WWF-Philippines’ Green Wanderer travel fair: the good and the areas for improvement

Tourism is the biggest industry in the world, providing 10% of global GDP and 1 out of 10 jobs in 2016. It’s also big on GHG emissions, producing 5% of global GHG. Considering that tourism contributed 8.6% of the Philippines’ GDP in 2016 AND the Philippines is one of the countries most affected by climate change, WWF-Philippines’ Green Wanderer travel fair held last August 11-13, 2017 at Bonifacio High Street Central Square Mall couldn’t have come at a better time. And yes, this also means that this blog post is very, very late.

I attended the second day specifically for the Sustainability Forum (yes, I woke up at 7am on a Saturday) and the talk by Daluyon Beach and Mountain Resort . The panelists for the Sustainability Forum were Joel Palma (WWF-Philippines President and CEO), Josephine Alcantara-Cruz (mayor of Donsol, Sorsogon), Anton Diaz (founder of the travel blog Our Awesome Planet), Deanne Bibat (Executive Producer of the travel show Biyahe ni Drew), and Alexa Cancio and Nikki Huang (WWF-Philippines National Youth Council members).

My favorite part of the forum was Mayor Jo sharing Donsol’s keys to success. During his presentation, Joel Palma said that for sustainable tourism to succeed, it needs visitor satisfaction (no one’s going to come back or recommend it to their friends if they aren’t happy with it), environmental protection (no protection means you’ll lose what tourists come to see in the first place), and benefits to the community. This was seen in Donsol, as Mayor Jo credits their success to their whale shark ecotourism being Community-Based, Legislation, Environmental-friendliness, the Adaptability of the community, and iNnovation (CLEAN). In Donsol, the community receives 85% of the tourism revenue. The definition of “ecotourism stakeholders” was also expanded to include transportation companies and businesses, not just the boat operators, tour guides, and hotels. Legislation means that everything is controlled and institutionalized. In the worlds of Mayor Jo, the LGU is the “taga-puna” (the critic) and “taga-puno” (the one who fills [needs]). Any new tours or activities in Donsol are screened to ensure that they don’t harm the environment. The community was also able to adapt to tourism as an alternative livelihood, with assistance from WW-Philippines. And lastly, innovation means that they never stop learning.

As for the challenges that Donsol faces, Mayor Jo mentioned three: nature, politics, and culture. Whale sharks are migratory so they’re only in Donsol for six months of the year [me: that means they need to develop another product for the off-season]. Politics also factors in because projects implemented by the current administration aren’t always continued by the succeeding administration. As for culture, Donsol is fighting hard to maintain its culture despite the influx of foreign visitors. An example of this is the increasing demand for nightlife spots, but the LGU has consistently shot down those requests in order to keep the town quiet at night.

Anton Diaz shared some tips on how to be a sustainable traveler. Did you know that Oslob, Cebu (where whale sharks are fed) has 10x the tourism income as Donsol? THAT SUCKS. As for why that sucks, let me enumerate everything that’s wrong with Oslob’s model:

  1. Fed whale sharks stay in Oslob longer than non-fed sharks. One whale shark was seen for 572 days! This is bad because whale sharks are migratory. Staying in one place shrinks the gene pool and hello, inbreeding!
  2. The whale sharks stay at the surface for longer periods of time when they’re not supposed to. This means they get overheated so they dive very deep to cool off then go back to the surface.
  3. Because they stay at the surface for longer periods, the whale sharks are more exposed to boats and they get HURT.

In the same study, scientists observed propeller scars in 47% of the whale sharks they saw.

During the Q&A, Mayor Jo was asked what she would change about Oslob should she become mayor there. Her response? She’d change how tourists interact with the whale sharks. Bravo Ma’am!

Anton Diaz shared his tips on how to become a sustainable traveler. They were:

  1. Fight apathy.
  2. Support social enterprises.
  3. Book sustainable accommodations.
  4. Patronize products from the community.
  5. Experience sustainable adventures.
  6. Choose stand-up paddle tours.
  7. Use electric tricycles.
  8. Eat in local places.
  9. Explore cultural heritage sites.
  10. Fight against animal abuse.

