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 worldโ€™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 ๐Ÿ™

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.

My greatest career achievement to date

Last November 2013, I accomplished my greatest career achievement to date: a “Highly Commended” citation for my photo at the 2013 World Responsible Tourism Awards. The photo was taken on Earth Day 2013 while the staff and a guest from El Nido Resorts were cleaning up Dilumacad Beach in El Nido. It’s one of my favorite photos and I’m grateful to ResponsibleTravel.com, World Travel Market, and the International Centre for Responsible Tourismย for recognizing my work.

RTA 2013 announcement poster

The awards organizers encouraged me to attend the awarding ceremony during World Travel Market in London but since they weren’t sponsoring the trip, I chose not to go. Too expensive and I wasn’t even sure I was going to win. Ah well.ย The live stream of the awards ceremony wasn’t working for me soย I found out about the “Highly Commended” citation via the live tweets. Because of the time difference, this meant staying up until 4am to wait for the announcements.

rt awards

The certificate arrived in the mail yesterday and it is glorious. I’m going to frame it.

awards certificate_edited

I’ve had my photographs published before but this was my first time to win (of sorts) in an international photo competition. The fact that it was during the World Responsible Tourism Awards made it even sweeter, as responsible tourism is a cause very near and dear to my heart. I hope my photo gives a glimpse of what tourism could look like if all the stakeholders involved commit to responsible tourism. Responsible tourism is not about today, but tomorrow.

 

Note: This is a Back Blog AKA something I wrote way after the fact then backdated to place it in its proper spot in the calendar. This post was actually written in April 2014.

I’m shortlisted for the World Responsible Tourism Awards!

The title says it all: I’ve been shortlisted for the World Responsible Tourism Awardsย for the category Best Photography for Responsible Tourism! The organizers officially emailed me about it last September 18 – I read the email at 1am as the 17th was my birthday – but the official press releaseย came just a few days ago.

shortlist

*deep breath*
AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

As someone who’s been working in the responsible tourism industry for the past six years, this is definitely one of the Top 10 Most Exciting Things to Ever Happen to Me. It’s not #1 – I’m reserving that spot for when I get my master’s diploma – but it’s pretty damn close. I don’t even have to win (but of course it’ll be awesome if I did!) as being shortlisted is already an honor.

This is the photo that was shortlisted:

beach cleanup Macy Anonuevo

This photo was taken last April 22, 2013 during the Earth Day beach cleanup in Dilumacad Island, El Nido, Palawan. The guy on the left is Zandy, while Kuya Jovenly is the one on the right. They’re Marine Sports Guides of El Nido Resorts and they, along with other resort staff, volunteered to clean up El Nido’s beaches during their off-duty hours. That’s some serious love right there. The bags contain trash that was either left on the beach by irresponsible tourists or that washed ashore.

I was invited to attend the awards ceremony to be held during the World Travel Martย on November 6 in London but alas, I won’t be able to go as I’ll have to pay my own way (or as Filipinos like to call it, KKB or “kanya-kanyang bayad”). Ah well. They’ll be live streaming the event so at least I can still watch. Wish me luck!

Meet Manila’s launch: a tertulia under the stars

Despite the power outage and the slight drizzle, Meet Manila’s launch party entitled “A Tertulia Night” held last May 23 in Adarna Food and Culture Restaurant was a success and definitely something that I was glad to attend.

What is Meet Manila? From their website:

It is a non-profit informational site whose core focus is to promote Philippine tourism through social media, encouraging the creativity of the Filipinos in sharing Filipino culture and Philippine tourism expressed through blogs, photos, tweets, and Facebook posts.

Meet Manila aims to cultivate online community participation and interaction through shared content, in promotion of Philippine tourism. Serving as a response to the surge of travel interest by social media users, the portal will provide a centralized portal featuring the best of Philippine travel through aggregated user reviews. In effect, this will propagate a culture of thoughtful and responsible tourism that encourages pure appreciation of the Philippinesโ€™ authenticity in culture and natural resources.

“A Tertulia Night” served to officially launch Meet Manila and to introduce their Heroes for #ThoughtfulTourism.

