Ecotourism as an engine for development

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ARCHITECT FELINO A. PALAFOX, JR.

“DEVELOPMENT is not worthy of the name unless spread evenly like butter on a piece of bread.”

This is a quote from a thesis I wrote when I was a scholar of the United Nations Development Program. There are two approaches to development – build and they will come, and build as they come. The risk in the first approach is not being able to attract enough market for a return of investment. And while the latter proposes a safer option, without proper planning, development will be chaotic. Think of the popular beach areas in the Philippines. Developments along the coastline have a wonderful view of the sea, and there are attractions everywhere, but once you get inside the city, there is nothing. I call this “doughnut development”. Unfortunately, this has been the trend for developments in our country over the years.

Tourism is a perfect engine for economic growth, especially in our nature-rich country. The Philippines is first in marine biodiversity and second in geothermal energy. We have the third longest coastline; we are fourth in gold reserves, and fifth in all other mineral resources. We are also fifth in natural flora and fauna in the whole world. Thus, having ecotourism in Philippines is just logical. But why is ecotourism not widely practiced here, whereas our fellow Asean countries have been actively advertising their ecotourism?

Even Singapore, with their limited resources, is promoting ecotourism in their country. And the Philippines is 400 times the size of Singapore. Singapore ranked first among Asian countries in the 2016 Yale University Environmental Performance Index (EPI).


Sustainable tourism and ecotourism
Ecotourism, according to the definition of The International Ecotourism Society means “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education”. Ecotourism is often seen as a kind of sustainable tourism, and the difference between nature-based tourism and ecotourism is the element of conservation and education. What makes it unique is the learning experience tourists get to acquire after the tour. Sustainable development, on the other hand, is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs (Brundtland Commission).

Engaging the community
In developing an area, it is important to include the local community to forge a healthy relationship between the people and the tourism activities. We have often noticed in most developed areas, despite being progressive, the local community has no participation in this growth. Community-based ecotourism can even be a driver in alleviating poverty in the area. We can observe such approaches applied in Aloguinsan, Cebu and Puerto Princesa, Palawan. The locals were trained as tourist guides, and since they are most familiar with the place, they are in a much better position to bridge tourists with the environment. This generates job opportunities for the locals, at the same time; they can provide manpower in protecting and conserving the environment. Locals are also given livelihood opportunities like making handicrafts and other souvenir items, contributing to the local economy.

Where to draw the line
Ecotourism is not for all. We should always consider to keep things in moderation; too much of everything is not good. Some tourists just visit for a day and pass by. They throw their trash and vandalize at our cost, yet they pay nothing. There should be crowd control; what we want are tourists who will respect our environment and our culture. While commercializing our resources is much more profitable, and ensures fast return of investment, we can lose sight of the character of the place. Furthermore, along with tourist influx is additional waste and pollution. It is the local community and the natural environment that creates the uniqueness and character of the place.

Planning ahead where to put developments and where it stops is very crucial. Developments should encourage a holistic development, and this includes the natural, social, and cultural integrity of the place.

La Mesa EcoPark
The private sector contributes greatly in the ecotourism field in our country. An example of a private-led ecotourism attraction is the La Mesa EcoPark, a 31.2-hectare ecological nature reserve in Quezon City. The project encompasses the idea of Aesculapia, a Greek term for “place of healing”. It incorporates the concept of a “living” classroom. Tourists, upon entering the site, will be oriented on the significance of preserving the ecology. Embodied in the development is Valdez’s Principles which focus not only on preserving the natural environment, but also enhancing it. Its architecture incorporates a bioclimatic design, which revolves around the idea of designing a building based on the surroundings. Apart from the learning experience, La Mesa EcoPark also offers amenities that visitors can enjoy, such as the swimming pool, fishing and boating, zip lines, and wall climbing, among others.

It is said 93 bird species can be found within the site – a good indicator of how healthy the environment is. According to former Environment Secretary Gina Lopez, La Mesa EcoPark is earning P40 million annually. This proves that preserving and enhancing nature does not only contribute to the environment, but also has economic benefits.

Lessons learned from mistakes made
Beautiful greenery and forests are rapidly being destroyed. It is sad whenever we hear news that hundreds of trees have been cut for roads and commercial developments. The value of a 50-year-old tree is P9 million; for the oxygen that it has provided us and the water it held, among others, over the years. A Native American chief once said, “We did not inherit nature from our ancestors; we borrowed it from our children.” Our generation should do everything to preserve the environment for future generations.

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