The next emerging Asian superpower? A deserted island paradise? Or merely a breeding ground for the world’s greatest cover bands? After many years of living in China, and a continental drift south to Australia for the last three, I’d taken a decade of trips in this region and still knew next to nothing about the Philippines. It was time to take a visit.
The Philippines is quickly becoming Asia’s preeminent tourist destination. In 2012, White Beach, Boracay was named in Condé Nast Traveller’s top ten beaches in the world. Two major Chinese media outlets hailed various parts of the Philippines as their favoured travel destinations for the year.
The long-awaited turning point for tourism has apparently been reached – a paradise of foreign dollars and, perhaps more importantly, a steady, unstoppable stream of investment and jobs for the region. As we left Melbourne for Manila, the inflight magazines on Philippines Airlines were so breathlessly hyperbolic over the attractions of Cebu and Boracay they verged on parody. From high end luxury travellers promised impeccable world class service, to sun-kissed Anglo travellers photographed with straws between pearly white teeth, squeezed round a ‘bucket’ of vodka at Asia’s hottest full moon parties: everyone was welcome. It’s more fun in the Philippines!
From Manila we headed south-west, away from Cebu and Boracay’s luxury service and lascivious nights, to the province of Palawan – a long, thin sliver of islands running through the Sulu sea to the northern tip of Borneo. Home to around one million people, and comprising more than 1780 separate islands, Palawan felt undiscovered, and promised everything we were after – few tourists, two thousand kilometres of undeveloped coastline, incredible marine life, biodiversity, and days lazing on empty beaches drinking coconut juice and feasting on freshly caught seafood.
My partner and I had also had a life-changing event immediately before our departure – we discovered, to our delight, that I was pregnant. We scaled back from a more ambitious plan of multiple-day kayaking trips and overnight jungle adventures, but otherwise continued apace.
With only 10 days to explore, we decided on three destinations – first Coron, in Busuanga in the province’s north: a beautiful archipelago of small islands and dizzying karst formations; back to the Palawan ‘mainland’ for a few days of island hopping around Honda Bay; then back up via whatever means that materialised to the north-east of the island for a few days of retreat in tiny San Vicente, a village whose premier attractions were its inaccessibility and its 20 miles of empty beach running both north and south from the town.
In hindsight, an island surrounded by 1,779 other islands – where the only transport is a narrow, spider-legged motorboat on unpredictable waters – might not have been the ideal place to experience the queasy joys of early pregnancy. I can’t say how much this influenced my attitude toward the Philippines more generally, but it certainly coloured the trip, and my observations on it. Each of our destinations seemed to reveal a combination of beauty and sadness – or more specifically, showed both the promise of development, and the tragedy of its effects.
The Philippines seems filled with contradictions. The ability for two seemingly mutually exclusive situations to co-exist has always been one of the most alluring and defining aspects of Asia for me – social progress and political repression; development and destruction; innovation, uniformity. Is the Philippines, or at least Palawan, equipped to truly flourish from the effects of development and tourism? Can the natural environment which is driving the tourism in the first place be adapted to suit the needs of tourist consumption without engulfing it completely? Asian nations have been addressing these questions in different ways since the 1960s and the advent of modern tourism, but is more sophisticated marketing further confounding the issue? Are our expectations wildly outstripping anything an emerging economy can supply? How much damage is being done as key development stages are seemingly leap-frogged to meet them?
Palawan certainly delivers on the paradise front. The towering peaks of Coron Bay, Busuanga, rise impossibly out of the sea, dwarfing our little boat as we drift underneath. Large birds of prey are just visible circling their summits, which are clad in bright green foliage, sharp against the sky. We spend our first of many days of island hopping, alighting on and departing from tiny white-sanded coves where the water is shallow and still enough to lie down, lean back on your elbows and read in. An enormous monitor lizard skulks in a shady cave on one of the beaches; a solemn-faced monkey is tied half-heartedly to a tree on another.
