good. The airlines can easily increase flight frequency based on demand. It was only the antiquated Tagbilaran Airport’s lack of capacity that was holding them back. But can Bohol handle the overflow of tourists that can theoretically be taken there?

Siargao is fast gaining popularity at a pace we last saw in the early days of Boracay. What is its carrying capacity? How many visitors can it adequately serve?

Siargao is now a good place for government to implement lessons learned from the unmanaged growth of Boracay. It doesn’t even have a decent first aid medical facility. The environmental sins of Boracay are surely being committed too in Siargao.

On the flip side are sites with great tourism potential but are difficult to reach because of inadequate transport infrastructure. What is the potential visitor draw of a place like Caramoan? Is that potential a sufficient justification to build an access road from the nearest highway?

Then there are areas like Baler where there is a convenient access road but it still undersold despite its proximity to the population centers of Central Luzon and Metro Manila. What is its carrying capacity? What would it take to bring more visitors there?

A good example of a vacation destination that knows how many visitors it can handle is the privately owned and managed Balesin. The brainchild of Bobby Ongpin, it was meticulously planned in a way Bobby Ongpin projects are. It also took into account how people will get there. It provided its own private transport infrastructure.

Expensive, yes but it is still a model that can be replicated for various market segments.

With a trained economist as the new tourism secretary, I hope she will demand to see credible hard numbers as basis to spend billions of pesos on tourism projects and promotion. Without these numbers, more tax money will only be wasted.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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