Kalayaan LGU turns to tourism, game fishing in tense West Philippine Sea

Kaycee Valmonte - Philstar.com
Kalayaan LGU turns to tourism, game fishing in tense West Philippine Sea
In this undated handout photo received from the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) on April 25, 2021, coast guard personnel conduct maritime exercise near Pag-asa island in the West Philippine Sea.
AFP / Philippine Coast Guard, Released

MANILA, Philippines — Kalayaan island aims to be the next "center of adventure tourism" in Palawan as its local government unit prepares to open its first week-long expedition to the public. 

Kalayaan aims to be a "special zone for tourism and marine fisheries" by 2040 despite ongoing geopolitical tensions in the West Philippine Sea. 

"We are really committed to making this work," Ken Hupanda, program manager at the Tourism Promotions and Development program of Kalayaan town, told Philstar.com in an online interview. 

"It is our mandate to at least make Kalayaan just like any other municipality in the Philippines because for us, the only time we can claim that an area is truly ours is if we operate as a regular municipality," he added in mixed English and Filipino.

The Kalayaan island group is located northwest of Puerto Princesa and is within the northeastern part of the Spratly Islands. 

The Great Kalayaan Expedition

For P85,000, tourists can go on a seven-day and six-night "Great Kalayaan Expedition." Tour stops include excursions in the islands of Lawak, Patag, and Pag-asa, jumping off of Ulugan Bay in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan's capital. 

The package already includes accommodation fees for live-aboard costs, glamping and homestay payments. It also already covers equipment, payment for spa services, tour guides, and other onboard services. 

There are currently three expeditions scheduled monthly from March, April, and May. The expedition, for now at least, is designed to have only 20 individuals per tour.

They will be living on expedition boats similar to the ones used by the Tubataha Reef National Park, which was used as a benchmark for the tour.

"The fewer [guests], the more that we can manage them because, at this stage, we are still trying to get the hand of things. We are not yet fully familiar with the dive sites, with the fishing sites, so we are still fine-tuning the expedition,” Hupanda said. 

According to a 2019 handout of the Biodiversity Management Bureau, the West Philippine Sea is home to 30% or 600 out of the 1,000 km2 of the coral reefs in the country. Most of these are found in the Kalayaan Island Group, which the LGU wants to showcase through an expedition.

Since Palawan is already known via Puerto Princesa’s UNESCO heritage site underground river as well as the pristine beaches and tourist hotspots El Nido and Coron, Kalayaan LGU said it wants to make its own mark through game or sports fishing.

"There will be fishing activities – like catch-and-cook activities and there would be workshops on how to do different kinds of fishing. That will be the highlight of the expedition package," Hupanda said.

Powered by a cooperative run by residents

The expedition is operated by the Kalayaan Islands Tourism Agents Cooperative (KITA Coop), whose members are residents of the Kalayaan LGU. The municipality is home to around 200 to 250, living under just one barangay.

"Our vision is to actually have everybody as members of the cooperative...because, ideally, the revenue or the profits from this undertaking...we want that to directly affect the local community,” Hupanda said.

The cooperative’s main goal is to produce other tourism ventures for the community.

Aside from KITA Coop, Hupanda said the expedition is funded by the US Agency for International Development through its Fish Right Program. 

The expedition aims to make fishing practices sustainable, shying away from commercial fishing and instead opted for the expedition with the Kalayaan residents being at the heart of the project.

What about security concerns?

Hupanda did not shy away from discussing the geopolitical tensions, especially since the interview was conducted just days after news of a China Coast Guard vessel directing a military-grade laser against a Philippine vessel on a rotation and resupply mission in the vicinity of the Ayungin Shoal. 

The operators of the expedition will be in constant communication with the Philippine Coast Guard, who will then do routine checks on the tours to see if they are still on schedule. Aside from that, the tourists will also attend a security briefing before leaving for the expedition. 

Hupanda said that the Armed Forces of the Philippines has been involved in the early stages of the expedition’s conception.

"If we remain to live in constant fear… the municipality has been existing [for] quite some time but we are still afraid to enact programs like what regular municipalities do so I think that’s a failure on our part," Hupanda said in mixed English and Filipino. 

"But that’s why we are making these kinds of bold measures, if we should say so, but we are really putting [in] our investment."


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