Batanes plans to curb island tours

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AMID fears that influx of tourists into the country’s northernmost island paradise would eventually be disadvantageous to the province, local officials in Batanes are planning to regulate visits, a mayor of one of the towns said.

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“Hindi namin kailangan ng katakot-takot na bilang na turista dito. Ayaw naming maging highly commercialized dito [We don’t need our place to be bursting at the seams with tourists. We don’t want our place to become highly commercialized],” Sabtang Mayor Maxilindo Babalo said.

The mayor added that he is thinking of coming up with a strategic tourism plan but that they are not yet ready with facilities and safety measures for tourists going around the province.

“I asked the Sangguniang Bayan [municipal council]to protect our place.  We don’t yet have regulations on tour operations,” Babalo said.

Sabtang is one of the three biggest islands in the province–the others are Batan,
where the province’s capital Basco is located, and Itbayat.

Catalino Alcon, president of the Chanarian Marine Protected Area Association, opposed the proposal to limit tourist arrivals.

“Batanes’ economy rests mainly on fishing. But now, people have a chance to do business and have a share of the money from these tourists,” Alcon said in broken Filipino.

“Mas madaming turista, mas maganda ang kita namin [The more tourists, the better our income],” he added.

In 2013, Batanes only had 5,000 tourist arrivals.

But holiday trips around the islands ballooned last year with more than 17,000 people visiting the province.

This year, tourist arrivals are expected to exceed 20,000 people.

Tourists already numbered 9,000 in the first quarter of 2015.

Babalo said they have commissioned a study to determine the number of tourists that may be accommodated over a certain period.

“Once completed, the study will help us create or introduce new measures to improve the safety of tourist trips, while also reducing the impact that visitors will have on the environment,” he added.

The Sabtang mayor noted that initial estimates showed that his town could only take in 8,000-10,000 visitors a year.

“We have been taken by surprise by tourists. We’re becoming like Boracay that started with a few tourists and then year after year was getting more and more crowded,” Babalo said, referring to a popular destination in Aklan province in the Visayas.

Aside from putting a cap on the number of visitors, the mayor said Sabtang will next month require tour operators to obtain a license from the Department of Tourism before these operators are allowed to bring in guests.

“Tour operators having no licenses leaves the LGU [local government unit]helpless in collecting revenues from them.  Worse, with tourism goes possibilities of environmental degradation and biodiversity dangers,” he added.

Babalo noted that some tour operators even “complain” about the very low environmental fee in Sabtang where they each have to pay only P200 a year.

Sabtang gets P28 million in internal revenue allotment or IRA, he said, adding that P5 million is left for tourism development.

According to Babalo, they are crafting a comprehensive tourism scheme patterned after that of Puerto Princesa City in Palawan.

“It will be expensive. But we believe that these tourists are willing to pay premium for better experiences here on the island,” according to the mayor.

“We need to improve everything, from the facilities to the sites, as well as the garbage management in our area. Once we are ready, then we can again open Sabtang to more people,” Babalo said.

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