Defining Sustainability in Siargao, Philippines (Tourism Planning)

When people think about the Philippines, images of uninhabited white-sand beaches, turquoise-colored waters, towering limestone rocks, colorful coral reefs, cultural heritage sites, and Tarzan swings into waterfall pools come to mind.

Tourists can hardly wait to experience the country’s natural wonders and the activities which locals, foreign investors, and tourism groups have dreamed up for them, making paradise a difficult place to leave. But that also means daily island-hopping tours that attract thousands of people who step on coral reefs; banana boat rides that zip across the water at 60 mph too close to eager swimmers; Western-style dinners in which food stocks come from thousands of miles away; or full moon parties by the beach where people leave their worries (and common sense) behind.

However, the dream-makers have neither the long-term vision, knowledge of city growth planning, or the environmental clearance of top government officials. They’re simply emboldened by the recent infusion of cash and the wild, wild west “who’s going to stop me?” mentality. Over time, those dreams turn into nightmares consisting of sewage hazards, deadly accidents, illegal settling, economic disparities, and the declining health of natural resources.

This is precisely what happened to Boracay, the Philippines’ most famous destination. Upon the recommendation of three government agencies, President Duterte has shut down the resort island for the next six months. That means over 36,000 people will lose their jobs, which is significant since 7 out of 10 workers in the western Visayas region are employed in Boracay. The closure will also cost the island’s tourism industry ₱56 billion or US $1.4 billion. A hard pill to swallow.

The situation in Boracay has affected the decision-making processes in Siargao (“shar-gaw”) when it comes to the future of their tear-drop shaped island. It’s also on the mind and lips of every Siarganon whom I’ve spoken to since February this year, from the fishermen, boat tour guides, chefs, to the café baristas.

Reef-ringed Siargao is surrounded by 222,000 acres of ancient mangrove forests.

It’s home to the Philippine crocodile, the Philippine cockatoo, monitor lizards, three endangered turtle species, megabats, 106 species of fish, 237 species of mollusks, 54 species of seaweed, 8 species of seagrass and many more. Siargao’s waves in Cloud 9 have attracted world-class surfers; it serves as Asia’s main venue for international surfing competitions. It’s also one of many reasons why people like me visit this piece of paradise.

Siargao is now at the precipice of a tourism cliff: the island could either squander its rich natural beauty and fall off like Boracay, or deploy a masterplan that brings balance among people, the environment and local economy that would make it soar as an eco-friendly destination.

Cloud 9: jump-off point for Siargao surfers. By Beverly Rose

Cloud 9: jump-off point for Siargao surfers. By Beverly Rose

Various nonprofits and community-led sustainability projects have been created to protect the island’s unique biodiversity — the plants, animals, micro organisms, the genetic information they contain, and the ecosystems they form.

There’s also been a growing groundswell of local and political support for sustainability to be practiced among residents, business owners, investors and government agencies. Boutique resorts, for example, boast of upholding principles of sustainability and environmental responsibility. Another resort mentions on their website that a “sustainable ethos runs throughout our guest experience…”

But what does being “sustainable” mean?
What’s their definition of sustainability?
Does it match Siargao’s nine municipalities’ definition?
What’s the locals’ notion of it?
What does it look like?
Is it an open or closed system?
Who’s involved? How can tourists participate?
Who will be held accountable to those standards?

You’ll find posters like this by Sea Movement all throughout Siargao.

You’ll find posters like this by Sea Movement all throughout Siargao.

The concept of sustainable tourism has been of great interest to me since I started traveling for work and living as a digital nomad over a decade ago. However, there is nothing sustainable when it comes to air travel, or travel in general.

But soon I discovered that I can make a difference upon arrival at my place of interest with the choices I make. For example, by choosing accommodations that use renewable energy such as solar or geothermal, or by avoiding the purchase of souvenirs made of endangered plants or animals.

I also realized that my contribution to sustainable tourism could be even greater if I dedicated my career towards it.

Currently, I’m in the midst of completing a Masters degree in Environmental Conservation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My department, The Nelson Institute, has been home to renowned environmentalists and designers including John Muir, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Aldo Leopold. It’s also the namesake of Senator Gaylord Nelson who founded Earth Day in 1970. As part of our curriculum requirements, we partake in a capstone leadership project where we (me and the University) partner with a company or organization to complete mutual goals.

For the next two months, I will be interviewing various people and stakeholders from the municipalities of General Luna and Pacifico, two famous areas in Siargao experiencing development at breakneck pace due to tourism and considerable strain on the island’s delicate ecosystem. The focus of my capstone project will be to survey, capture and evaluate how Siarganons define sustainable tourism and what it means for them, sa kapwang Pilipino (fellow countrymen), their environment and the local economy. In addition, I will also write a literature review which identifies specific factors affecting sustainable tourism policy-making in the Philippines.

My work will be independent of any one organization’s oversight to avoid direct influence over the evaluation process. However, my final research will be shared with the mayors and vice mayors of General Luna and Pacifico Municipalities, and as stories on online / social media.

I look forward to sharing my journey with you. Stay tuned for more updates from Siargao, Philippines!

Salamat karajaw!

Digital nomad-ing in Harana Surf Resort, Siargao. By Beverly Rose

Digital nomad-ing in Harana Surf Resort, Siargao. By Beverly Rose