Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Calaguas Islands and My Plea for Sustainable Development

I had the pleasure of first setting foot on one of the beautiful remote beaches of Calaguas this time last year. The Calaguas Islands are a group of tiny islands located two hours off the coast of Camarines Norte province, southeast of Manila, Philippines. Weather was a bit rough that time, as it usually is in Bicol, a region that faces the vast Philippine Sea and the Pacific. Waves were as high as the boats we were on and the rain splashed on our faces every time the wind blew. When we arrived in the island, however, the sun was up and the winds stopped. We felt like explorers arriving at uncharted territory.

For the most part, Calaguas is uncharted. No towns, roads, facilities, or other infrastructure exist in the island, be it for tourism or for the small fishing families that call the islands home. What awaits foolhardy explorers and independent travelers such as myself is this long stretch of powdery fine, white-sand beach set amidst the clearest bright turquoise water you will ever see in your life. Thus, Calaguas, for our purposes here, is a virgin beach.

Calaguas Island, Camarines Norte, Philippines

It was a slightly different story when I visited the beach again this year, however. The first things that I saw upon landing were plastic bags, discarded packaging for beach toys, and empty soda bottles. There were a lot more people as well. Word of mouth has had a pretty visible effect on Calaguas. A few rental beach huts for tourist use have also been constructed and a sari-sari store set up. From a local standpoint, this latter addition is good. They saw business and went for it. As a tourist, however, I feel like the isolation and remoteness which are things that draw me and most people I know to Calaguas in the first place are long gone.

Apparently, the situation was worse a few weeks before I got there. A report from a travel blog Tramping Philippines: Nasa Calaguas pa rin ba ako? (Am I still in Calaguas?) showed a video of Calaguas then and now. The first part depicted how beautifully isolated and deserted the beach is, the latter part how noisy and dirty it was at the time of filming as there was a mobile bar there complete with lights and thumping sounds, all of which naturally needed a very noisy generator to function. Things escalated when the issue was taken to the social media. There were several characters involved each with his and her own responses and arguments, comprehensively covered by this brilliant post in The Mess that Is Calaguas Island. A lot of finger-pointing and social media bashing took place, which, let's face it, are never good.

Sustainability and Regulation

The bottom line is, and I think we can all agree to this, if Calaguas is indeed ripe and poised for development, as the boatmen we talked to attested when we were there, sustainability must absolutely be factored in and regulation on the part of Camarines Norte authorities must be enforced. Who can set up stores in the island? How many beach huts or any other type of construction should be allowed? Should open pit fire even be permitted? (Yes, a legitimate question, I think. In nature parks in China, for example, visitors are not even allowed to carry lighters or matches.) I echo the sentiments of Mr. Cedric Valera (from the very popular tour operator Travel Factor). In his response to the article, he said development is not so bad as long as it is responsible, sustainable, and controlled.

Then again, even before we can go to the question of development, do we even have enough maturity to begin to face all the effects mass tourism can bring, something which Philippine tourism authorities so clearly want to have? Let's assume for a moment that Manila has a decent airport, that airline arrivals are not taxed heavily, that transportation connectivity between the country's 7,107 islands is sufficient. Do local tour operators, hotel owners, and local tourism boards even have the proper knowledge, environmental awareness, and sufficient facilities to handle all the visitors who want to experience "more fun in the Philippines?"

Lessons to Learn

Much has been said of the rapid, unsustainable development currently occurring in many other tourist destinations in the country. A recent story from said that a World Wide Fund study conducted on Baguio City showed that the summer capital's runaway development and high population growth had made it very vulnerable to severe weather brought about by climate change, which can ultimately hamper economic activity in the area. A report from local newsman Ted Failon showed how all sorts of human waste (yes, including the fecal kind) have been polluting the beautiful waters of Puerto Galera beach in Mindoro province because many beachside establishments in the area do not have a proper drainage system. And need I mention the land disputes and pollution caused by the property boom in the hugely popular beach destination of Boracay?

It is my hope that Calaguas do not suffer any of these grim futures. As it is now, things do not look hopeful. pointed out that after the report from Tramping Philippines came out, a concerned citizen and a local tour operator played the blame game for the entire world to see. Things could have been handled better, she said. I agree.

Ultimately, I think it all boils down to quality versus quantity. And I say, prioritize quality over quantity. Sure, you can rake in all the profits you can have from mass tourist arrivals, but at what cost? The degradation of the same natural environment you are making money from? Camarines Norte authorities can learn a lot from travel destinations that came before it. The Inquirer reported that the Subterranean River in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, another popular travel destination in the country, expects 625,000 visitors in 2012, an increase of 100,000 from 2011 levels. However, tourist numbers are strictly regulated through required bookings and registration procedures before entry, something I saw first-hand when I visited this UNESCO World Heritage Site a couple of years ago. (Even then, some environmental effects could still take place.)

Personally, I want Calaguas to remain untouched, unspoiled, undeveloped, and a virgin forever, but I am not naive and I know that might be asking for the moon. So I will settle for what's second best. Bring in development to Calaguas in a sustainable way. Regulate tourist activity. Fair compromise, right?

You agree that sustainable development is the only way forward, right? Any ideas on how this can be achieved? How do you think we as tourists can help?

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