While this list is a good starting point, I feel like it lacks context in some parts. Things are not black and white.

  1. Small businesses and social enterprises are not necessarily sustainable in the same way that big businesses are not inherently unsustainable. A large resort with its own sewage treatment plant is more environmentally responsible than a dozen mom-and-pop inns that discharge their sewage straight into the ocean. A restaurant chain with a firm and fully implemented “no sharks’ fin” policy is more sustainable than a social enterprise that makes sharks fin dumplings.
  2. While vehicles are the largest source of air pollution in the Philippines, using electric tricycles would only contribute towards decreasing pollution if they were charged using renewable energy sources, like solar, wind, and geothermal. If they’re powered using coal, you’re just moving the pollutants from the road to the power plant. Burning coal to produce electricity also produces more CO2 compared to just burning gasoline directly.

As with all things sustainability, one should look at the whole picture and not just one angle.

I was supposed to stay until the afternoon for the talk by Daluyon Resort but since I was lucky enough to get a mini one-on-one interview with Kim, the Marketing Head of Daluyon at their booth, I decided to skip it.

I haven’t been to Daluyon but what Kim showed me was impressive. They’ve invested in an MRF, solar power (not all of their rooms have them, though), an organic vegetable farm, and bicycles available for guests to use. They also offer a bike loan program to the staff, where staffers can avail of an interest-free loan for one year to buy a bike for commuting to work. They’ve also made an effort to promote eco-friendly tours, such as a mangrove tours and nature hikes. Though since I haven’t been there, I don’t know how good their guides are.

Out of all the things that Kim said and promoted about Daluyon, what stood out for me was what she didn’t say: education. Daluyon doesn’t seem to have an environmental education program in place for their guests or staff, which is both a shame and a tremendous opportunity for improvement.

Spent the next two hours looking around the exhibitor booths. I really liked the exhibitor mix, which were mostly homegrown companies offering organic vegetables and sustainable seafood. Of special interest to me was Balangay’s Best.

Balangay’s Best sources their seafood from fishers that participate in Fish Forever – a project by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) , Rare, and the Sustainable Fisheries Group at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) that addresses “overfishing in countries across the globe by empowering thousands of the world’s poorest, most marginalized coastal communities to steward their own sustainable and productive fisheries.”

My biggest disappointment and chief complaint is about the severe lack of actual sustainable travel companies advertising at the fair. The only companies there were El Nido Resorts, Daluyon, and Circle Hostel – places that are already known to practice sustainable tourism.

The travel fair was supposed to introduce me to sustainable tourism companies that I didn’t know of yet. If there were no others to be had in the Philippines, I expected the travel agencies there (who banded together under the Philippine Tour Operators Association, Inc. (PHILTOA)) to suggest options abroad.

No sustainable tourism options here πŸ™

Unfortunately, the agents there were unable to recommend anything. They couldn’t assure me that any of the hotels or tours they were offering were handled by responsible companies. If they couldn’t do that, then what was the point of them being there? A travel agency is supposed to cater to what the event is about. If it’s a country-specific event, then you offer tours to that country. If it’s a sustainable tourism event, then you should be offering sustainable accommodations and activities! This fiasco just underscored how much work there is left to do.

Another thing I noticed: all of those who attended Green Wanderer looked well-off. I’m not sure if that’s a reflection of the venue (a high-end mall like Central Square) or a reflection of the demographic interested in sustainable travel. If it’s the latter, then we have even MORE work left to do. Sustainable travel should be accessible to everybody, not just those with big bank accounts.

All in all, Green Wanderer was a decent event. My favorite really was the talk by the mayor of Donsol. Still sad I missed the talk by former boss Mariglo Laririt about El Nido Resorts (why was it on Friday?! huhu). Selection of exhibitors could have been better. Since it was supposed to promote sustainable travel, I expected exhibitors to sell items that make sustainable travel possible, like Patagonia and their jackets made from recycled PET bottles and Nalgene and their tough refillable water bottles (no to disposable plastic bottles!). I’m hoping that Green Wanderer will become a regular event with more success stories from the front lines.

Say it now!