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PH ecotourism sites: injured but also cured by travel restrictions linked to COVID-19

LOSS AND RECOVERY: The Twin Lakes of Balinsasayao Natural Park in Negros Oriental was one of five protected areas whose status during the pandemic was the subject of recent webinars hosted by the Biodiversity Funding Initiative of the United Nations Development Fund. —ALEX PAL

MANILA, Philippines – When humanity locked itself in their homes last year to escape the deadly coronavirus, the world’s flora and fauna that had been constantly crushed under the weight of tourists predictably thrived.

This was true of the Philippines, who fought to protect their natural gifts from cowardly regulations and destructive practices. In some protected areas, the respite allowed not only nature to heal but also new species to emerge.

But on the other hand, it hurt local communities – the original stewards of the sites – who depended for their survival on both the income and human interaction brought in by travelers.

For them, the path to a truly sustainable recovery lies somewhere between returning visitors and maintaining, or even going beyond, the achievements of the two-year status quo.

Overall picture

Like most industries, ecotourism plunged when COVID-19 hit in March 2020, as Filipino tourism officials and Protected Area Supervisors (Pasu) highlighted in a recently hosted three-part webinar series. by Biodiversity Finance (Biofin) of the United Nations Development Fund.

Globally, according to World Trade Organization data, the impacts have been dramatic: $ 850 million in losses from tourism and up to $ 1.2 trillion in lost export revenues, with 100 to 120 million jobs at stake.

Locally, according to the Ministry of Tourism (DOT), revenue losses amounted to 400 billion pesos last year.

Of course, less intrusion “has allowed our forests, caves and oceans to recover,” said Environment Under-Secretary for Protected Areas Edilberto Leonardo. But “ecotourism, one of the pillars of biodiversity conservation, is struggling to recover,” he said.

Protected areas in the Philippines are funded by the government, under the expanded National Integrated Systems of Protected Areas Act, and revenue generated from tourism. The funds cover operating and maintenance expenses, as well as the conservation and management of the site. It was once trekking sites like Mount Pulag National Park in Benguet and Mount Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary in Davao Oriental; wildlife sanctuaries Apo Reef Natural Park in Oriental Mindoro; Balinsasayao Twin Lakes in Negros Oriental and Tubbataha Reef in Palawan; and the urban forest Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife Center (NAPWC) in Quezon City earned millions of pesos each year from tourists alone.

Much of the income came from entrance and parking fees, and even photography and filming fees. For example, Hamiguitan, a Unesco World Heritage site and heritage park, charges hikers P 3,000 each to “regulate [their] number in the region [and] to protect its integrity and biodiversity, ”said Pasu Clint MP Michael Cleofe. “We don’t want its heritage site status revoked, after all.”

Likewise, at Tubbataha, another World Heritage site, the entrance fee is P 5,000 per person. The others charge entry fees between P100 and P200; NAPWC charges a surcharge of P 5,000 for photo and video shoots.

ALL CLEAR Tubbataha Reef National Park in Palawan, one of the country’s protected areas, has seen a drastic decline in human activity and tourism income due to the pandemic, but its marine life has had a chance to s ‘flourish. —GREGG YAN / CONTRIBUTOR

Lost income

But when the pandemic hit, revenues plummeted. Money was even more scarce in 2021, as the government was only able to gradually ease restrictions imposed since March of last year. Among the immediate consequences were the layoffs of park and contract staff, rangers and patrollers, the Pasus said. “We also had to sacrifice certain activities [like building maintenance] because we don’t want to exhaust our resources ”for the conservation and protection of biodiversity, said Apo Reef Pasu Krystal Villanueva.

“If the pandemic continues, we estimate that we don’t have enough funds to maintain our patrol activities for another two to three years,” she said. “If after that we still cannot entertain the visitors, we will have to rely only on the budget [from] the government.”

The losses were felt across the board. Resorts and restaurants were closed and locals missed tourists who patronized their food, homes and personalized tours. At Apo Reef Nature Park, the largest reef in the Philippines, cash-strapped guides sold their colorful boats that carried impatient tourists. Or they just went back to fishing, Villanueva said.

