Looking at Siargao's Tourism Industry With New Eyes
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes,” wrote Marcel Proust. This quote, paraphrased by many authors like Pico Iyer, comments on the character’s experiences on art in Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time. The context may be different, but I think the sentiment rings true about nature and travel.
When your plane first approaches Siargao island, you’re greeted with lush mangrove forests and hints of white sand beaches just below. After touching down, this sight continues with the endless amount of coconut trees that surround the area. It’s only when you slow down and get off your vehicle do you see the amount of trash and piles of construction materials that are in or near the mangrove and coconut forests.
I didn’t notice this when I vacationed here back in March 2018 (which doubled as an inquiry / discovery trip to see if I could do my project here). It’s when I started “looking with new eyes” did the real Siargao reveal itself and I started to see things for what they are.
I’m aware that these observations will not paint a fully accurate picture of the tourism industry in Siargao. But when you’re on tourism’s supply side (as a resort manager, a tour guide, or a restaurant chef), everyday is like the movie Groundhog Day. You meet different types of people but you walk, talk, think, share, complain, and do the same things over and over in a 24-72 hour cycle. With that kind of repetition, trends emerge. These trends and continual issues are in the back of my mind as a conservationist, a curious Masters student, and an advocate for slow travel.
Between now and my first trip back in March, the island has grown busier. The two-lane road from Dapa (where Sayak Airport is located) to General Luna is teeming with cars, vans, motorcycles, tricycles, bikes speeding past each other; as if they’re auditioning for The Fast and Furious. I’ve witnessed four major and minor accidents this week. Motorcycling in General Luna on a Saturday night reminds me of Koh Phi Phi before a full moon party. Thrill-seeking, inexperienced drivers abound.
Favorite destinations like Cloud 9, Magpupungko Rock Pools, Sugba Lagoon, and the three islands – Daku, Naked and Guyam are no longer the hidden gems they once were for the local Siarganons. Everyone’s vying for that perfect Instagram photo sans other bodies when, in reality, the place is crawling with people.
Many attribute the popularity of Siargao to social media blogs and geotagged posts, the redirection of tourists from Boracay island (which is closed under Pres. Duterte’s orders), and the rise in cheap flights (which went from two to seven flights a day, over the course of 2 short years).
The island isn’t ready for the influx.
However, Philippines Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) Executive Director Carmelo Arcilla said it’s the local government unit (LGU) officials who should adjust, not the airlines. “It’s an open market. Airlines are free to enter the market. It’s the LGUs who should regulate [the influx of tourists in their areas].”
“Connectivity is a sign of social progress. [Handling environment issues and influx of tourists] is not airlines’ responsibility but of the local government’s,” Arcilla added.
The unfortunate truth is that Arcilla is right. The free market shouldn’t be contained if we want progress and innovation.
“Aircraft operations often account for more than 95% of the total environmental impact of an airline,” writes SAS Group on their website. ”Airlines purchase services from airports with private or public investors. Every new construction or other change in ground use requires authorization from local authorities. Biological diversity is normally an approval aspect.”
That’s confirmation of Arcilla’s argument. It’s the responsibility of local governments to approve, disapprove and regulate what happens on-the-ground. More on this in my next blog post.
Dine in Manila and you don’t have to pay more than ₱80-150 (US $2-3) per meal. Here in Siargao, decent meals start at ₱200 (US $4) or ₱350 (US $7) at popular restaurants. The food prices are a problem.
In comparison, Manila has the infrastructure to arrange food shipments and deliveries and the people to hire for any task. It’s home to a variety of major and small-time food suppliers, manufacturers and distributors. It’s also landlocked.
Meanwhile, in Siargao island, cooks and chefs are reliant on shipments via plane or ferries… that is if they arrive at all. They’re also competing for the fish supply in Surigao Province among other resort owners and residents who are willing to pay top peso to feed their discerning guests. Some even hire their own boatmen to bargain for the biggest catch while they’re still out on sea. The best fish stock never make it to the markets.
That means the tourists get first dibs on the best food, and locals lose out.
