Tourism That Works For The Earth

- Ann Corvera () - October 28, 2007 - 12:00am

The country aims to welcome over three million tourists this year. The influx of foreign visitors has led to a construction boom in prime destinations, but development also has serious impact on the environment.

The Sustainable Coastal Tourism in Asia project in the Philippines, otherwise known as SCOTIA, originally set out on a three-year mission aiming to protect the coastal and marine ecosystem in its project sites, and by doing so, promote tourism which in turn would generate revenues not only for the resorts but for the communities. Most crucial of all is that in the process, the people and the tourism industry would have their capabilities in managing these resources increased. Because of the importance of their work, the SCOTIA program, originally set to end this month, has been extended to July 2008.

“The tourists still keep coming and that’s what matters to them, but you have to educate them, remind them that it’s their livelihood, too,” says environment advocate Grace Favila of her experience with hotel and resort owners and local communities that were initially hesitant to get involved in a project intended to reduce the impact of tourism on the country’s coastal ecosystems.

Favila, whose seven-year stint as executive director of the Philippine Business for the Environment and as previous adviser to former Environment Secretary Elisea Gozon have provided her with ample knowledge on environmental management, says that, once explained, the people liken the project to “preventing another Boracay,” referring to how the world-renowned tourist destination in the Visayas was recently placed by the government under a construction moratorium, as uncontrolled development  resulted in serious negative impact on the island.

While being popular is proving to be a curse for Boracay, it is not the only tourist spot that is experiencing environmental problems. SCOTIA has identified six tourist sites where they have chosen to do their work: Balayan Bay in Batangas, El Nido in Palawan, Moalboal and Mactan Island in Cebu, Panglao in Bohol, and Puerto Galera in Mindoro, where SCOTIA is working with the local government to plan a centralized sanitation system for three “hotspots,” namely Sabang, Muelle and White Beach.

The “tourism value of marine resources” in all six coastal sites is abundant, SCOTIA says.

SCOTIA is concerned with four environmental management strategies: coastal resource management, solid waste management, cleaner production and sewage management and sanitation.

It’s a daunting task, but Favila points out that the targets are very clear and the areas covering the project specific.

In Alona Beach in Panglao, where pristine white sand and coral reefs brimming with marine life are major attractions, a reed bed sanitation system was designed under SCOTIA’s guidance for a resort called Oops Bar.

Using the common reed to treat pollutants in wastewater, SCOTIA helped devise “a constructed wetland system to act as the requisite soakaway/ leaching field of the septic tank system.” It is one of the first examples of a constructed wetland system for a small scale resort, SCOTIA says.

With an engineered reed bed system, the overflow from the septic tank, which may lead to the contamination of coastal waters, is filtered and stabilized and with the use of the common reed, locally known as tambo, pollutants from the wastewater are absorbed by its roots, which also provide oxygen to the beneficial bacteria in the final treatment stage before the water goes out into the sea.

 “There are other technologies, although having a reed bed is the best option since it has low operating and maintenance cost and it’s all natural. You don’t need chemicals but the trade-off is that you must have land,” Favila says.

Land space, she notes, is something that’s lacking in Puerto Galera given that tourist areas are already packed.

Yet, SCOTIA has already extended its expert hand in the design and implementation of sanitation facilities using natural treatment systems in the Locsin compound and the Buri Resort.

In Mactan Island, despite “space limitations,” Barangay Maribago – host to a number of big resorts–– was able to set up a solid waste management system.

“The system has become a model that small establishments in neighboring municipalities visit,” says Favila in a report.

In the municipality of Mabini in Balayan Bay, SCOTIA reports that its most significant impact was the introduction of alternative sanitation systems to resorts and residences along the coast, which are “limited by steep topography and poor access to septage collectors.”

Over-reliance on the septic tank system as the catch-all solution to sanitation problems in the country, SCOTIA says, has led to abuse of its usage primarily due to a lack of understanding of its applicability in certain situations.

Even while it is well-meaning, SCOTIA’s projects have had set backs due to “political dynamics,” Favila notes, as well as ignorance of environmental issues.

“But overall, we found the people to be open” to the project, says Favila.

The toughest part for SCOTIA is earning the trust of the parties concerned and raising their awareness on tourism’s impact on the environment.

“You can just clean up, and we can even bring in people to clean up but that’s not going to work because when we leave, it would go back to how it was, probably even dirtier, so it’s really education, telling the people to be aware. That is something that we are very proud of accomplishing,” Favila tells STAR- week.

SCOTIA relies on the support of key partners and stakeholders in both public and private sectors to make the project a success. The team also seeks to establish women’s groups in the project sites like the ABAKA, or Ang Babae ug Ang Kalikupan (Women and the Environment) in Moalboal which, Favila says, brought solid waste management training to schools and upland communities, helped push for the passage of the EUF ordinance, among other significant contributions.

Getting the people to act is tough enough, but even tougher is when money is involved.

In Favila’s report, she cites that in Moalboal, it was an “uphill climb” for SCOTIA to get the support of dive shop operators and resort owners for the passage of the environmental users’ fee ordinance, or EUF, a “mechanism to sustain the management” of environmental resources.

There, too, was lukewarm support from the local government, but eventually the stakeholders warmed up to the idea which, after all, would give more protection to their coastal areas.

The EUF system, Favila explains, provides for the sharing of the revenue by the LGU and with people’s organizations that protect the coast like fishermen’s associations and the coastal barangays.

“In seven months, they managed to raise P1 million. We even project it to reach P5 million,” Favila says, pointing out that divers are more than willing to pay the fee for they know it is for the protection of the marine life.

In almost all project sites, she says the LGUs have increased their budget to better manage the environmental impacts of specific human activities like in solid waste management.

In Lemery, Batangas, where solid waste is a serious problem given its booming population that now stands at 120,000 and worse, the town has yet to have a sanitary landfill, the Sangguniang Barangay was able to increase its budget to P9.6 million in 2008 from P3.5 million this year, which Favila says, “indicates commitment to build a sanitary landfill” even as “poor social acceptance” has hindered the plan in the past two years.

 “You have to get a core of committed leaders like the environmental officer or sanitation officer of local governments. We start with the barangay because they are smaller and they can talk to the people,” Favila explains.

The people of El Nido were cited by SCOTIA as the best example of what cooperation means.

“In one of the barangays there, the captain and the Sangguinang Barangay members passed an ordinance on segregation and collection. They teach how to segregate, they demonstrate it to the people and that went on for about a week. After that, they expect the residents to do it themselves to avoid being penalized,” she says.

The solid waste reduction targets in El Nido have been surpassed, according to Favila. The local government of this fourth class municipality and marine reserve park at the northernmost tip of mainland Palawan has also steadily increased its solid waste management budget from a mere P50,000 a year when SCOTIA started in 2004 to a whopping P3.5 million this year.

Notwithstanding the setbacks, SCOTIA reports a “clearly positive impact” on all its project sites based on testimonies of the stakeholders and SCOTIA’s assessment of activities.

SCOTIA, Favila admits, may be “far from being a byword in the tourism industry today” yet she proudly notes how more importantly, the project”“has raised awareness on the need to establish environmental protection systems and infrastructure in coastal tourism sites.”

“When we leave, we know the system is in place,” she says.

Nature does have a way of healing itself, but sometimes there is a dangerous payback for the abuse it has endured from humans and their activities. This is one way by which humans can evenout the impact.

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