To monitor the quality of tourist sites, enhance their ecological value, help preserve natural-resources and enhance their benefits for tourists, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources-Ecosystems Research and Development Bureau (DENR-ERDB) recently released an Ecotourism Tracking Tool (ETT) to rate how “green” is an ecotourism site.
Interviewed at the sidelines of the celebration of the 2018 International Day for Biological Diversity at the National Museum of Natural History in Manila last Tuesday, DENR-ERDB Director Henry A. Adornado said the tracking tool classifies the quality of ecotourism sites based on several parameters.
The parameters include policies, operations and management, sociocultural value, ecotourism products and services, economic benefits, financing/enterprise building and biological facilities.
The tracking tool aims to help concerned authorities—whether national or local government, the private sector or even the tourists themselves—evaluate the real activities of resorts, recreational and tourism sites in relation to their “friendliness” to the environment and adherence to the principles of ecotourism.
Environmental advocates welcome such initiative while pitching in what ecotourism in the Philippines should be all about.
The release of the ETT came on the heels of a nationwide crackdown targeting some of the country’s tourist destinations and a six-month moratorium on tourism on Boracay Island, the country’s top tourist destination, in the municipality of Malay in the Aklan province.
The closure of Boracay, which started on April 26, came upon the recommendation of the Interagency Task Force Boracay led by Environment Secretary Roy A. Cimatu, to fast-track its rehabilitation effort and to allow its degraded environment to recover from decades of neglect and abuse.
As part of the crackdown, the DENR had also started to go after violators of environmental laws—particularly the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Forestry Code and their respective rules and regulation through show-cause orders and notices of violations.
The campaign against erring tourism establishments is also ongoing in El Nido and Coron in Palawan; Puerto Galera in Occidental Mindoro; Panglao Island in Bohol; and other tourist spots that showcase the aesthetic beauty of the Philippine environment.
Blessed with rich natural resources, white-sand beaches and pristine waters, breathtaking waterfalls, views from mountain peaks, astonishing landscapes and seascapes, enchanting rivers and lakes, a diverse culture with friendly, friendly people and communities as hosts, the Philippines can be considered an ecotourism haven.
The country’s tourism industry continues to grow together with its annual contribution to the economy, generating tens of thousands of jobs and creating livelihood opportunities to otherwise sleeping agricultural and fishing towns in the countryside.
In 2017 the Department of Tourism reported that foreign tourist arrivals alone hit the 6.6-million mark, exceeding by at least 11 percent the previous year’s 5.97 million tourist arrivals.
What is ecotourism?
Ecotourism has varying definitions, but it generally refers to activities that involve trips to a place where people can commune with nature.
The most common form of tourism, ecotourism is supposed to be a low-impact activity in contrast to commercial mass tourism, such as leisure tourism, which includes family, cultural, religious and sports tourism.
Other forms of tourism like business, culinary and medical tourism are also gaining traction.
Ecotourism activities range from a simple walk in the park to bathing and swimming in beaches, diving or snorkeling; boating and island hopping; trekking, camping and climbing mountains; swimming, boating or a simple picnic near inland water bodies like rivers, waterfalls or lakes.
In the Philippines ecotourism attractions sometimes involve wildlife interaction whether in an artificial or natural habitat.
While saying an ETT will help in monitoring development in identified ecotourism sites, such tool will not be able to solve the problem brought about by the government and the general public’s wrong perception and understanding of what ecotourism is, said AA Yaptinchay of the Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines.
“Ecotourism means creating a balance among nature conservation and business enterprise, and education for visitors and local communities. Tourism should be intended to help enhance natural attractions and local culture, not degrade them,” Yaptinchay told the BusinessMirror through Facebook Messenger.
“Ideally speaking, there is no pure ecotourism site in the Philippines, because the whole country is riddled with higher problems, such as poverty, overpopulation, corruption, overfishing, deforestation and pollution,” he said.
Yaptinchay added: “How can you make ecotourism sustainable? Ecotourism falls under the realm of sustainable tourism. If it is not sustainable, it cannot be ecotourism.”
According to Yaptinchay, sustainability means planning way ahead, multigenerational and applying the precautionary principle used in conservation when making decisions.
“In natural settings, sustainability has a biological and ecological basis which, to understand these processes, needs science. Science is necessary for the decision-making of tourism development. Simply put, we can develop, but not at the cost of losing ecosystem services and [if it would cause] people’s suffering,” he said.
Yaptinchay noted that the Philippines has many laws to protect the country’s natural environment and ecotourism sites from being overdeveloped.
“We just need to implement them and ensure that hindrances are eliminated, such as corruption. But it is not only the development of sites that needs regulation; visitor activity and behavior also need to be regulated,” he said.
Interaction with marine animals in the wild had become very popular, especially with whale sharks, turtles and dolphins, but Yaptinchay lamented that there are no guidelines or regulations for these activities.
He also expressed concern that Philippine tourism relies heavily on its natural resources, from its beautiful islands to the seafood served in fancy restaurants. In some ecotourism sites, these are even the main attractions, he noted.
“Sustained livelihoods mean sustained resources. A framework like the UN [United Nations] Sustainable Development Goals should be taken seriously and applied to all our activities to ensure that our future, not only in tourism, is secured. In other words, the only way is to look at the bigger picture,” he said.
Gregg Yan, environmentalist and Best Alternatives Campaign founder, said in response to questions through Messenger on May 16 that a certification system, using a tracking tool that will rate an ecotourism site, would definitely improve the quality of ecotourism in the country.
