On my sixth dive in El Nido I saw a green sea turtle, a hawksbill sea turtle, three stingrays, a cuttlefish, a school of barracuda, and maybe a hundred species of tropical fish. I surfaced and boarded the speedboat, feeling elated. We sped across the bay toward a silent, peaceful lagoon surrounded by limestone karsts dotted with green. I jumped into the water just as cool rain began to sprinkle the surface, and laid back to float. I’ve learned this summer that the best divers are the most relaxed. Moving slowly and breathing deeply you use less oxygen, disturb fewer creatures, and observe your surroundings. Tourists flock here because of the unique environment and tranquil beauty, but their rapidly increasing arrival and strain on resources is quickly posing a serious threat to the wildlife and scenery of El Nido.
I was diving in the El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area (ENTMRPA) partly for work – to understand tourism in El Nido – and partly because it’s a new hobby. Director of Sustainability at El Nido Resorts and my supervisor this summer, Ms. Mariglo, put it best: how can you become passionate about conservation without experiencing nature’s beauty? Ms. Mariglo is never wrong.
The next day I had to manage eight undergraduate interns build a website with limited wifi. We’re working as a team (four from Georgetown, two from Ateneo de Manila, and one from University of the Philippines) to create a communications platform with the local government and Protected Area Office (PAO). Ideally, the website will connect stakeholders whose livelihoods depend on the conservation of the protected area – fisherman, tour operators, business owners, and residents – as well as tourists. These stakeholders, however, often disagree. In the past several weeks the government and PAO have been demolishing local businesses who flaunted shoreline building codes. Half of El Nido’s main beachfront is rubble. El Nido is lacking a central forum for the government and PAO to effectively communicate El Nido’s protected area status and the laws that govern how to travel, live, and work in a national park. During our first month, we spent time walking around town talking to tourists about their experiences in El Nido. Most tourists we interviewed were surprised to learn they were in a protected area and weren’t sure where the 200-peso environmental fee they paid ended up. We aren’t sure either.
Designing a website in such a complicated environment has been challenging. We decided to create a page for each government office to showcase the sustainability initiatives and projects they’ve been undertaking. The mayor’s office is sponsoring a mobile health clinic, holding proper waste segregation information education campaigns, and issuing numerous environmental ordinances (including a single-use plastics ban). PAO is trying to secure funding for new mooring buoys (tourist boats dropping anchors are destroying corals) and to ramp up law enforcement. Local businesses are working to cater to tourists’ rising expectations, follow government regulations, and operate sustainably. This past Friday we held our “Connect El Nido” workshop, where we brought together key representatives from each government office for sessions on managing the website, maximizing social media presence, and graphic design. Around 30 people participated, taking a break from work to learn about web design, presentation skills, and effective positive communication with us for a day. Since my Tagalog is still limited to the names of key pork dishes and desserts, I stayed behind the scenes during the presentations – coordinating the schedule, registering attendees, and taking photos. It was nerve-wracking to finally reveal the website we’ve been working on. We’ve been staring at the pages – fonts, colors, information, features – every day for a month. But would they like it? Would it be useful? Other than a power outage and a heated debate about whether the site should have advertisements, the workshop went off without a hitch.
The chaos that rapid growth has brought to El Nido stands in stark contrast to the slow, quiet, glide of life underwater. The once empty white sand beaches are now crowded with beach shack bars and restaurants, built like sardines too close together and too close to the shore. Every morning tourists pack the sand waiting to board bancas – outrigger canoes – to go on “island hopping” tours in Bacuit Bay. Boats crowd the entrances to the two lagoons now famous on Instagram feeds. What draws tourists to El Nido are the relaxing, idyllic moments floating in the rain in a turquoise lagoon or underwater watching a green sea turtle. If the protected area is not managed correctly and the local government cannot communicate with tourists and residents, what makes El Nido so special – the rich biodiversity, breathtaking landscape, and quiet beauty – will not last. I believe that well-managed tourism can foster inclusive economic growth and encourage the protection of cultural and natural resources. I’m inspired by the work Ms. Mariglo has been doing with El Nido Resorts for over 20 years. The future of sustainable development and tourism requires integrated planning by the El Nido government, educated travelers and consumers, accountable tour operators and businesses, and buy-in from El Nido residents. We hope our website and workshops can contribute to the assembly of these essential stakeholders toward meaningful communication and cooperation. For development that will sustain we need to slow down, observe our surroundings, and make room for all.