Donsol, the town Whale Sharks built

Posted on November 16, 2012

WHAT A difference conservation makes. Barely 15 years ago, the coastal town of Donsol in Sorsogon was a fifth class rural municipality where weathered vehicles spurred swirling clouds on dusty, unpaved roads. Sitting 540 kilometers southeast of Manila, the Donsol of the early 1990s was a relaxed and reticent town of fisherfolk and farmers.

TOURISTS prepare to meet a whale shark in Donsol
Then in 1998, an amateur home-video brought to Manila by diver David Duran revealed whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) -- Earth’s largest fish species -- swimming and feeding in the bay of Donsol.

Back then, the world’s most popular whale shark tour was in Ningaloo Reef, off the western coast of Australia. Aside from being rather pricey ($350 to $500) per head), interactions were not guaranteed.

Donsol’s whale sharks mostly keep within a kilometer from shore, perfect for tourists in snorkels and masks. With strong government leadership and the support of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the townsfolk of Donsol took the plunge and entered the history books.

Since 1998, WWF-Philippines has spearheaded a holistic conservation program which ranges from satellite tagging and photo-identification to the effective management of tourism impact. Current efforts are supported by WWF-Denmark, ECOCEAN, the Hubbs Sea World Research Institute (HSWRI), CERTINA and Banco de Oro Unibank (BDO) and include vigorous environmental education drives to teach public school children about the ecology.

Today Donsol receives an average of 25,000 visitors each summer -- a sharp contrast to the 867 recorded in 2002. Sailing on the influx of tourists, boat trips rose from barely 340 in 2002 to over 5,300 per season. Donsol has indeed become whale shark central.

“Prior to 1998, Donsol’s yearly boat rental revenues totaled about P14,000. Now they annually breach P14 million,� said WWF-Philippines Donsol Project Manager Raul Burce. “Economic benefits are permeating throughout all levels.�

From barely P4,000 in 1998, municipal earnings from seasonal registration fees and taxes are breaching P4.6 million per year.

Combined, the town’s Butanding Interaction Officers (BIOS) are logging in over P3.1 million per season, exclusive of tips.

When asked what benefits ecotourism brought to his family, Alan Amanse, one of the original Donsol BIOs, said, “I sent my four children to college.� Lambert Avisado, head of the Boat Owner’s Association (BOA), said, “When this started, I owned one small fishing boat. Today, I own three tourism and fishing boats. I even paid for the newest one with my own money.�

Total revenues from Donsol’s whale shark interaction program rose from barely P18,000 in 2002 to more than P22 million 10 years later.

These figures exclude revenues generated by resorts, restaurants, dive gear rentals, souvenir stores and rental vans.

Year on year, tourist arrivals have showed upward trends. New income, investment and employment opportunities have popped up.

Side by side with the traditional livelihood of fishing, ecotourism has become Donsol’s second engine of economic growth.

Because of the way stakeholders “democratized� Donsol’s system, the people of Donsol had every chance to “share the joy� of ecotourism and feel its positive impacts both on their dining tables and in their wallets.

“Tourism gave us a big boost,� says Jasmine Yanson, a boatman’s wife and mother of seven. “We were able to buy an outrigger boat and household appliances -- plus my children were able to finish school.�

Today Donsol is a bustling first-class municipality. There are close to 230 tourist rooms available during the high season. From a few hundred curious backpackers in a season, Donsol’s visitor count has exceeded 130 per day.

Aside from boat operators and BIOs, the town now boasts of a full complement of tourist personnel and services that include paddle boatmen, resorts, lodging houses and homestays, restaurants, caterers, souvenir shops and gear rental.

“The economic benefits of embracing conservation cannot be denied,� said Mr. Burce. “A simple decision to protect whale sharks has greatly improved Donsolano lives. This is the local economy that whale sharks built.�

For more information contact Raul Burce, Donsol Project Manager, WWF-Philippines at rburce@wwf.org.ph; Gregg Yan, Communications & Media Manager, WWF-Philippines at gyan@wwf.org.ph.