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The paradox of the Philippines’ ecotourism sector

The Philippines intends to capitalise on its natural beauty by investing in ecotourism, but the resulting economic boom could come with its own costs

Tourism is the linchpin of the Philippines’ economic growth strategy. However, the country failed to rank among its peers in the latest World Economic Forum Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index
Tourism is the linchpin of the Philippines’ economic growth strategy. However, the country failed to rank among its peers in the latest World Economic Forum Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index 

The Philippines has no shortage of stunning white-sand beaches boasting panoramic views of shimmering turquoise waters or jagged shards of mountain. The nation, made up of more than 7,000 tropical islands, has attracted tourists in increasing numbers, with visitor arrivals growing by over 10 percent in each of the past two years.

Tourism is the linchpin of the Philippines’ economic growth strategy, Fernando Roxas, a professor at the Asian Institute of Management, said in a 2014 interview with Yale Insights. The country, however, failed to rank among its peers in the latest World Economic Forum (WEF) Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index.

The index, which measures factors such as safety and security, infrastructure, and health and hygiene, placed the Philippines 79th out of 136 countries, down five places from 2015 and significantly below other ASEAN nations, such as Singapore (13), Malaysia (26) and Thailand (34). Last year, the Philippines welcomed 6.6 million arrivals, just a fraction of Thailand’s 35.4 million.

The Philippines is hoping to improve its reputation as a tourist destination and give its economy a boost by leveraging its abundance of natural resources through ecotourism

One reason for these low visitor numbers is that the Philippines has been hit by declining security perceptions of late. Travel advice for UK citizens, for instance, says terrorists are “very likely” to try to carry out attacks in the Philippines, including in the capital, Manila.

It advises against all travel to some parts of the country and said there has been an increase in the kidnapping of foreign nationals – including attacks specifically targeting foreigners and tourists – since late 2015.

Now, the country is hoping to improve its reputation as a tourist destination and give its economy a boost by leveraging its abundance of natural resources through ecotourism, a form of sustainable, low-impact travel. In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said ecotourism was the fastest-growing sector in the tourism industry.

The hope for the Philippines is that ecotourism will bring financial rewards while simultaneously facilitating the conservation of natural areas in a way that directly benefits local communities.

Jumping on the bandwagon
The WEF noted that many countries in South-East Asia are already taking advantage of their natural resources to attract tourists, but the Philippines is only just beginning to pay attention to this trend. “We see… huge potential, and we think that the development strategies and the natural endowments we have make ecotourism a viable form of tourism the Philippines can concentrate on,” Roxas told Yale Insights, stressing that ecotourism does not require the kind of investments needed by traditional tourism infrastructure.

Focusing on ecotourism will also allow the country to put more money towards areas that are otherwise neglected; while some parts of the Philippines are already strewn with world-class resorts, others have yet to be commercialised for traditional tourism.

One area that could benefit from ecotourism is Palawan, the country’s westernmost collection of islands and the home of some of the most protected areas in the Philippines. With a number of bird sanctuaries, national parks, mangrove forest reserves and watershed forest reserves as well as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, there is no doubt Palawan could be an ecotourism haven for the Philippines.

The Central Visayas region is another prime area for ecotourism investment. Although it consists of three highly urbanised cities, the island of Bohol is also home to the Chocolate Hills, which take their name from the vegetation that bakes brown in the dry months. Scientists believe the uplift of coral deposits and the effects of rainwater and erosion formed the hills over time.

No easy task
The government is currently plotting ways to boost visitor numbers – however, there is already trouble brewing in the Philippines’ tourism sector. While ecotourism is designed to reduce the effect of travel on natural environments, there is a fine line between creating conservation opportunities and allowing delicate environmental areas to be overrun with tourists.

There is a fine line between creating conservation opportunities and allowing delicate environmental areas to be overrun with tourists

In April, the Philippine Government conceded that it had failed to maintain this fragile balance when it was forced to close the country’s top tourist destination, the island of Boracay, for six months. Boracay, an island paradise so perfect it’s almost a cliché, generated more than $1bn through tourism last year, with a record of more than two million visitors.

In April, the Philippine Government was forced to close the country’s top tourist destination, the island of Boracay, for six months.
In April, the Philippine Government was forced to close the country’s top tourist destination, the island of Boracay, for six months.

The tiny island is not even four square miles, but its pristine beaches often push it to the top of international ‘best island’ lists. Due to overcrowding, however, the island was declared a “cesspool” by President Rodrigo Duterte, who ordered the entire island be closed to everyone but residents.

While the island is closed, the government plans to construct a sewer system, clear the beaches of illegal structures and inspect buildings and businesses to ensure they are abiding by construction and environmental regulations, Condé Nast Traveler reported.