Locals also lose out on the price they pay for food and ingredients. They’re not afforded a “local’s discount.” What tourists pay, they pay too. However their wages are 1/10th or less than what visitors make.
And the prices continue to soar.
A WORLD OF OPPORTUNITIES
Tourism has brought exciting opportunities to Siargao, which means a swift infusion of cash into the island’s economy. Locals are abandoning traditional jobs — such as fishing, farming and construction — to be boat operators, drivers, tour guides, Instagram photographers, or even body warmers… with promises of tips, gifts from abroad, fresh conversations with foreigners, business partnerships, or a ticket out of the country.
What’s worse is election time. Those running for office pay locals, like fishermen, ₱10,000 (US $200) for their votes. That’s a week’s worth of work! Why bother working when you’ve already been paid?
And who’d want to farm for ₱200 a day (US $4) when you can make that in tips as a cafe barista or a server in a few hours?
Tourism is contributing to struggling food and labor supply chains that are already strained.
But the issue of price haggling bothers me the most. It’s a cultural right of passage here in the Philippines (well, in Asia in general) to bargain for anything and everything under the sun. I’ve learned how to do it well over the years and in different languages too. It should be considered an art form and a line-item in any resume.
Tourists who want to island-hop or see famous Siargao destinations are provided with estimated costs for the trip, which include pick-up and drop-off via van, boat ride, raw ingredients for lunch and the cook’s services, entrance and conservation fees, and other miscellaneous purchases like extra bottles of water or beer.
To see the three islands of Daku, Guyam and Naked is typically ₱3,500 total. You can have up to 6 people in one small wooden boat. That’s ₱590 per person or US $11! Can you imagine paying $11 to be transported, fed and entertained for several hours in another country?
Yet tourists, especially local Filipinos and other Asians, have the audacity to bargain the price down to ₱2,000. Again, it’s in the culture.
Take that ₱2,000 – 3,500 and split it among five to six different people who help arrange the trip — from the boatmen, the tour guide, the cook, and the Coast Guard among others. ₱3,500 doesn’t go a long way. If anything, the locals would each get ₱400-500 (US $8-10) for 5-7 hours of work. They also risk their lives to sun burn, to guests who can’t swim, and to the weather should it turn for the worse.
The only way I know how to help is by slipping them a ₱100 tip. But wages need to go up significantly (and legally backed by federal law) to achieve a higher level of economic balance and harmony.
CLIMATE CHANGE: HOT DAYS ARE UNBEARABLE
Today I decided to multi-task: pay a new friend a visit, have breakfast, and get started on this blog post at the resort she owns, which is next door to my homestay. It was only 8:00am and my walk wasn’t more than 5 minutes, but the sun combined with the high humidity lulled me back to a sleepy state. Not only did the heat make it difficult to focus, but also brought out blood-seeking mosquitoes and various creepy crawlies. My laptop was overheating. I had to call it quits. I headed back to my room, cranked the AC, let my laptop cool down, and started writing.
As I sit here, it made me think about the locals whom I just passed and those who help with the upkeep of her resort and my homestay. They’re outside all day everyday while I have the benefit of closing my door and turning the AC on.
Weather is a funny thing here. Vacationers seek the hot sunny days to make their holiday worthwhile. Long-term visitors like me are thankful for the rainy days that shield us from the unrelenting sun. The locals want a mix, which is understandable. Their livelihoods, such as fishing and boat touring, are dependent upon the weather. No island-hopping tour, no money. Those who cook in hot kitchens, drive in modified AC-less tricycles, or do construction welcome the respite of cloudy days. Though typhoons mean flooding and destruction, the precursory cool winds are highly appreciated.
It saddens me that in Southeast Asia, currently experiencing days as hot as 114 degrees, air conditioning is considered a luxury. Buying one AC unit is equivalent to a local’s monthly salary here or more. It also requires maintenance and repair by AC specialists if it overheats, which can be costly.
