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10.2. The Ethics and Attitudes towards Ecotourism in the Philippines

- Mary Ann Chen Ng, MSc.
Eubios Ethics Institute, Philippines

The Philippines, a developing country in South East Asia, is faced with the challenges of an increasing population, poverty, inequality, and corruption. With more than a quarter of the Filipino population falling below the poverty threshold, the pressure for productivity and growth has led to practices that have resulted in environmental stress and degradation. In response, the Philippine government has adopted the rhetoric of sustainable development as defined by the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development. Government policies on economic development have reflected this vision of sustainability and poverty reduction. A major part of the government's economic development plan is ecotourism.

In preparation for 2003: Visit the Philippines Year, the Department of Tourism has been actively marketing the country as a safe tropical holiday destination (DOTa, 2002). The aggressive sales missions and advertising campaigns, along with the various activities in 2002 commemorating the International Year of Ecotourism, aim to increase visitor arrivals, and consequently bring in more foreign currency to the country.@How much is actually at stake? In 2000 alone, the total annual revenue directly attributed from tourism amounted to about US$ 2.5 billion. There were 1.8 million tourists mainly from the United States, Japan, Korea and the People's Republic of China (PCVC, 2002). And barring any serious security incident, this figure is projected to increase in the future.

Definitions of Ecotourism

Being a recent phenomenon, there are controversies surrounding the "lack of clarity in the definition of ecotourism" (Ward-Davies, 2002). The problem appears to lie in the association of the term with any type of nature, wildlife and adventure holiday. Holidays marketed as ecotourism are often in reality opposite that of the original concept of tourism in natural environments as defined in 1987 by Hector Ceballos-Lascurain (cited in Boo, 1990, p.xiv),"Travelling to relatively undisturbed or uncontaminated natural areas with the specific objective of studying, admiring, and enjoying the scenery and its wild plants and animals, as well as many existing cultural manifestations (both past and present) found in these areas."

In 1992, the Ecotourism Society further expanded this definition by emphasizing that ecotourists must have the responsibility in improving the welfare of local people. (Lindberg and Hawkins, 1993). In both definitions, the common themes are environmental conservation, sustainable development by tourism and the involvement of local communities.

Ecotourism, as a Philippine government policy, had its roots in the 1991, 20-year Tourism Master Plan developed by the Philippine Department of Tourism, the United Nations Development Program, and the World Tourism Organization. This blueprint on the development of the tourism industry aims to "be sensitive", "contribute to livelihood", "minimize impact of negative factors", "maximize and generate sustainable growth" (DOT, 1991). In 1998, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Department of Tourism issued a joint-memorandum, Guide Laws for Ecotourism Development in the Philippines, wherein ecotourism was defined as: "A low-impact, environmentally-sound and community-participatory tourism activity in a given natural environment that enhances the the conservation of biophysical understanding and education and yields socio-economic benefits to the concerned community."

The present Arroyo administration has reiterated the importance of tourism as "a major engine of socio-economic development" (PCVC, 2002). Specifically, it has been promoting ecotourism as a key to sustainable development. Major ecotourism destinations in its tourism plan include Palawan and Boracay.

Palawan, the Last Ecological Frontier

Palawan is the second largest province in the Philippines; with a total land area of 16,403.1 sq km, comprising of 1,768 islands (NSCB, 2002). In 1967, the entire province was declared a Fish and Wildlife Sanctuary. Palawan also has the highest number of protected areas in the Philippines-12 national parks, 3 bird sanctuaries, 24 watershed forest reserves, and 6 mangrove forest reserves (DENR, 1987). UNESCO has classified the province as a Man and Biosphere Reserve and the Tubbataha Reef Marine National Park and St. Paul Subterranean River National Park as World Heritage Sites. Palawan is also home to four indigenous tribes; namely, the Tagbanua, the Pala'wan, the Batak and the Tao't-bato (PPIO, 2002).

The 1980s saw a period of intense commercial logging, which left the province ecologically stressed. As a result of a long campaign by environmental groups and a change in local leadership due to free elections, timber license agreements were cancelled in 1992 (Broad and Cavanagh, 1993). An alternative industry had to emerge because of the banning of commercial logging. Tourism was the logical successor. Since the 1990s, Palawan has been promoted as an ecotourist destination by the Department of Tourism (DOT, 1991). Recently, Rep. Kahlil Mitra, congressman from the second district, has filed House Bill 3453, making Palawan as the Ecotourism Capital of the Philippines. The move has the support of the Secretary of Tourism, Richard Gordon. Rep. Mitra thinks that this will bring about increased income, promotion of the province and protection of the environment (The Palawan Times, 2002).

The Department of Tourism, in its Tourism Master Plan, identified three priority areas of tourism development---Northern Palawan, Tabon Caves and St. Paul Subterranean River. In collaboration with UNESCO, the local government has also implemented a community based ecotourism plan for Ulugan Bay in Puerto Princesa. What follows is a short description of the different ecotourism programs in the areas mentioned above:

Northern Palawan includes the towns of El Nido, Taytay, Port Barton,
Coron and Busuanga. The area is known as an ideal site for diving, swimming, trekking and island hopping. The Department of Tourism, utilizing a loan from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, implemented infrastructure development, environmental management and sustainable tourism development programs in Western Busuanga and Northern El Nido.