I arrived slightly late due to wanting to finish my latest book review before leaving the house. When I got to Adarna, I found out that there was no power because of a blown transformer just outside the restaurant. Dinner would be by candlelight instead. The blackout wasn’t so bad once I spotted Tita Susan Arcega (who was there as Lito Perez’ publicist) and she invited me to sit at their table. Within the 15 minutes, I’d gotten acquainted with Eric from Boracay Mandarin, Nix and Nikki from Save Philippine Seas, and food blogger Apple.

The event kicked off with dinner by Chef Giney Villar of Adarna Food and Culture, a restaurant specializing in Filipino cuisine. We were treated to caldereta, adobo, and chicken relyeno. I couldn’t see how pretty the food looked because of the dim light but it sure was delicious.

Ivan Henares during his talk

Once our bellies were full and we’d made new friends with out table-mates, a bugtungan (riddle game) emceed by Vince of Mellow 94.7 and Ysobel of Meet Manila served to break the remaining ice. Tita Susan answered one and was recruited to read another. Unfortunately, I’ve never been good with riddle games so I just watched and cheered from the sidelines.

After the bugtungan came the short introduction to Meet Manila and the featured speaker, Ivan Henares. He spoke on preserving heritage houses. I had to move closer to the staging area to hear him but I didn’t mind. He focused on the troubles facing historical houses around the country – neglect, vandalism, and demolition – and what we can do to preserve them. After all, people come from all over to visit Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral and Thailand’s temples. Aside from preserving our cultural heritage, our historical houses could become another draw for both domestic and international tourists. Case study for success: Vigan.

After Mr. Henares were the talks from the Heroes for #ThoughtfulTourism. They are:

  • Carlos Celdran of Walk This Way
  • Chairell Winston Almendras of Batang Yagit
  • Loren Legarda of Luntiang Pilipinas
  • Melissa and Francesa Villa-Mateo of Project Pearls
  • Jay Jaboneta of Yellow Boats Foundation
  • Antonio Ingles of Aral Pinoy
  • Anna Oposa of Save Philippine Seas
  • Niccolo Cosme of Project Headshot Philippines
  • Elizabeth Angsioco of Democratic Socialist Women of the Philippines
  • Jayvee Fernandez for Diving in the Philippines
  • Lynn Pinugu of Mano Amiga Pilipinas
  • Froilan Grate of Mother Earth Foundation
  • Imee Marcos of Ilocos Norte
  • Lito Perez for Filipino Heritage and Fashion
Lito Perez while talking about his work with heritage houses

While they all deserved their moment in the spotlight for their contributions to Thoughtful Tourism, my own personal biases towards environmental efforts and because I’ve stayed in Villa Tortuga, one of the places that Lito Perez has restored, led me to pay just a little more attention to Anna Oposa, Lito Perez, and Jayvee Fernandez.  I appreciated hearing their thoughts on how the online community and social media could be used to promote advocacies and build connections. Unfortunately, Carlo Celdran arrived much later because he got stuck in traffic.

The night ended with the awarding of the Empowered Travelers: travelers selected by Meet Manila and the sponsors to become ambassadors for Thoughtful Tourism. Congratulations to the three folks who were awarded that night!

(My nice surprise a few days later: I was chosen to be an Empowered Traveler too, along with Manyel! Apparently, they wanted to call all the Empowered Travelers to the front but with the power outage, they couldn’t round us all up in the dark. Haha. Thank you Meet Manila for this opportunity!)

Realizations and musings from the sustainable tourism front

I’ve been involved in the business of sustainable tourism for the past five years. Some of the tasks and projects I’ve done include staff training in environmental practices and nature interpretation, direct guest interaction via nature tours and nightly talks at the beach bar, organizing the publication of a book, getting our department website up and running, and writing, editing, producing, and directing an online nature show. As a person, I love what I’m doing. I get to share El Nido’s unique flora and fauna with people from around the world (people always laugh when I tell them that our white sand beaches are actually piles of parrotfish poop), meet scientific giants (hi Dr. Gerry Allen and Dr. Mark Erdmann!), and become famous on the Internet (watch our show!). But from a business perspective, is it worth it? Does our reputation as a sustainable tourism company help us keep our current customers and attract new ones?