The Boracay incident serves as a reminder that ever-increasing tourism does not always equal an economic boost, especially when a fragile environmental region is involved. Boracay is just one area where tourism initiatives have backfired, but there are also numerous cases of ecotourism sites damaging local communities and environments.

One study published in 2015, titled How Nature-Based Tourism Might Increase Prey Vulnerability to Predators, found that ecotourism could harm animals by forcing them to alter their behaviours.

Daniel Blumstein, the study’s senior author and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, said ecotourism could be added to the long list of human-induced drivers of rapid environmental change. Protected areas around the globe are in high demand from tourists, receiving a total of more than eight billion visitors a year, but the presence of humans at these sites changes the way animals behave, making them more vulnerable in many cases. The researchers concluded that ecotourism can affect animals’ behaviour as much as domestication and urbanisation do.

Once the floodgates open, however, it can be difficult to limit the stream of tourists going to destinations without going to the extremes of Boracay. Many tourists are drawn to the Maldives by the prospect of swimming with whale sharks, but one experienced dive master told Canada’s The Globe and Mail that tour captains are helping to support “irresponsible tourism”. He said: “We are seeing evasive behaviour from the sharks. They’re afraid.”

Similarly, ecotourism brings in valuable revenue for the Galápagos Islands, the ecologically rich region famous for inspiring Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The number of visitors swelled from 2,000 per year in the late 1960s to 220,000 in 2015, but as the number of tourists rises, so does the amount of waste strewn across the islands. Researchers are now worried that the waste problem could cause irreparable harm to the islands’ wildlife and send tourism numbers spiralling.

Speaking to Business Destinations, Blumstein said the Galápagos Islands have been an “incredible experiment for ecotourism”. While they face many challenges, the islands do a lot of things right. For instance, like destinations such as Australia and Costa Rica, the Galápagos employs ecotourism guides.

“These guides vary in the quality of the experience they provide,” Blumstein said. “But if they’re following the laws of the land, then going with certified guides is always a good thing.”

Other problems at ecotourism sites are even more sinister. A study by US think tank Oakland Institute found that government officials and foreign companies in Tanzania were using ecotourism and conservation laws to displace indigenous Maasai people, a semi-nomadic tribe that has moved mostly through Tanzania and Kenya for centuries.

The research said the local community was facing increasing violence, arrests and even death while foreign investors and the government worked to preserve the Ngorongoro Crater sightseeing area for more and more tourists.

Many ecotourism-branded sites, like the Ngorongoro Crater, do not follow the guiding principles behind sustainable tourism. This deceptive practice is known as ‘greenwashing’. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of greenwashing still out there today,” said Kelly Bricker, Professor and Director of the Parks, Recreation and Tourism department at the University of Utah.

“Programmes that claim to be ecotourism really are just nature-based or adventure travel. It takes a lot of restraint on the side of the business operator to ensure that [ecotourism] actually occurs.” While good examples of ecotourism do exist, they have been “tainted by a lot of programmes that aren’t necessarily considering the environment first” or fail to work with local stakeholders and the community, Bricker added.

Not all bad
One positive example Bricker cited was Bonito, Brazil, which in 2009 was named the capital of ecotourism by the International Ecotourism Society. Here, tour operators collaborate with one another through a voucher system and limit the number of tourists they take on trips at any one time to about eight or 10.

“They’re educating people on rainforest ecology and wetland ecology and river ecology and really managing tourists like they’re small schoolchildren, keeping them in line so that they’re not causing damage,” Bricker explained. “It’s an extraordinary destination, relatively unknown in the Brazil context, but an incredibly useful example of how [ecotourism] can actually be done.”

Another project, Rivers Fiji, has benefitted from Bricker’s direct involvement. Located on the main island of Viti Levu, Rivers Fiji offers white water rafting and sea kayaking programmes, but the project stands out for its commitment to conserving the same rivers it utilises.

With the help of several landowning groups, a logging company and the Native Land Trust Board (NLTB), Rivers Fiji established the Upper Navua Conservation Area, a 17km conservation corridor that will not be threatened by future logging or gravel extraction. In return for the lease for conservation, Rivers Fiji compensates the NLTB and landowners through lease payments, user fees and employment opportunities.

“[The Rivers Fiji] lease money goes directly back into the local community, so basically they’re gaining economically for not destroying the environment,” Bricker explained. A conservation area management plan has also been developed to guide Rivers Fiji, the landowners and NLTB in sustainable tourism.

Bricker went on to explain that Rivers Fiji is an example of how ecotourism “doesn’t have to be a big, giant, huge investment project. It can be a small investment: educate tourists and educate local communities on the value of nature”.