The most spectacular snorkelling we encountered in Palawan was around Coron Bay. A diver’s paradise, the area offers Japanese shipwrecks ripe for exploration and, in the right spots, diving straight from the boats offered up all kinds of treasures – enormous pulsing anemones, orange and white schools of striped clownfish, chubby puffer-fish, dinner-plate sized rays, coral beds and reef civilisations thrumming with insects and crabs. Giant trevally, dugongs and dolphins are often sighted too, although the closest we came was when vast shoals of flying fish, flushed above water in their shining droves, appeared in dazzling airborne parades beside our boat. It wasn’t the first time during our watery Philippine adventure I thought of Life of Pi, although often it was in my sympathy for the Bengali tiger, cleverly crippled by Pi with seasickness to dull his appetite and his claws. The tiny life force inside of me was having the same effect.
After a few days of island living just off Coron we headed south for the eastern Palawan mainland and Honda Bay, a stretch of coastland famous for island hopping, beachside retreats and its proximity to Palawan’s largest attraction – the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River – reportedly one of the world’s largest underwater caves. We did not, however, encounter a single tourist who’d successfully visited the underground river. Recently designated as one of the ‘7 new natural wonders of the world’, the Underground River’s promotion is partly credited with the massive upsurge in tourism to Palawan. In 2012, almost 600,000 people visited the province, a staggering 60% increase on the year before. And yet this is how you visit the underground river:
1. You must have a permit to enter.
2. Only a certain, unspecified number of permits are available per day.
3. You must purchase your permit between two and five days before your visit.
4. You must present your passport to book your permit.
5. There is little or no accommodation and no other ‘sites of interest’ within approximately 70kms of the entry to the River Park.
6. Permits cannot be purchased via the internet or phone.
7. There is no guarantee a permit will be available for the day you want to visit.
Effectively, unless you’re willing to arrive at the park, buy a permit and wait for between three and five days (with really almost nothing else to do in the region) or to make a 140km roundtrip twice to buy the permit then return to visit three days later, your chances of getting in are fairly slim. A French girl we met on our travels had somehow navigated the system successfully enough to purchase a permit for New Year’s day – unfortunately on arrival bright and early on 1 January, her fun loving river-guides were too hung-over to undertake the trip and the tour was cancelled.
The rest of our visit to Honda Bay was a weird experience. Our hotel was literally in the middle of nowhere – 60km north of the capital Puerto Princesa and far from any other village or resort. There was nothing to do except lie on the beach. But with no one else visible for hours at a time – except for noisy packs of beach dogs and the occasional local kid scuttling for crabs – it began to feel a little more like we were shipwrecked than holidaying. Local attractions could not be visited – or even located, apparently – unless booked along with guides (our hotel staff) at eye-whitening rates. If there were other hotels or resorts in the area they were almost certainly empty.
Eventually, we were joined by an exuberant, moustachioed German, named Marco, and his silent Russian girlfriend. An excursion with them took us to the strangest destination of our trip so far. After passing at least 20 unspoilt deserted islands, we finally stopped at one designated for visitors. Hundreds of people crammed its tiny beach, and the air was thick with the gasoline of motorboats and barbecue smoke. Tour group after tour group disgorged enormous coolers of prepacked lunches under pre-booked coconut huts – sushi and noodles, towers of watermelon, sticks of oily toasted corn. Banana rafts, crowded with squealing tourists roared around the bay and queues of twenty or more people waited impatiently outside the crowded, non-flushable toilets. Life-vested Chinese tourists snorkelled happily in the brown, churned up surf. Looking out from the squalid, hectic shoreline, the island was surrounded on every side by empty, pristine golden beaches.
It was becoming apparent that tourism on Palawan was entirely unregulated. Individual islands are owned by families and tribal groups, who decide themselves who should open their shores to visitors. Monopolies are clearly rife. Tours are arranged by hotels, who own their own boats, take their own enormous cut, pay boatmen as hired hands and pay the rest to the island owners for the privilege of visiting their spot. The visitors themselves, and their experience, seem to be low on the list of priorities. On the day of our ill-fated adventure, a massive storm blew in mid-afternoon, making our return, in torrential rain and a very small wooden boat, two hours of terrifying seafaring – even Marco was suitably subdued. There couldn’t have been a boatman in Palawan that day who didn’t know a storm of such magnitude was brewing and yet our captain, with no real responsibility to either us or even the boat, had agreed to take us. The chance of a few hundred pesos proved too much of an incentive even with the risk of losing a tourist or two.