My realizations after more than seven months of maintaining and monitoring our social media presence (yes, it’s another thing I’m doing on top of everything else):

  1. Most guests and potential guests don’t care that we’re an eco resort. I say most because there are definitely some that do (I love them so!), but they’re in the minority. This is because…
  2. The top considerations in booking a holiday will (almost) always be the cost and the hotel’s facilities. Us being an eco resort is the icing on top of the cake – it’s not the cake itself.

What’s my basis for these realizations?

  1. I’ve represented our company at several conferences, including ones on green business, green urbanism, and corporate social responsibility. I came prepared to enthusiastically share the things we’re doing and to learn from other participants. Instead, the Top 2 questions I got were “How much does it cost to stay in your resort?” and “Can I get a discount?”
  2. On our Facebook and Twitter pages, the posts that always get the most “likes” and “shares” are the ones about the scenic views and the luxurious hotel facilities. A sunset photo? Fifty “likes”. A hammock on the beach with a writeup on swaying with the breeze? Seventy “likes”. A feature on our Earth Day cleanup events? I’m lucky to get past 25.
  3. In the questionnaire that our guests fill out before they leave, they hardly ever praise our environmental initiatives. It’s always the service.

Lesson learned: it will never be enough to just be a responsible tourism company. You need to have the better product, better people, and better environmental profile than the other guy if you want to get ahead. Let’s face it: concern for the environment will always be secondary to whether the product works. We’re an eco resort because we believe in it, but our guests aren’t likely to care about that if our waiter messes up their drinks order.

Why development and change in El Nido can be a good thing

I find it curious whenever tourists staying in El Nido Town say “Ang saya naman ng buhay dito. Sana ganito nalang lagi. Sana hindi magbago”. (“Life is so good here. I hope it’ll always be like this. I hope it doesn’t change.”) Pardon my cynicism but tourists have a romanticized view of what it means to live in a small town like El Nido. While El Nido’s slower and idyllic lifestyle makes it conducive to tourists who stay for three, five, or maybe even 15 days, that same idyllic lifestyle remains a barrier to vital services for daily living, like 24-hour electricity, a sewage system, and a hospital.

El Nido is classified as a first-class municipality because of its tax collection, but it’s a first-class municipality where electricity only runs from 2pm to 6am the next day. This means that the elementary and high school students attending public schools sit in classrooms with no electric fans. The windows are opened to let the sunshine in. Municipal hall has its own generator so they can have electricity during business hours. The rationale for the limited electricity? There aren’t enough paying customers for the electric company to justify running their generators full-time. Not enough customers means they lose money.

The road going out of El Nido and on to Taytay barely qualifies for the name. The “road” is just hard-packed earth with potholes, gravel, and dust the whole way to Taytay. During the rainy season, the bus you’re riding in is likely to get stuck in the mud. The road only gets better from Taytay onward to Puerto Princesa, Palawan’s capital. The reason for not spending the millions necessary for a good road? Again, not enough people using it.

El Nido is a first-class municipality with no hospital. The nearest hospital is in Taytay, two hours away by land. The best hospital in Palawan is in Puerto Princesa. If you want to give birth in a good hospital, you have to make the 5-6 hour land trip to Puerto Princesa. The Rural Health Unit as one doctor and a health center for over 30,000 residents.

El Nido has no centralized sewage system. Each household gets its water either from a deep-well or from a nearby stream or river. Sewage is either stored in underground septic tanks or discharged directly into the soil. Fifteen percent of the municipality’s total population lives in the poblacion (AKA El Nido Town), which leads me to wonder just how much fecal coliform is in the seawater directly fronting the poblacion.

The point of all this is that development and change are not inherently evil. I repeat, NOT EVIL. Development is not a bad thing. Development only becomes evil when it’s uncontrolled and the ones doing the developing don’t give a shit about the environment and the local community. Case in point: the dredging and pier extension in El Nido Town to accommodate the huge RoRo (roll on, roll off) barges. The barges would supposedly bring in more tourists but according to scientists from the University of the Philippines-Marine Science Institute, the dredging and pier extension will change the water circulation and sand deposition pattern in the embayment. You’d lose the sand on one side of the beach and still have to re-dredge the barge lane every 10 years.

But development has its upsides too. The influx of tourism resulted in increased income for the municipality. Not changing El Nido at all means limiting the opportunities of the people who live here. It’s in the delicate balance of development and preservation where success ultimately lies. I hope to be able to see it in the years to come.