Inevitably, the crisis has led to illegal logging and wildlife trafficking in these areas. Specifically, demand for greenery by “plantitos” has fueled poaching in public parks and nationally protected forests, said Pola Geneva Bumanglag of the Biodiversity Management Division. Some losses are immeasurable. “Ecotourism doesn’t just make money,” said Emerita Albas, Pasu for Mount Pulag National Park. The highest mountain in Luzon is not only home to hundreds of species of flora and fauna, but also the Ibaloi, Kalanguya, Kankanaey and Karao tribes who revere it as a sacred place.

“By losing contact with tourists, they have lost [the chance for] bonding, ”said Albas. “For the indigenous people there, having guests is having a connection with them.”

LIMITED ENTRY The Mount Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary, a Unesco Heritage Site in Davao Oriental, charges hikers P 3,000 per person. The number of visitors is regulated to protect its biodiversity. —PHOTO WITH THE AUTHORIZATION OF THE NATIONAL PHILIPPINE COMMISSION OF UNESCO

New life

But the pandemic has allowed wildlife to recover. At Apo Reef, for example, 17 new turtle nests and six new bird sightings have been recorded, Villanueva said. One was a Chinese grosbeak (Eophona migratoria), which is so far only the third record in the country and the first in Mindoro.

Balinsasayao Twin Lakes has also seen some of its endangered species of flora and fauna regenerate, Pasu Moreno Tagra said. In 2020, they also saw more birds and insect species on their night walks.

Two new endemic snout beetle species were discovered in Hamiguitan last August, Cleofe said. The M. villalobosae and M. gapudi of the genus Metapocyrtus are added to the 1,973 species of the mountain, with 341 endemic species including the critically endangered eagle and the Philippine cockatoo.

The closures have also allowed sites to keep pace with the new normal. For example, the NAPWC has strengthened its social media presence with videos and photos to attract virtual visitors.

Balinsasayao has invited bloggers and influencers to promote Twin Lakes to the public, Tagra said.

Many sites have introduced cashless transactions and invested in security and surveillance technologies. They also organized training and livelihood activities for the displaced residents.

“We cannot afford to do nothing while we are in the midst of the pandemic,” said NAPWC Pasu Melody Ann Malano. “We have tried to level ourselves over time… [We] we are prepared for the full reopening of the park to the public. “

Path to recovery

As closures loosen and vaccinations increase, these sites are eager to see tourists again. But before that, they hope to rebuild better.

“There are fears that the industry will return to normal and miss the opportunity to transform,” said Dr Anna Spenceley, expert in sustainable tourism. “[We should instead think about] how we can restore visits without the congestion, so that we can have better experiences as visitors and hosts without reducing the financial impact.

This means rebuilding structures so that they are more resistant to Covid, or institutionalizing sustainable health protocols and guidelines.

Tubbataha changed existing policies to reduce the negative impacts of tourism during and after the pandemic, Pasu Angelique said. Single-use plastics are now banned in the park and divers are mandated to turn every dive into a cleanup campaign. Drones that can disrupt rookeries and breeding colonies of seabirds and sea turtles are also prohibited.

“We don’t want to make life difficult for them,” she said. “We just want to protect biodiversity. “

The DOT seeks to reformulate pre-pandemic tourism plans to help the industry recover and restore confidence in the sector, said tourism operations manager Ramon Tiongco Jr.

One of the top priorities by next year is to vaccinate and train displaced tourism workers in alternative jobs such as coastal protection, site maintenance, contact tracing and risk management. disaster, he said. During this time, people should ‘devote [their] it’s time to learn better ways to become responsible travelers, ”said Cesar Villanueva, head of the sales division of the Tourism Promotion Board.

“We hope to welcome many good tourists when the blockages are lifted,” Songco said. “For now and until [we] getting through COVID-19, we must learn to be physically distanced but socially engaged. “

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