Undermined Underground River

CTALK - Cito Beltran - The Philippine Star

PUERTO PRINCESA, Palawan – Scratch that from the bucket list and store it under unforgettable family trips and memories. Yes the travelling Beltrans have finally made it to the natural wonder that is called the Puerto Princesa Underground River and it is everything they claim it to be and more. However, this trip almost didn’t happen because of certain issues that in effect have undermined the Underground River attraction.

After my initial visit to Puerto Princesa a week ago, I told my wife about joining me on my next trip and then head on to the Underground River tour. So my wife checked their website and learned that a “permit” from the city was required and that the tours were already “Fully booked” for the month of March. “No permit – No trip – not worth going to Puerto since we’ve been there before” my wife commented. Being Pinoy, I resorted to finding someone who might know someone and I did. We were assured of permits for 3.

I later discovered through informal interviews that the tour had become the victim of unscrupulous opportunists because of its popularity. The tour can officially accommodate 900 guests a day but ever since it was dubbed one of the New Wonders of the world, guest visits shot up to as much as 1,300 guests a day, creating a lot of problems.

First and foremost was the move of Travel and tour operators who lobbied to be given daily allocations for the permits that costs P215 each. Then certain people of influence also cornered most of the permits one of them allegedly getting an allocation of 50 permits a day and selling them for as much as 3,500 a piece to desperate tourists and hoteliers. Then came the assertion and the lobbying that since the tour could only handle 900 guests a day, it was useless to maintain a website and accept on-line registration for permits. What the lobbyists succeeded in doing was setting up “walk-in” system where would-be visitors had to go to the City office and get their permits in person. The “Operators” in turn sold their permits either as a tour package for 1,500 per person inclusive of permit, transport and food, or sold the permit separately at a low of 1,000 to as high as 3,500.

Since the official website could not be shutdown, the City simply posted “Fully booked”. Meanwhile the “Operators” in turn offered the package or permit on their own website. What local operators did not realize is that this situation would soon create a backlash. Many would-be visitors rely on the web for information and travel arrangements. Travellers no longer use or rely on travel agencies or operators for booking and accommodations. Because of the No-permit/No-access policy and “Walk-in” requirement, many travellers have evidently passed off on visiting Puerto Princesa just like my wife and daughter would have if I did not manage to get the permits.

While I am a strong believer in building up local tourists, we must all understand that the Puerto Princesa Underground River is no longer just a City “property, it is no longer just a Philippine Tourist destination, it has become property of the world when we pushed for it to become a New Wonder of the modern world. As such it is our responsibility to share and give access to the world’s traveller and not selfishly lay claim to it because of business or personal profit.

The good news is that the present administration has reportedly been busy addressing the problem. The allocation and block booking system is being reviewed or has already been stopped. If at all the City’s big hotels should be given priority if not allocations because hotels and resorts are part of the direct link to the underground tour. The “walk-in” policy and “Fully booked” posting is still there and this is something that should be addressed immediately or call in the National authorities to fix the problem.

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The trip itself was an hour and half drive from the city to a Sitio called Sabang. We were then accompanied to the queue for bancas where we paid P700 for the 30-minute banca ride. From beginning to end, the experience was picturesque and colorful, turquoise blue waters, local sailboats and brightly colored bancas passing along sandy beaches, hills of different shapes like a giant head or scenes from certain movies, jagged black stone out crops came together to live up to what tourists expect Palawan to look like.

Upon reaching the island park we disembarked on to the cream colored sandy beach, where signs welcomed you and then warned you about what was not allowed; No smoking, don’t bring plastic bags or bottled water because the monkeys on shore have lost their fear of people and are notorious for stealing or grabbing plastic bags and bottles which they assume contain food or water.

After being registered once again, we were finally sent off on a trail made from Palawan hardwood planks, in just a few minutes we were at the docking area being handed hard hats just in case a bat decides to give you a guano bath or a piece of mineral formation dislodges and homes in on your head. Once on board the fiberglass canoes our boatman and light man introduced themselves.

The trip or adventure would be heaven for rock collectors, science nuts, and all those “ologists”. But since the majority of visitors are Filipinos, the presentation has evolved from the observations, comments and remarks of visitors informally collected and adapted over several decades. In fairness to our guides, even the banca boy who assisted us, they were all natural comedians who knew when to crack a joke and when to give a light but science based pointer.

Yes they were light on the science and lots on the laugh lines but by associating the shapes and sizes of the rock and mineral formation with cultural reference points, everyone certainly appreciated and remembered what they saw. They named rock formations as the Last Supper, the Three Kings, Foot Long Hot Dog, the half face of Jesus from the Shroud of Turin, a Serpents head, The fruit and vegetable section where formations were associated with Cucumber, mushroom, cabbage and the likes. Our boat man even pointed out that he did not have the right to remain silent because if he did he would be out of a job for being a lousy guide and if he ever became silent during the trip after a loud splash, chances are he fell off the boat.

To be honest, words don’t do justice, so put this on your bucket list and go this summer!

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