It also made me think about the effects of heat on a person’s mental and physical well-being. We joke that everyone and everything in Siargao is on island time. They are. But not by choice, but because excess heat can cause lethargy, fatigue, nausea, then dizziness, headaches and fainting. This can transition from heat exhaustion to heat stroke. “Eventually that begins to affect the brain, and that’s when people begin to get confused and can lose consciousness.”
Siarganons’ bodies are well adapted to this climate. In fact, one of my friends complained about the cool breeze that lingered one late afternoon while I felt relieved by it. But excess heat will bring about other health-related problems including challenges to growing climate resilient crops, wasted food from lack of affordable refrigeration, the rise of infectious diseases, the inability to fight bacterial infections, and more.
Then there’s the issue of ACs using refrigerants – such as hydrofluorocarbons or HFC – which are powerful greenhouse gases, with thousands of times the warming potential of carbon dioxide. ACs also consume a tremendous amount of electricity. ACs are a double-edged sword: It’s a solution to a problem but it’s also the biggest problem.
Excess heat isn’t some far-off climate change phenomena, it’s a global health issue. And one that will grow worse every year.
On a separate but related note: the heat is also one of the reasons why Metro Manila has so many malls. It’s a place to cool off for free, while shopping, paying bills, catching a movie, or grabbing food with friends and family. I see the logic now.
(These are some of the trending observations I’ve made this month, combined with my observances from frequent visits to the country and conversations with many citizens for the past 10 years.)
Day-to-Day Living in Paradise
In terms of my capstone, things are going well despite the fact that my host organization stopped replying back to my emails a month before I arrived in the Philippines. Unless a person is trained, employed by or communicates with Western countries like the US, email is not a sure-fire way of communication. If you want anything done in the Philippines, you must do it in-person and follow-up constantly by text or thru Facebook Messenger.
I lucked out. During my first visit in March, I stayed in a sustainable boutique resort that had a coffee stand (featured above). Little did I realize the serendipitous meetings I’d make in those five chairs — from the surfers and underwater photographers (who first brought attention to this island), business owners, foreigners who’ve decided to stay and invest in Siargao, influencers, decision makers, and many of the country’s movers and shakers.. including the regional and tourism planning firm in-charge of Siargao’s Master Plan. They’ve seen how quickly Siargao has changed in the last 3-6 years, and they’ve shared those bits of knowledge with me. They’ve also introduced me to other people they believe I should talk to.
So while I’m disappointed to lose the opportunity to work with a corporate social responsibility arm of a major conglomerate, I’m able to study the inner workings of Siargao tourism without influence over my findings.
I’m also grateful to break bread with the true locals of General Luna, Dapa and Pilar, who were intrigued about my project. They’ve shared their home, their amazing food and their experiences with me. There’s nothing that opens the heart more than sharing food.
I’ve also picked up some words and phrases in the regional (Bisaya) and local (Surigaonon) languages, which have Spanish influences from colonization. Now I have four languages swirling in my head when we’re conversing, while trying to remember Surigaonon slang and distinguishing words from various accents. For example:
English / Tagalog / Bisaya / Surigaonon:
Here / Dito / Diri OR Dinhi / Yari
Very Good / Magaling / Maayo Kaayo / Maradjaw Karadjaw
These variations in dialects are also in the back of my mind when I transcribe my interviews. I want to make sure my Western views aren’t being imposed upon the translation. For example, in the world of conservation and ecology, carrying capacity means the number of people, other living organisms, or crops that a region can support without environmental degradation.
In the Philippines, carrying capacity means the number or quantity of people or things that can be conveyed or held by a vehicle or container (such as a seaside boardwalk). Here they also refer to it as the tourism carrying capacity: “the maximum number of people that may visit a tourist destination at the same time, without causing destruction of the physical, economic, sociocultural environment and an unacceptable decrease in the quality of ‘visitors’ satisfaction.” One way I get around this is by asking the locals the same question in different ways to see how they’d answer.
Well, that’s it for now. Thanks for sticking around to read this lengthy post. Brownie points for you. I hope to reflect upon other issues related to tourism in my next post. Stay tuned for more!
This post was originally published 6/13/18 in Nelson Institute’s Environmental Conservation Capstone Projects Blog