Combatting greenwashing
In 2016, the IUCN, which has more than 1,300 members, admitted it had concerns about the ecotourism industry. At the IUCN World Conservation Congress, it announced a bold decision to improve standards of ecotourism worldwide by addressing the barriers to ecotourism’s effectiveness as a conservation tool.

“Ideally, ecotourism should be the most sustainable form of nature-based tourism,” said Anna Spenceley, Chair of IUCN’s Tourism and Protected Areas Specialist Group. “In protected areas, and other areas of high biodiversity, this form of travel should inspire visitors, conserve nature and culture, and benefit local people equitably.”

However, ecotourism often creates complex conservation challenges. For instance, the IUCN cited a growing concern that, despite supporting some local communities and protecting biodiversity, ecotourism activities are failing to protect communities and natural areas due to commercial greenwashing and inadequate management, monitoring and resources.


Growth in visitor numbers to the Philippines in 2017


The Philippines’ place in the WEF’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index

6 months

How long Boracay is set to be closed for


The number of visitors to the Philippines in 2017


The number of visitors to Thailand in 2017

“Done poorly, [ecotourism] can be degrading in every sense of the word,” added Peter Cochrane, IUCN Regional Councillor for Oceania. “So, high standards of performance and behaviour are essential, not only to protect the environment but also to communicate and demonstrate to visitors, local communities and regulators that ecotourism is a mature, responsible and valued part of every economy.”

In 2010, the Global Forest Coalition argued that ecotourism’s potential as a wildlife conservation strategy was limited by its inability to ensure the long-term protection of environmental assets, and by its tendency to contribute directly to environmental degradation.

Ecotourism as a tool for conservation must generate financial benefits for local communities, encourage stakeholder involvement, increase the transfer of information and education, and really protect the natural capital it is gaining from, Bricker said.

Natural tourism is sometimes dismissed as greenwashed travel, but Blumstein advocates its benefits too: “We want people to like and respect and understand nature. We want people to get experiences out in the wild, but there are better and worse ways of doing it. Having people go out and experience nature is great. I think the challenge is [discovering] how to do it in a way that minimises peoples’ impact.”

One way to minimise human impact is to not feed the animals, Blumstein said. “Feeding animals is one of those things that the data suggest is not good.” Many tourism experiences involve feeding animals, but this can put wildlife at risk by encouraging animals to change their activity patterns and come closer to people.

Some animals, like bears, will become too comfortable around people and eventually turn into problem animals, putting them at risk of being killed to protect humans. “Better tourism, better natural area tourism experiences, won’t be involved in feeding animals.”

The Philippine Government is working on a possible solution to combat greenwashing. This year, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources-Ecosystems Research and Development Bureau (DENR-ERDB) launched its ecotourism tracking tool, which was developed to help monitor and evaluate how ‘green’ an ecotourism site really is.

Alongside the Department of Tourism, the DENR-ERDB will use the tool to audit 32 ecotourism sites around the country, based on parameters such as operations and management, sociocultural value, ecotourism products and services, economic benefits, financing or enterprise building, and biological facilities.

Philippine Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu said he hopes the tool will help prevent another Boracay-like crisis. The island suffered due to a “lack of guidelines, standards or certification mechanisms towards its effective management as an ecotourism area”, Cimatu told the Manila Standard.

Blumstein said of such tracking tools: “The devil’s in the details of how these evaluations are done and what they’re including. It would be great if they reduce energy and reduce waste, but that itself is not ecotourism. Ecotourism, really, is concerned for local communities as well as… biodiversity.”

Bricker said there are already hundreds of similar tools out there, but much of their success comes down to how they are implemented. She stressed the importance of third-party verification: “There needs to be an outside entity… An objective entity reviewing the criteria and the adherence to the criteria to really make a difference.”

Bricker also sits on the board of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council as vice-chair. The group is working to create minimum requirements for businesses and destinations to adhere to around the globe in order to protect and sustain the world’s natural and cultural resources.

“We really need to continuously improve and upgrade and ensure that we’re causing no harm as an industry. And we really need to protect those resources that the tourism industry actually relies on greatly, more than any other industry. We’ve all got to work together in every sector to ensure we’re causing no harm and we’re actually helping the environment regain its foothold again. And I think ecotourism can do that if done well, and done to the principles it’s designed for.”

Closed off to both Filipino and international tourists, the island of Boracay is slowly recovering. According to The Philippine Star, it may be able to reopen in October this year following the six-month tourist ban.

While a tool to track and evaluate ecotourism sites is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, it remains to be seen whether the government’s new standards for sustainable sites will be enough to prevent the closure of more of its pristine beaches and islands in the future.

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