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Bridging the gap between tourism and sustainability

Mayon Volcano, Cagsawa Ruins, pili, gata, sili, abaca, and butanding-—these are some names and words that we associate with the Bicol Region. But the region is home to so much more

  • The majestic Mount Mayon

    The majestic Mount Mayon

  • Handwoven lighting fixtures at Balay Cena Una

    Handwoven lighting fixtures at Balay Cena Una

  • Boats line up for the tour.

    Boats line up for the tour.

  • ourists watching the whale shark interaction guidelines

    ourists watching the whale shark interaction guidelines

  • WWF National Ambassador Marc Nelson; (From left) Joel Palma, Donsol Mayor Josephine Cruz, and Robert Fain

    WWF National Ambassador Marc Nelson; (From left) Joel Palma, Donsol Mayor Josephine Cruz, and Robert Fain

Our first stop was Ligñon Hill to see the perfectly coned -shaped volcano, Mount Mayon. It is not every day that she would reveal herself. You would often hear tourists’ frustrations as clouds often cover her tip. We were lucky that it was a beautiful sunny morning in Legazpi.

We had lunch at Balay Cena Una and tried different Bicolano dishes along with the world famous sili ice cream, which is now another pride of Bicol. Before being a restaurant, this place was known for its abaca weaving. We were able to see some of the products and how they were made.

Bicol is also home to one of the biggest populations of whale sharks commonly known as “butanding.” This region has been very accessible having daily buses from Manila and other cities and local flights to and from Legazpi. In 2018, the first international airport in Bicol, which will be located in Daraga, will be fully operational.

Swimming with the whale sharks

It was a cloudy morning and we were walking along the dark sand beaches of Donsol to board our boat. This day, we were hoping to see and swim with whale sharks. This was my third time here in Donsol, but it never fails to excite me to be able to swim with these gentle giants of the sea.

As compared to the butanding encounter in Oslob, Cebu, here we travel for about 15 minutes into the middle of the bay and patiently search for signs and shadows. Our BIO (Butanding Interaction Officer) was really sharp and we had a few failed attempts. Every time we went to a sighting, the butanding swam down and we lost sight of it. After a few more minutes of searching and waiting, our BIO finally signaled us to be ready. He instructed us to sit on the side of the boat, to hold on until he tells us to jump. Because it was cloudy, the waters looked dark. I was wondering where the whale shark was until he pointed out in the middle of the bay. I saw a small fin surfacing and then I saw its back. We jumped, swam, and looked down. A huge blue figure with white spots covered the floor of the bay. The butanding was suddenly underneath us swimming away. As we held our heads up the water and took our snorkels out, everyone was cheering. We were so exhilarated to have seen the butanding. It went by really fast but it was still an amazing experience.

 

Donsol

Before being declared as a whale shark sanctuary in 1998, butandings have been swimming in the waters of Donsol Bay and have been peacefully coexisting with the locals of this town in Sorsogon. They have been annually migrating to this bay from November to April because of the nutrients that are being provided by the surrounding rivers merging into it.

When the people from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) heard about this town, they were curious to know what the locals were doing with the butandings. In another town, whale sharks were being slaughtered for their fins and meat but here in Donsol, the fishermen were not afraid of the whale sharks and did not harm them. They were used to seeing them as they fished. WWF along with the national government felt that this was a place worth protecting.

In 2002, whale shark watching started out with only 900 tourists. “You have to board in the market. Board the boat… the boat is a fishing boat without benches. When you hop in, you have nets at the bottom of the boat to go interacting because we engage fishers to harness this. It grew up to about 25,000 tourists at most,” shared WWF Philippines president and CEO Joel Palma.

“The river is protected mainly because it was requested by the firefly tour operators,” said Palma. They understand that if the mangrove trees are cut and the rivers are neglected, there will be no fireflies to watch at night and the food source of the butandings will be affected thus affecting their livelihood. “This is top to bottom, lateral vertical collaboration at its best.”

In Oslob, the lack of intervention by the local and national government has led to the abuse of butandings. Under Republic Act 9147, the whale shark is a protected species in the Philippines, but in this town whale sharks are being fed thus having these creatures stay near the shore. They also do not follow the safety guidelines and swim too near the creatures. The butandings are migratory animals and because of this, their patterns are changing.

PARTNERSHIPS

In Jan. 25, a five-year partnership to protect these gentle giants was formally set into place in Donsol. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd. (RCL) announced their commitment into environmental sustainability with the help of World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd. is a global cruise vacation company with 43 ships and operate in approximately 490 destinations. With a business that is being operated mostly on water, RCL chairman and CEO Richard Fain expressed how vital it was to protect the oceans. “The cruise industry with regards to environmental work is a never ending task. Our mantra in Royal Caribbean is ‘Continuous Improvement.’” RCL has already invested in programs such as the advanced waste water purification, which purifies waste water into an almost drinkable state; Advanced Emissions Purification Systems (AEP), which takes out 99 percent of the sulfur from the ship’s exhaust; and the reduction of landfill utilization. “We set an objective to reducing it to zero and that would mean everything on board is either reused, recycled, or incinerated and we accomplished that for the first time two years ago on Oasis of the Seas,” said Fain.

About 30 percent of the workforce of Royal Caribbean Cruises from seafarers to administrative staff are Filipinos. This is around 11,000 employees. Fain felt that this was a great opportunity to give back for the service that their Filipino employees have given to RCL’s five million guests per year. “This is something that our employees expect of us. It is not that they want it, they expect it and so do our guests.”

After Typhoon Yolanda, RCL has spent about P60 million in relief efforts and set aside P10 million for a long term commitment. They have chosen WWF Philippines and Donsol for this long term commitment. Fain shared his experiences in Donsol and was grateful for the warm reception they have had. “We went on a dive yesterday and saw the diversity of the corals, the marine life, and the animal life. We think doing the project here is appropriate not only because of our strong connection to the Philippines but also every once in a while it helps for management to step back. It is a wonderful sense that reminds you why we are all doing this. The Philippines has a very active WWF, very much in the forefront. This is a symbolic place.”