The International Development Studies Alumni Association of Utrecht University

Diving into Philippine Tourism

The recent closure of Boracay Island drives it home; the status of the idyllic Philippine islands as a must-see tourist destination can be both a blessing and a disaster. Little did we know when we conducted our IDS-research on another Philippine island that ten years later our research project would still be relevant.


Once upon a time

In 2008, we found ourselves on the tiny island of Panglao, just off the coast of Bohol in the Central Visayas1. Most tourists visit Panglao for a beach- or diving holiday. We arrived to assess the sustainability of the developing (community based eco-) tourism industry, both for marine conservation and for the communities living on Panglao for a local NGO2.


The adventure started with a very long ferry crossing, a sleepover at the mayor’s house, getting to grips with bucket toilets and learning how to handle a motorbike. That settled, we got to know the island, interviewed all tourism and conservation stakeholders - from government, academe, NGOs, People’s Organizations (POs) to the private sector -, and with help of local students conducted surveys with both the island communities and incoming tourists. In our free time, we immersed ourselves in ‘participant observation’ at Alona beach and Genesis Divers.

 
A PO members posing with Sara at the MPA at Bilisan on Panglao Island
 
Lunch in a Panglao village with Martine and the local students assisting in the community survey

Panglao’s balancing act

Soon enough, it was clear that the balance between tourism development, marine conservation, Panglao’s natural resources and livelihood security was delicate. Community members mostly saw tourists as skimpy-clad blibs on motorbikes that sped over their island, fishermen no longer had (direct) access to some of the beaches and fishing grounds, government and private sector were primarily focussed on revenue growth, and the islands resources were slowly but surely reaching their limits.

 

Were there no positive sides? Certainly there were. Think of the substantial number of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that were established around the island, the POs that were increasingly on-board in enforcement of the MPAs by hiring local fishermen, tourism operators that grouped together to raise environmental awareness, growing numbers of local youth graduating from university with a hospitality degree, and NGOs actively lobbying the government for protection of livelihood and resources.

 

Based on our research, we had to conclude that tourism has a huge potential on Panglao island. Its natural resources are incredible, tourism infrastructure is improving and both the government and private sector put their weight behind promoting the island. If indeed the tourism developments will be sustainable - for the communities and the natural resources - will depend greatly on enforcement of agreements, involvement of the local communities, and the type of tourist and tourism that Panglao attracts and develops. What the future will bring, we were not too sure, but we were certainly hopeful   

 
Alona beach on Panglao in 2008
 
Alona beach on Panglao in 2018

Boracay’s imbalance

We generally remain positive on the potential of tourism, but we do have to acknowledge: Boracay is the example of where Panglao might be heading if the focus remains on growth and the carrying capacity of the island is not taken seriously. This is what can happen when tourism development is not managed from an early stage. Attracting too many visitors creates an unsustainable situation, for which the population on Boracay now has to pay double the price; by degradation of their island, for example because of sewerage that goes directly into the sea which is affecting the corals, and by the sudden cut-off from their income.

 

For us the situation shows that our research findings are as significant now as they were ten years ago: Make sure you take the carrying capacity of the island into account and don’t focus solely on growth. Even more so now the planned airport at Panglao is opening this year (August 2018), the building of which took up acres of land and is ensuring easy access to the island. The decision on closure that Boracay now had to take is an emergency measure, both brave and sad, and one we hope Panglao never has to face. However, with tourists seeking an alternative destination because of the Boracay closing, and with the opening of the Panglao airport, the risk of Panglao exceeding its limits is real.

 

On a positive note

An important lesson for us was how much the actual impact of tourism depends on the actions and attitude of tourists themselves. So please continue to be curious, explore the world and make a positive contribution by keeping a few simple things in mind. Respect the local culture, leave the landscape as you found it, choose responsible tour- and dive operators and accommodations, and incorporate as many sustainable practices as you can (like this one, and there are plenty more) in your work and travels abroad. 

[1]  For those not so familiar with the geography of the Philippines: Bohol is right in the middle the app. 7000 islands. It is most famous for its chocolate coloured hills and the smallest primate on earth, the tarsier. Panglao sits to the south of the main island. It is blessed with beautiful beaches and surrounded with colourful reefs.

[2]  Eternal thanks go to our wonderful hosts of the PADAYON Bohol Marine Triangle Management Council, especially the tireless Ellen Gallares