Ecotourism Critical In Preserving the Environment

By Henrylito Tacio

Davao, 18 July 2009. What do Batanes Islands, Subic Bay in Zambales, Mayon Volcano in Bicol, Chocolate Hills in Bohol, Sohoton National Park in Samar, Mount Kitanglad in Bukidnon, Mount Apo National Park in Davao, and Honda Bay in Palawan have in common?

They are locations identified by the Department of Tourism (DOT) as ideal ecotourism destinations in the Philippines. The areas are “rich in natural attractions and conducive to adventure travel,” explains the DOT ecotourism primer.

These areas have unique features “which may be very interesting and educational for the visitors,” like the Philippine Eagle Center in Davao and the Banaue Rice Terraces in Ifugao. In addition, the area should also be environmentally-rich in terms of flora and fauna and the number of endemic species and endangered wildlife (the Palanan Wilderness in Isabela and the forests of Palawan come to mind).

Areas with historical and cultural attractions are considered if those that can be found there are outstanding and a very important part of the history and culture of the country. Examples: Vigan Heritage Village and Taal Basilica.

The Sierra Madre Mountain Ranges, included in the list, is “threatened by other industries like logging which may destroy the potential attraction.” Another reason for inclusion is when the native or tribal traditions of the people in the destinations are “almost untouched by modern influences” (T’boli in Lake Sebu, North Cotabato is an example).

Those are not the only criteria. For another, the area is not frequented by commercial tourists, the so-called “off the beaten track” (Sagada in Mountain Province and Batanes). For marine environment, the area must be diverse in marine life (El Nido Marine Park in northern Palawan).

Tourism may help in the rehabilitation and preservation of the diversity or environment of the area. These are usually national parks like St. Paul Subterranean National Park in Puerto Princesa.

With EcoTourism age-old trees need not be at risk.

Ecotourism came into existence due to the problems brought about by tourism, one of the world’s biggest industries. “While tourism is perceived as an enjoyable activity, it has come to be associated with degradation of environmental quality,” noted Dr. Rogelio Serrano, who used to work with the Laguna-based Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCARRD).

For example, the influx of tourists in Metro Manila – the point entry of most foreign visitors – has transformed the metropolis into a big garbage dump and a poison chamber. “Not that all those visitors are to blame for Metro Manila’s blight,” clarified Ivar T. Garcia

“The more successful our tourism campaigns become, the higher the price we pay,” said Garcia, who issued the statement when he was still the head of the public relations and information office of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation. “Even souvenir shops catering to tourists contribute to the problem by creating more pressure on the country’s natural resources.”

“Tourist destinations, whether a pristine jungle, white beach, or a historic site in an urban area, are always littered with candy wrappers, styrofoam, cans, and other non-biodegradable waste,” explained Dr. Serrano.

Tourism facilities – such as resorts – may generate air, water and noise pollution. The tourism department points out: “Harmful waste products such as sewage and chemicals are a particular problem for most resort facilities, especially when it affects potable supplies of groundwater on which most island communities rely.”

Other sources of pollution are boats which release sewage, fuel and poisonous compounds into the sea.

Tourism has also been associated with vandalism, graffiti, trampling of supposedly protected spots, and illegal condition of valuable plants and artifacts.

"Tourism can be as dangerous and destructive as a wild bull in our fields,” commented the Toledo Ecotourism Association in Belize. As Peter Holden, writing for the quarterly Contours, puts it: “Tourism is one of the causes of destroying mountains. Great hotels are bored through mountains to make room for tunnels or roads so that tourists may come to enjoy the scenery.”

Tourists on a nature trekking trip.

As an answer to these tourism problems, ecotourism was born. The World Tourism Organization and the United Nations Environment Program say ecotourism “involves traveling to relatively undisturbed natural areas with the specific object of studying, admiring and enjoying the scenery and its wild plants and animals, as well as any existing cultural aspects found in those areas.”

The Ecotourism Society defines it as “a purposeful travel to natural areas to understand the culture and natural history of the environment, taking care not to alter the integrity of the ecosystem while producing economic opportunities that make the conservation of natural resources beneficial to local people.”

“In the purest sense, (ecotourism) is an industry which claims to make a low impact on the environment and local culture, while helping create jobs, and conserving wildlife and vegetation,” pointed out the London-based Panos Institute.

According to Serrano, ecotourism is an approach toward a more desirable scenario for Philippine tourism. To get closer to this scenario, he recommends the following:

  • Collection of user fees. This should help the mindset of park users. People usually put value to what they enjoy at a cost which helps to protect and perpetuate it. The revenue generated can be used to improve facilities and services.
  • Strict implementation of rules. This has been the secret of Puerto Princesa’s success and acclaim as the cleanest and greenest city in the Philippines. People caught violating the cleanliness ordinance are fined or imprisoned. In addition, names of violators are aired over the radio to discourage similar violations. Parallel measures can be enforced to parks and tourist destinations.
  • Training of tour guides. Tour guides in sufficient number with quality guiding skills are very much needed for education and entertainment ecotourism. They can help promote the philosophy of ecotourism and heighten appreciation of the country’s natural and historical legacy.
  • Creative means of soliciting tourist participation. It requires some degree of creativity to tap input from tourists for the cause of ecotourism. For instance, management could designate an accessible denuded area of a nature park as a tree planting area for tourists. Holes and seedlings can be readied for planting. The seedlings they have planted can be labeled personally with their individual names.
  • Active roles of local government units in ecotourism. In keeping with the provisions of the Local Government Code, some nature parks like the St. Paul Subterranean Park have been turned over to the local government. Functions have been devolved. This underscores the need for vigorous capability building on park management for the local government unit.
  • Research and development support to ecotourism. As tourism is here to stay, actions or programs and policies need to be backed up by research and development data.

“Tourism will be a growth sector for the country for the next 25-30 years,” admitted Tourism Secretary Joseph “Ace” H. Durano. “It is sustainable because of its low impact development. The Philippines is a desirable and favorable destination for tourism investments aside from our country being a favored tourist destination.”