Palawan’s El Nido under rehabilitation

Robertzon Ramirez - The Philippine Star
Palawan�s El Nido under rehabilitation
Contributed photo shows establishments that may face sanctions for violating easement regulations in El Nido, Palawan.

No total shutdown; 22 establishments closed

MANILA, Philippines — After Boracay, the government has launched a rehabilitation program for another top tourist destination, the resort town of El Nido in Palawan.

The rehabilitation starts with the shutdown of 22 tourism-oriented establishments found violating various environmental laws, including being built too close to the  sea, Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat said yesterday.

Unlike in Boracay, however, there will be no total shutdown of El Nido, where several of the high-end resorts of Palawan are located.

The Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) urged the government to study carefully the proposal to close tourist spots in El Nido and Coron in Palawan for rehabilitation.

Puyat told a press conference in Quezon City that although a total closure of El Nido may not be necessary, the government is looking at the possibility of imposing limits on the number of tourists to be allowed in the resort town.

“The local government in El Nido, Palawan said they closed 22 establishments,” Puyat said.

Local officials of El Nido met yesterday with Puyat, Natural Resources Secretary Roy Cimatu and Secretary Eduardo Año of the Department of the Interior and Local Government at the DILG office in Quezon City. 

Their three departments were tasked to rehabilitate Boracay when it was closed to tourists at the height of the travel season this year. 

Boracay was shut down in April and reopened on Oct. 26.

Puyat said the Palawan Interagency Task Force composed of DOT, DENR and DILG is set to conduct rehabilitation efforts for El Nido to prevent the looming pollution problem from getting worse.

Yesterday, the task force started its consultation with stakeholders and the local government of El Nido to chart the course of action in rehabilitating the town.

Año said what will be discussed or agreed upon in the series of meetings with the local government, environmental organizations and others will be the basis of the recommendation that the Palawan Task Force will submit to President Duterte.

The President had previously ordered the six-month total closure of Boracay in Aklan province, to give way to rehabilitation following massive water pollution and waste disposal problems.

Año said the overcrowding situation in El Nido is not as massive as it was in Boracay, thus the total closure of the town to tourists while undergoing rehabilitation may not be necessary. 

“With the help of the local government units, we can also come up with a security task force to guard El Nido. It has 45 islands and we must secure all of those if we want to preserve El Nido as a top tourist destination,” he added.

For his part, Environment Secretary Cimatu said he had already ordered an increased presence of DENR personnel in El Nido and the nearby municipality of Coron, to ensure environmental compliance of business establishments operating at the two tourists destinations.

“We have to be very strict in El Nido and Coron. We will dedicate a big portion of the DENR presence there to focus on environmental compliance,” Cimatu said.

Cimatu said ensuring the environmental compliance of the business establishments, particularly when it comes to the disposal of their solid and water wastes, is among the aspects of Task Force Palawan’s rehabilitation program.

“We are still finalizing the timeline for the rehabilitation program, but there will be three aspects. The environmetal compliance aspect, the DILG aspect which involves the issue of business permits and building constructions, and the tourism side,” Cimatu said.

As far as the meeting is concerned, Puyat said she is pushing local government officials to create a local ordinance that would limit the number of boats entering the lagoon. 

Puyat said the officials have promised to implement the ordinance by December this year. 

Dialogue for rehab

PCCI said the government should hold a dialogue with key stakeholders to map out rehabilitation plans before considering the closure of resorts.

In addition, the PCCI said concerned local government units should take a more proactive role in identifying and cleaning up their respective illegal waste disposal and sewer problems instead of waiting for the national government to come in and intervene.

“Closing El Nido and Coron will not be good for business, particularly for the legitimate industry stakeholders who will suffer the most from cancellation of bookings and reservations for the coming months,” PCCI said.

It added the move would affect the local communities and many jobs.

Instead, the group said the government should shut down or impose heavy fines only on establishments that are proven to have committed violations of environmental codes.

PCCI also said erring officials should be charged or removed from office.

About a million tourists visit Palawan every year, with the bulk going to El Nido and Coron.

Tourist arrivals in El Nido in particular reached 200,000 last year.

Given the six-month closure of Boracay island for rehabilitation, tourist arrivals in El Nido are expected to be higher this year.

No weapons

Meanwhile, Malacañang yesterday defended Duterte’s decision to bar other countries from stockpiling weapons in Palawan, saying it would protect the province from being a “flaming collateral damage” in case conflict escalates in the South China Sea. 

Last week, Duterte said he would not allow other countries to store firearms or ammunition in Palawan, the western Philippine province nearest to the disputed areas in the South China Sea. 

Duterte, who has been accused of being soft on China on the maritime row, has said there is a “great risk” that Palawan might be caught in the crossfire between feuding parties in the area. He has also stressed that the Philippines is not ready for a war over the disputed areas.

Reacting to Duterte’s pronouncement, American analyst Anders Corr said the restriction would leave Palawan militarily vulnerable to China’s advantage.

But presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo maintained that Duterte’s decision reflects the Philippine leader’s “acumen and diplomacy in dealing with the issue.”

“The President has embarked on a cautious, pragmatic, diplomatic yet independent stand on how to deal with the favorable arbitral ruling. The President has a wealth of information at his disposal, which is not readily available to ordinary citizens or foreigners, hence he is in the best position to decide on international matters that affect the welfare of the nation,” Panelo said.  – With Elizabeth Marcelo, Louella Desiderio, Alexis Romero, Catherine Talavera

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