Commentary: The Philippines, home of many beautiful destinations – and the scourge of mass tourism
The Philippine tourism has been fixated on economic growth. That must change now, says Michael Henry Yusingco.
MANILA: Imagine standing on high ground. Captured in the panoramic view is a volcano surrounded by a lake.
At the foot of the volcano is a bustling human settlement nestled by swaths of vivid green and teeming with life.
The high ground is also surrounded by lush vegetation with wild grass and trees always within sight, and their branches and leaves eagerly dance with the cool mountain breeze.
It is a vantage point that can certainly be mistaken for Eden.
Tagaytay is that city on high ground. Taal is that volcano.
Tagaytay is a very popular vacation spot for families because of its cool climate. It is also a much sought-after place for events such as weddings because of its spectacular scenery and colonial churches.
THE GREAT DEBATE OVER SHUTTING DOWN TAAL
But Taal was in the news recently for a different set of reasons. It greeted the new year literally with a bang - by threatening to erupt.
Dense and heavy ashfall and the very real possibility of volcanic eruption prompted the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology to issue a high alert status and to recommend the lockdown of all areas within the 14km radius danger zone, which included Tagaytay.
Some Filipino politicians, however, insisted that the city must remain open for business and leave the decision on whether to visit to the discretion of tourists.
The Filipino Government was initially divided in its response.
One group of legislators argued for a shutdown and was in favour of placing a premium on public safety, while another argued against it, on the basis of protecting the economy of a very popular tourist destination.
In the end, the lockdown directive prevailed after an eruption in mid-January.
THE BIGGER DEBATE ON TOURISM
But the situation has calmed down since. The lockdown order has been partially lifted in end-January, and the alert status has been lowered a notch.
Tagaytay is slowly returning to business as usual. School has just been opened these past few weeks.
Nonetheless, Filipino federal officials are warning that people should not be lulled into a false sense of complacency as they may have to be ready to evacuate at any time, given that Taal is still experiencing tremors.
This stands in sharp contrast to political leaders in Tagaytay, including Filipino Senator Tolentino, who had pushed for the lockdown to be lifted just days after the shutdown, despite concerns of eruption.
The Philippines relies heavily on tourism for economic growth. The country welcomed close to 8 million foreign visitors in 2019. The sector contributes 12.7 per cent of GDP and supports 5.4 million jobs.
Tourism is seen as a chief means to generate business activities and jobs, and reduce poverty and unemployment in the country.
The Philippines, home to many beautiful destinations, excels effortlessly in the tourism sector. It is a country full of natural wonders, with a population known for its innate hospitality and ability to communicate in conversational English.
But recent events have given more steam to questions over whether this partiality for economic growth in tourism should be reconsidered when it relegates other national goals that are just as important but often get sidelined in the name of development – including environmental protection and the preservation of heritage.
The COVID-19 outbreak has also exposed the fragility of the tourism sector, which relies heavily on Chinese tourists that make up more than a fifth of inbound visitors. The country also saw the first death from the disease outside China on Feb 2.
With President Rodrigo Duterte's travel ban, this loss could cost the tourism sector US$292 million in February alone, according to tourism secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat.
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KILLING THE GOLDEN GOOSE
Who can forget the closure of the Philippines’ most popular beach, Boracay, which reopened in 2018 after months of extensive works, on the back of comments by Filipino leaders it had virtually become a “cesspool” after decades of growth-driven tourism?
Hotels, restaurants and surrounding businesses were said to have dumped sewage directly into the ocean.
Almost one in three tourists to the country visited Boracay, an interesting fact when you consider the Philippines has over 7,000 other islands.
Crucially, however, this environmental catastrophe has brought to the surface a pathology in the tourism industry many Filipinos already know but have refused to acknowledge: That blind adherence to economic growth could snuff out so much more that matter to them.
Tourism strain and environmental damage have disfigured the breath-taking paradise of Boracay with its sandy, white beaches. It could do worse to the rest of the Philippines.
Neglecting the environment in the pursuit of economic growth has taken its deadly toll.
Filipinos are also coming to grips with the reality that this environmental degradation could ultimately kill tourism, the very goose that lays golden eggs for the Philippines.
SAVING TOURISM BY PRIORITISING THE ENVIRONMENT
A strong argument can be made that the Philippines needs an environmentalism which treats the conservation of natural resources as both an ecological and economic problem.
But a tourism policy with a stronger demonstrable bias in favour of protecting and preserving the environment is a recalibration worth pursuing, given the recent spate of environmental disasters as well as the challenges brought about by climate change.
Such a policy shift would necessarily entail restoring those areas that have been damaged by overuse and neglect, such as Boracay.
More importantly, it would also mean preventing the same catastrophe from happening in unchartered areas in the country that have seen larger numbers of visitors over the years.
For instance, up north, there is the old Spanish Trail in Kalinga Province, between the towns of Pasil and Balbalan.
Down south, there are the pink sand beaches of Langgas Island in Maluso, Basilan.
Ecotourism, which advocates for low-impact, sustainable travel, could be a viable way for the Philippines to put more money in underdeveloped areas and spread out tourists from traditionally popular places.
There is still a long list of natural wonders in the country that can still benefit from a conservation mindset from the tourism industry.
Indeed, the fight between conservation and growth is an age-old one. The wealth which the earth brings is truly enticing and will draw more business tycoons looking to exploit undiscovered sanctuaries.
For the pre-colonial forebears of Filipinos, the answer was very simple. As farmers, fishermen and hunter-gatherers, respect for the environment was paramount, even transcendent.
However, after two eras of colonial rule and decades of independence, the constant chase after modernisation has seen monetary considerations in this equation acquire a premium over Mother Earth.
Nonetheless, Filipinos want a balanced and healthful ecology, a desire inscribed into the constitution.
And it would not be an exaggeration to say that policymakers in the Philippines, with a young population at 108 million, should really be concerned about this preservation of environment community and heritage.
The conservation of the country’s natural habitats must now be the primary concern of all development policies, including tourism.
Michael Henry Yusingco is a legislative and policy consultant, law lecturer and a non-resident research fellow at the Ateneo School of Government.