Is The Philippines The Next Icon Of Sustainable Tourism?
The Philippines is a country of natural beauty—an archipelago of wondrous islands and idyllic beaches, majestic landforms and notable biodiversity. Add to these a rich history and an array of diverse cultures to make for a great tourist destination. Several of its scenic spots and cultural sites have, in fact, received recognition from international organisations, like the recent inclusion of the Underground River in Puerto Princesa, Palawan into the New 7 Wonders of Nature and certification as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, these praises cannot erase the fact that the very nature we celebrate greatly agonises from our own abuse as well.
Human neglect towards nature is evident: wild animals facing extinction because of poaching, woodlands disappearing because of deforestation, fields becoming barren because of climate change. While most environmentally-abusive practices have already been criminalised—illegal logging and mining, dynamite fishing, and irresponsible destruction of coral reefs—their practice still abound, enough to leave our lands and seas scarred.
The Department of Tourism (DOT) Secretary Bernadette “Berna” Romulo-Puyat says that the Philippines is a country that is “ easy to sell,” including its people’s reputed hospitality and facility with the universal language.
But amid such environmental concerns, how can the DOT—and the government in general—promote the country in the global market? Local tourism is entirely dependent on the environment; photographs of beautiful sights lose their attraction when juxtaposed with those of piles of garbage accummulated from decades past.
A 2015 report by the Ocean Conservancy and McKinsey Centre for Business and Environment ranked us as the third largest producer of plastic waste, next to China and Indonesia. Four years after this shocking revelation, it seems as if no significant change ever occurred.
Earlier in 2019, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives released a new study stating that Filipinos use an astounding number of single-use plastics on a daily basis: 163 million sachet packets, 48 million shopping bags, and 45 million thin film bags per day, to be exact. GAIA explained that a year’s worth of used sachet packets alone can easily cover Metro Manila’s land area with at least one foot of plastic. Add to that the billions of plastic bags that go to waste in a single year, and you will never again question why raging floods often return the waste we dispose.
What is becoming evident today is the rise of environmentalist efforts in the country. Lawmakers, advocates, and concerned organisations are answering the call for collective action through the promotion of eco-friendly practices and, consequently, prevention of environmentally harmful habits.
Laws and policies geared towards effective resolutions to age-old problems have been, and are still being, lobbied or enacted, such as the discontinued use of plastic straws and plastic bags in sel ected localities.
But why does the problem on plastic pollution still persist? Greenpeace Philippines believes that global corporations are to blame. “[They] are locking us into cheap, disposable plastics, rather than innovating and finding solutions,” says Abigail Aguilar, a campaigner for Southeast Asia of the environmental organisation.
This was her response to the results of the group’s 2017 “audit” following a clean-up drive that showed the top three players in plastic waste production. Leading the list are two Philippine brands followed by an Indonesian brand.
These corporations represent what Aguilar calls “the missing piece” in the global fight against plastic pollution. According to her, they are manufacturing “budget” items in plastic and foil packages, feeding into the so-called sachet (tingi-tingi) mentality. Filipinos in the lower income bracket will normally choose based on price, thus the saleability of foil packs and plastic sachets.
Corporations have invested on this trend so much that the purchasing habit of this particular market, which comprises the majority of the Philippine population, has become more and more difficult to correct. Imagine decades’ worth of small packs produced and wasted, making up most of our mountains of tr ash, and we’re only hearing about companies offering product refills with recycled bottles just in recent years.
Better late than never, perhaps, but if corporations continue to produce “budget” items in plastic and foil packages, there will always be consumers who will opt to buy them.
“We recognise that it’s not going to happen overnight, so our call is for these corporations, while they are doing short-term projects on plastic waste management, to look for longer-term solutions as well,” Aguilar was quoted in a recent interview.
Addressing The Consequences
With the change in leadership in the DOT in May 2018 came the reintroduction of the concept of “sustainable tourism,” proclaimed as the new primary thrust of the department in pursuance of Republic Act No 9593 or the Tourism Act of 2009.
Romulo-Puyat explains, “In developing our tourism industry, we must strike a balance between economic opportunities and social responsibilities. We must ensure that any development in the tourism industry must not be undertaken at the expense of the environment, the tourists, and the host communities.” The department’s “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” global campaign was relaunched to incorporate this major refinement.
The DOT has partnered with other concerned government agencies, most notably the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), to address the existing issues on tourism in order to promote a paradigm shift towards sustainability.
Cited by Romulo-Puyat as “the country’s icon for sustainable tourism,” the recently-rehabilitated Boracay Island best highlights how the DOT, DENR, and DILG intend to go about with their pursuit of sustainable tourism.
The six-month rehabilitation plan took place in four phases, beginning with law enforcement and regulation. Then Boracay was closed off from tourists for half a year and establishments on the island requested to halt operations so as to focus on the second and third phases: pollution prevention and control, and rehabilitation of the damaged ecosystem.
Like a lost paradise reborn, Boracay Island was reopened later in 2018, supervised to ensure that the fourth phase— resumption of island activities strictly adhering to the objectives of the first three phases—is maintained.
The three agencies and other concerned bodies plan to use Boracay as a benchmark for future rehabilitation initiatives in other popular destinations such as El Nido in Palawan, Panglao in Bohol, Manila Bay, and soon Siargao in Surigao del Norte. These are just some of the many plans that the DOT has in store in relation to the pursuit of sustainability.
Romulo-Puyat also assures that DOT-accredited tourist destinations are already empowered to alleviate the problem of plastic waste. The department highly encouraged them to adopt sustainability in ways such as the use of energy-efficient lighting, water conservation, and avoidance of plastic sachets for host-provided toiletries. And they have agreed to this.
Above all else, Romulo-Puyat emphasises the involvement of the community in any and all rehabilitation efforts undertaken. Romulo-Puyat cites the case of the Manila Bay clean-up drive where ordinary citizens were fielded as volunteers. Both compliance to laws and physical participation in activities of the community will greatly help the rehabilitation task force (DOT, DENR, and DILG).
“We hope that such activities would enlighten our citizens on the importance of environmental conservation, as well as the gains that may be derived from preserving our tourist destinations,” the Tourism Secretary remarks.
All citizens could also help protect and preserve the environment through simple ways. Romulo-Puyat noted that becoming responsible tourists and “supporting establishments or attractions that espouse the culture of sustainability” are sure ways to adopt the advocacy. Investing on reusable items such as refillable tumblers and eco bags is also widely encouraged today in fighting the battle against single-use plastics.
Romulo-Puyat’s last advice is to “simply abide by national and local policies,” which is perhaps the easiest in theory but arguably harder to implement as well as follow. “By doing so, we contribute to ensuring that our destinations are clean, safe, and will still be enjoyed by the future generations.”
On the other hand, Aguilar commends independentlyfounded groups and civilian citizens who exhaust their available means, particularly social media platforms, in speaking up about the cause and holding corporations accountable. “If they utilise their own social media personal accounts to call out, if there’s a big movement of people calling out corporations for their contribution to plastic pollution, I think that’s a big step. I doubt that corporations will simply dismiss a strong, collective call for action.”