We left Honda Bay via a minivan hitched from the side of the highway and drove north almost the length of Palawan to our final destination. When an arranged lift at the appropriate junction failed to materialise, we set off on hired motorbikes along a treacherous, unfinished red clay road. The rain began to fall in fat drops as I clung to my driver, a laconic teenager (and part-time soldier), and as the potholes began to fill with cloudy water I wondered whether this was the sort of situation my doctor had advised I avoid in early pregnancy.
Tiny San Vicente nestles into the north-west edge of Palawan, south of the famous El Nido bay, and is bordered by empty beach to both its north and south. It seemed in many ways a microcosm of the rest of the island. The ‘resort’ hotel (there are seemingly no lodges or backpackers’ in Palawan beyond the utterly grim) we stayed in was pricey for the region but turned out to be only half built, a dream-in-progress from the owner who once more had let his marketing get a little ahead of itself. Like all of the places we visited, it was run by a European man married to a local Filipino woman – as yet foreigners may not purchase land or property in the Philippines outright. Although fewer than 2000 people live in San Vicente, a long abandoned domestic airstrip was apparently being lengthened to accommodate international take-off and landing. In a few short years, he predicted, the coast – with its spectacular sunsets and idyllic beaches – would be the next Phuket.
The beaches themselves were spectacular. We hired a motorbike and rode for mile after mile along the beach itself, enormous palm trees our only company. Occasionally we’d pass abandoned construction on a hotel, with the coastal bush and scrub quickly reclaiming its turf. Hundreds of miles from the nearest city, the canopy of stars above San Vicente at night was mesmerising. We walked home through the silent little town each night quietly contemplative, our heads full of plans and hopes and constellations.
Despite the promise that the province is set to crest the wave of tourism in coming years, throughout our trip to Palawan I met few Filipinos who seemed genuinely enthused by this prospect, or even particularly interested in tourism at all. Our interactions, reserved but friendly, were a huge departure from the reception you become accustomed to in Thailand or Malaysia. Gone too was the curiousness of more rural parts of China or Indonesia – foreigners were not a novelty here, but neither were they people you’d choose to interact with.
There is a genuine gap between the marketing hype of the Philippines’ government promotional campaigns and the tourism infrastructure that currently exists. There’s no doubt that the breathless ads currently screening in Melbourne’s cinemas would leave more than a few of the local fisherman confused at best. The net result for visitors however may have the exact opposite effect the government intends, slowing the growth of tourism by failing to deliver on expectations.
Potentially more damaging, though, were some fairly basic misunderstandings along the way. Despite a plethora of websites promoting Palawan as an eco-tourism destination, we saw far more evidence of tourism’s destructive transformative effects than preservation. With the people controlling the money and access to tourists so far removed from the people actually delivering the services (driving boats, looking after beaches, tending restaurants), there was no investment and little enthusiasm from anyone actually ‘on the ground’, or so it appeared.
Most dangerously, this transferred to the environment itself. Blast fishing with explosives had obliterated many of the coral reef sites we were taken to visit, leaving sad brown debris where hundreds of years of marine life had previously thrived. The boatmen seemed nonplussed at our horror. Not that the only argument to be made for preserving these incredible natural assets is to serve tourism, of course, but it’s a clear economic case that you might assume the locals would be interested in.
Whether Palawan will be Asia’s hottest destination ten years from now remains to be seen. Should the government opt to scale back the frenetic campaigns and allow the process to happen more organically, allowing travellers to live the dream on those unspoilt beaches a little longer and actively contribute to a sustainable more progressive tourism, the Philippines certainly boasts the natural environment to do it. As we made our last, rickety boat trip back to Busuanga airport I was certainly sure of one thing, though – your first trimester is probably not more fun in the Philippines.
Jenny Niven is the Associate Director of The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne.