Why sustainable tourism makes sense
THE CORNER ORACLE - Andrew J. Masigan (The Philippine Star) - December 4, 2019 - 12:00am

Many struggle to understand why Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat chose to make sustainable tourism the centerpiece agenda of the Department of Tourism (DOT). They argue that our visitor count is still too low to worry about sustainability. Our 8.2 million visitors is but half of Indonesia’s and a fifth of Thailand’s. Certainly, before we talk about sustainability, we ought to build our numbers first. 

Last week, the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce hosted an event that put the spotlight on Tourism. Usec. Benito Bengzon spoke on behalf of the DOT and put perspective on its sustainability program.

First of all, we should understand that as a tourism product, the Philippines is unique. Although our intake of foreign visitors may be less than some of our neighbors, the revenues derived from them are substantial due to high per capita spending. Records show that the average tourist spends $1,184 in the Philippines. This indicates that tourists stay longer here than in most parts of ASEAN and spend more on food, lodging and entertainment. We get more leisure visitors than we do the budget backpackers. Last year, tourism receipts amounted to $7.6 billion while tourism related businesses, taken collectively, amounted to some $45 billion. One in every eight jobs in the Philippines is tourism related.

For decades, we’ve milked our cultural sites and tourist spots for every penny they were worth. We over-built, over-stressed and over-run them without regard for their maintenance or longevity. Our view of tourism has been shortsighted.

The tipping point came when President Duterte declared Boracay a cesspool (which it was beginning to become, if not addressed). He made us realize that we could lose the jewel in our crown if we left things as they were. We all knew he was right. The President’s decision to close the island for rehabilitation was a painful but necessary pill we had to swallow.

While the stakeholders in Boracay took a financial hit with its closure, the exercise taught us important lessons.  It made us realize how overcrowding without infrastructure can backfire; It taught us that we can continue to derive economic benefits from our tourism sites if only we take care of them;  It made us realize that invisible infrastructure (power and wastewater treatment plants) must precede visible infrastructure (roads, hotels and ports). Finally, it showed us that if left alone, nature heals itself.

The environmental degradation that happened in Boracay is now happening in Palawan, Bohol, Surigao and Cebu at an accelerated rate. A study by the Partnership in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia (PEMSEA) reported that the country’s ocean health index ranked an alarming 165th among 221 countries. This is due to an ever growing population, unregulated development and desludging of septic tanks – all on the back of tourists influx.

Exacerbating matters is the fact that only nine out of the country’s 17 regions have solid and wastewater management plans in place.

With this as context, Secretary Romulo-Puyat’s decision to focus on sustainability makes sense. 

The good news is that the thrust toward sustainability has not come at the expense of growth. From January to September this year, foreign arrivals grew three times faster than the global average, clocking-in a growth rate of 14.37 percent. We are well on our way toward attaining the 2019 target and surpassing 12.5 million visitors by 2022. 

The move to preserve our ecosystem goes beyond national interest – it is our duty as responsible global citizen. Unknown to many, the Philippines is one of the most biologically diverse countries both on land and sea. A large percentage of the world’s animal species, specifically, 59% of mammals, 45% of birds, 77% of reptiles and 81% of amphibians call the Philippines their home. Our marine ecosystem is so rich that it was declared the world’s center for marine biodiversity. In terms of flora, 60% of the world’s plant life are endemic to the Philippines.

We have everything to gain by protecting our ecosystem and everything to lose if we allow it to deteriorate for short term gain.

At the heart of environmental stress is overcrowding. Having more tourists than the true carrying capacity of a site leads to waste disposal problems, air and water pollution and imbalances in the food chain.

Despite the DOT’s strong drive toward sustainability, it has yet to ascertain the true carrying capacities of most of our tourism sites. From the looks of it, Panglao, Oslob and Puerto Galera are already over-run. Establishing the true carrying capacity should be the priority of the DOT at this juncture.

With carrying capacities established, the DOT and LGUs can control the influx of tourists by limiting the permits for new lodging facilities. Carrying capacities can be adjusted upward as invisible infrastructure are put in place.

There are enough laws to enable the DOT to enforce sustainable tourism practices across the land. Among them are the Tourism Act of 2009, which requires LGUs to develop their respective tourism plans according to sustainable principles; the National Ecotourism Strategy, which requires LGUs to formulate programs to protect natural habitats of flora and fauna in their respective localities; and the Farm Tourism Development Act, which calls on LGUs to create programs for environmentally friendly farm tourism practices.

The LGUs hold the key to sustainability. They can either go the way of the Boracay officials (pre-rehab) who ignored zoning laws and “sold” business permits like they were bananaque, or go the way of Palawan’s local government who will soon allow only carbon-neutral resorts in the island.

With two years left in this administration, it will do well for the DOT to invest on an information drive to give the LGUs a better appreciation of sustainable principles. They need to be trained on best practices and benchmarks of success. More importantly, the DOT must establish strict controls against over-crowding, which is the real enemy.

The Philippines may not have as much tourists as Indonesia and Thailand today. But what the DOT is doing ensures us that our tourist sites will remain viable for decades to come. By 2050, when Bali is overrun and Koh Samui is over polluted, El Nido, Boracay and the rest of our islands will remain the bright and pristine jewels they were meant to be.


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