“Subjective systems are not accurate gauges, so certification should be standardized. Hotels and restaurants, for instance, are awarded stars for conforming to best practices. So, too, can resorts, lodges and tour operators win points by adopting green practices and technologies. Visitors will now be able to patronize and empower the most conservation-minded offerings,” he suggested.
Tourism with ‘green’ heart
“I’d say good ecotourism is tourism with a ‘green’ heart. It should have positive environmental, economic and social impacts. A low-impact tribal tour up a mountain, which immerses guests in indigenous culture and leaves the mountain, guides and guests better after a climb is a great example,” said Yan, an experienced climber.
He added: “The locals benefit, the guests are spiritually enriched, while the mountain is scoured of garbage or given more indigenous saplings to recover from years of logging.”
According to Yan, tourists should be mindful of their carbon footprint, as well as the negative impacts on the areas they visit.
However, on a more positive note, Yan said his group, the Best Alternatives, is now promoting the idea of “carbon handprint,” which is the positive impacts enjoyed by the communities, wildlife and habitats that they visit.
“Visitors have a vital part to play here. We’re pilot-testing a Green Climber concept whenever we trek up a mountain. Each group has a designated Green Climber equipped with a trash bag attached to his or her pack. Other climbers collect and dispose of nonbiodegradable trash by chucking it in the bag. This spreads the effort and leaves trails cleaner after a climb. Each climb can, thus, improve the state of the mountain,” he said.
“Last, the spirit of sustainable, low-impact enterprise can enrich the experience for tourists and operators alike. Quality homestays, local experiences like learning to plant and harvest rice or weave indigenous tapestries, locally sourced food and souvenirs made from renewable materials like driftwood can add pesos, dollars and positive memories for all players.”
A greenwashing tool?
Leon Dulce, national coordinator of Kalikasan-People’s Network for the Environment, said in an e-mailed reply to the BusinessMirror on May 16 that an ecotourism-certification system, like all other environmental planning and management tools and technologies, would take on the function of its overarching policy framework.
“The ecotourism tracking tool would function as a greenwashing tool in the current commercialized and privatized setup of the tourism industry,” he warned.
With Special-Use Agreements in Protected Areas serving as Trojan horses into “no-go” zones, coupled with toothless environmental compliance regulations, big tourism companies would find it easy to encroach into critical ecosystems and achieve “platinum” ratings with insufficient compliance to standards, Dulce said.
According to Dulce, ecotourism projects should be guided by the basic principle of “people, the planet over profit.”
Ecotourism, Dulce said, should serve as a sustainable livelihood to grassroots communities.
“It should be oriented toward educating tourists of the cultural and natural heritage in the landscapes and motivate action to conserve these areas,” he said.
All activities within these landscapes must be regulated based on the carrying capacity of the ecosystems and the democratic consultation, participation and decision-making of its caretaker communities.
“Ecotourism areas should, thus, be maintained as public commons, enjoy sufficient state subsidy and integrate development and management plans of the grassroots communities. Such plan should include scientific assessment of the landscapes and a community-based approach, which, in turn, will inform tourists on caps, limits on construction of facilities and other features of the management plan,” he added.
Striking a balance
In an interview with the BusinessMirror through social media on May 14, Paolo Pagaduan, director at the Center for Philippine Biodiversity Journalism, said an ecotourism-certification system could help the government keep track of the many parameters they need to monitor to effectively manage an ecotourism site.
“An ecotourism site must always strike a balance between the people, the planet and profit. Beyond the labeling of ecotourism sites, it should also be sustainable,” he said.
For ecotourism to be sustainable, it should also provide direct financial benefits to the local communities, as well as for conservation work.
“A place where tourists can enjoy nature is not sustainable unless it is also anchored on specific interventions for conservation, and improve the well-being of the locals, particularly in the Philippines because our ecotourism destinations are almost always inhabited by indigenous peoples as part of their ancestral domain,” Pagaduan added
He said there should also be a citizen-science platform to help the government in monitoring these sites.
“We can harness the Filipino zeal for social media to become watchdogs for the government to help avoid similar situations from cropping up. But these have to be official platforms of the government so that we know that the reports do reach government, and then we can hold people accountable for their inaction,” he said.
Another idea is to go beyond the concept of carrying capacity. Some ecotourism sites abroad easily accommodate millions of tourists per year. Sometimes it is not about the sheer volume of tourists, but rather, it is what we allow tourists do in the ecotourism sites, he noted.
“An example of how regulation can help stop identified risks—like discarded plastic cups during a recent race—is to prohibit the use or possession of such items in the first place. Provide facilities to address the need for these disposable products, then we will never need to bother with plastic cups again in that area,” Pagaduan pointed out.
Whole system approach
He said the government must always consider the whole system and not just the big players in trying to improve ecotourism as an industry.
“There are always ancillary services tied to the major industries like tourism. These small players have practically no means to address sudden shocks to the system for extended periods of time. They don’t have the capital to sit around and wait for six months. But in order to address this problem, you have to go back a few steps and provide opportunities for the small players to play a role in the governance of ecotourism sites,” he said.
Pagaduan noted that meaningful participation is the key so that the government will have a better understanding of the whole system and not just the tip of the iceberg with the big players.
“Finally, all these policies must be backed by hard science. The best that we as NGOs [non-governmental organizations] can play is to help provide knowledge products for the policy-makers, as well as the stakeholders, to make better-informed decisions,” he said.
Image credits: Gregg Yan