Numbers Don’t Lie

Sustainable and responsible tourism is the cornerstone of Tourism Secretary, Bernadette “Berna” Romulo-Puyat’s, agenda as she spearheads the country’s tourism offensive. This is what she told a group of us in a recent press forum last month.
Her thrust could not be more appropriate. Following the Boracay catastrophe, we have witnessed how rapid development without planning can boomerang into an environmental disaster; how corruption in local governments can turn the most pristine of islands into a virtual septic tank; and how local governments can be incapable of managing large volume, high profile tourist destinations, both in financial and management terms.
Boracay was a painful lesson for us all. Not only will its closure cost us some US$900 million in foregone tourism revenues, it also displaced thousands of businesses, small and large, in the island. The environmental damage caused to Boracay’s flora, fauna and marine life has yet to be quantified.
Last week, I took my family to the Oslob to swim with the whale sharks. This was not the first time we visited the place — we were there in 2012 when it was still a low- key tourist site. Back then, the place was barebones rustic. The main reception was composed of a roofed pavilion some 400 square meters in size, equipped with two toilets and around eight shower stalls. It had a parking lot good for 25 cars. The entire facility was enough to process 100 daily visitors.
Today, Oslob has become a famed tourist destination. It now attracts up to 1,000 tourists daily and neither the pavilion nor parking lot have been expanded.
Tourists, mostly foreign, are bursting at the seams and spilling out into the streets where there is no sidewalk. Those waiting for their turn to board the paddle boats crowd the holding area that is neither roofed nor cemented. Mind you, there are hundreds of people waiting at the shoreline at any point in time.
The sheer number of tourists has made the place chaotic, not to mention, filthy. The beachfront is overrun and the stress on the environment is palpable. Due to the lack of toilets, I personally witnessed a Chinese couple who allowed their kids to relieve themselves by the trees. The waste eventually found its way to the ocean and eventually, to the whale sharks. No surprise, the water emits a foul odor.
The specter in Oslob is a two-pronged disaster. On one hand, the lack of infrastructure is damaging the environment at an accelerated rate. On the other, tourists are made to experience something that is less than pleasant. No doubt, this will redound to a degradation of the Philippine tourism brand.
The only bright spot is that the sea wardens are strict about how the tourist can interact with the whales.
The Cebu provincial government charges an entrance fee of P1,000 for every foreigner and P500 for locals. With the present number of visitors, collections can range anywhere from half a million to a million pesos a day.
The local government claims that 60% of revenues go to the Barangay Tan-awan boatmen and sea wardens, 30% to the municipal government and 10% to the barangay. Whether these ratios are accurate or not is another story. The point is, the revenues are substantial and are simply being divvied-up by the local officials without allotting funds to improve infrastructure.
Secretary Berna should look into this because it is another environmental catastrophe in the making. If left unattended, this tourism jewel will go the way of Boracay. The time has come for the national government to intervene.
The story is completely different in the island of Sumilon, 10 minutes away from Oslob by boat. Again, I was there in 2012 and recall how the beach was inundated by trash from the nearby islands of Dumaguete and Oslob.
Today, the beach is as clean as a virgin island with nary an article of waste in sight. Its white sand is most inviting amidst the contrast of its turquoise and royal blue waters. My family and I enjoyed our time on the sandbar and marveled at how clean it is, even underwater.
Seventeen of the 24 hectares of Sumilon island is managed by the Cebu-based Bluewater Group. There, they built a resort consisting of 31 casitas, three of which are villas, several dining pavilions, two swimming pools, a spa and a camping site. Bluewater is famous for how they honor Philippine architecture, customs and traditions. The Filipino themed resort is one all Filipinos will be proud of in terms of facilities, hospitality and of course, its food.
Bluewater has practiced responsible development since the commencement of its lease. A 4-stage sewer treatment plant was installed using technology from Europe. About 40 cubic meters of waste water is treated daily, for which clean, unpotable water comes out the other end. The processed water is high in minerals and used to irrigate the gardens and wild forests of the island.
Next month, Bluewater’s water desalination plant will be put online, negating the need to import water through barges from the mainland. The desalination plant is seen to reduce the resort’s carbon footprint by a considerable margin.
Carbon emission will be reduced even more significantly next year when the electrification of the island will be derived from solar panels.
EJ Barretto is the Resident Manager of Bluewater Sumilon. He belongs to the distinguished family of restaurateurs and hoteliers that counts icon Glenda Barretto as its matriarch. I asked EJ how he kept stray trash from surrounding islands from flowing into their shores, especially during the Amihan months.
There is no short cut, EJ said. The only way to do it is to physically block debris through nets and by nonstop cleaning. An army of cleaners sweeps the beach and its waters daily, at 5:30 a.m. Every week, an even bigger legion is mobilized to do their coastal deep water cleaning.
The results are obvious, the island of Sumilon is antiseptic and its natural beauty shines through with the absence of pollution or inundation. It is what Oslob should be.
I was so impressed by Bluewater’s responsible practices that I intend to nominate them to be Skäl’s Tourism Personality of the year for 2019. For those unaware, Skäl is a worldwide organization of tourism leaders of which I am a member. It is the oldest and most prestigious tourism organization founded in Paris in 1932.
This year’s awardees in the Philippines include Andrea Domingo of PAGCOR, Kingson Sian of Resorts World, Akihiro Hosoya of ANA Airlines, Joanne Rae Ramirez of the Philippine Star, Deedee Ledonio of Coltrans Exhibits and hardworking Eddie Monreal of the Manila International Airport Authority.
The importance of sustainable and responsible tourism development cannot be overemphasized. It is what will make the industry endure through generations while ensuring the best experience for our visitors. Oslob is on a slippery slope. Sec. Berna must give it due attention.
Andrew J. Masigan is an economist