The Tabon Caves, located in Southern Palawan, are composed of a network of 200 shallow caves where 25,000 year-old skeletal remains were found. Collaboration of the DOT with the National Museum resulted in the formulation of a plan that provided the framework for developing tourism and promoting the Tabon Caves as a major cultural tourism and archaeological destination.

The St. Paul Subterranean National Park is a well-preserved national park where endemic species of wildlife live. It is also home to the indigenous Batak and Tagbanua. A Cultural Tourism Program was specifically designed to prevent negative impact on these indigenous communities, who live near the St. Paul Subterranean River (DOT, 1991).

Since 1999, a Community Based Eco-tourism Master Plan of Ulugan Bay is being executed by UNESCO and the Puerto Princesa City Government, with funding from UNDP. "The project employs a multi-sectorial and inter-disciplinary approach with the aim of alleviating poverty in Ulugan Bay through the development of sustainable livelihoods in areas such as community based eco-tourism and sustainable coastal fish farming." (Felstead, 1999). The project adopts a "bottom-up" approach to prevent inequity of access to resources and marginalization of local communities. The key point of the project is continuing community consultation and participation.

Boracay, Fun in the Sun

Boracay, one of the most popular holiday destinations in the Philippines, is located on the north western tip of the island of Panay in Western Central Visayas. It is composed of three communities; namely, Balabag, Manoc-Manoc and Yapak. Although the island is only about 9 km long and 1 km wide, it attracts up to 5,300 visitors during peak season (Trousdale, 1997). The main tourist attraction is a stretch of white sand beach, predictably called White Beach, located on the east coast of the island. Tourists engage in sunbathing, swimming, diving, snorkeling, beach volleyball, boating, parasailing and other water sports. Other natural attractions on the island include a puka shell beach, bat and crystal caves, and a mountain with an observation deck on the summit, and a dead mangrove forest. On Boracay, ecotourism appears to be associated with activities such as spelunking, horse riding, mountain climbing, diving, and the like.

As a tourist destination, a foreign film crew was said to have first discovered it in 1968. Further growth occurred through a combination of local initiatives and foreign investment (Santa Maria, 1991). This rapid and unplanned development resulted in environmental degradation. The main problems were water quality, fresh water supply and solid waste management.

In 1997, the Department of Tourism in collaboration with the Canadian Urban Institute conducted a carrying capacity analysis for Boracay (Trousdale, 1997). 40% of the 16 key indicators were shown to have exceeded their carrying capacity thresholds. Ground water quality had been polluted by fecal contamination, waste water discharge, detergents, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and salt water intrusion. High coliform levels in the marine environment were recorded by DENR in 1996 due to excessive nutrient loading brought about by sewage and waste water discharge. A striking element of the report is the citing of the lack of effective governance, vested interests and partiality in the implementation and enforcement of laws as flaws of the system.

In response, the DOT, DENR and local government units implemented an environment management and solid waste action program to address the immediate problems of water quality and waste discharge. A Task Force was formed from local government units and the private sector to strictly implement ordinances on tourism and environmental protection (Boracay Bulletin, 1998). Community involvement in decision-making was encouraged through workshops, seminars and civic groups.

Foremost of these groups is the Boracay Foundation, Inc., a business association composed of 70 members whose platform is to address the island's economic, environmental and social issues. In collaboration with the Boracay Dive Association, it carries out solid waste and underwater management. It sits on the Boracay Special Task Force, the Malay Tourism Council and the Boracay Solid Waste Action Team. The local government discusses its policies with the BFI before they are implemented. (BFI, 2002). Other civic groups engaged in community service include the Rotary Club of Boracay, Kiwanis Club of Boracay and Adventure Malay.

The Money Issue

Economic development is one important component of ecotourism. By nature and definition, ecotourism is a business. And a fast-growing one at that! It commands roughly two to four percent of all international travel, making it as "one of the most lucrative niche markets in the tourism industry"(Ward-Davies, 2002). In order to be successful, like any other enterprise, it must be run using sound business sense and well-thought out marketing plans. Many attempts of well meaning NGOs and local communities at developing ecotourism destinations have failed precisely because of a lack of technical skill and financial vision (Libosada, 1998).

How can a business be called successful? A simple answer to this question is profit. Economically, ecotourism must become profitable to be sustainable. However, the idea of merely thinking about putting the words profit and the environment on the same level of discussion may be reprehensible for most people. In the past, many instances of unethical corporate activity have occurred for people not to trust business. Thus the words money and trade are often associated with the absence of ethics. The legacy of scandals, such as the Enron case, is the reinforcement of the image of business as a corporate jungle where ruthless predators roam. Survival of the fittest in the corporate world; wherein the singular pursuit of profit creates a culture prone to unethical activity. On the other hand, these scandals also bring forth the importance of ethical practice --- in the final analysis, it does not pay to be unethical; @because the public expects business to be responsible and ethical. Thus business can gain public approval by being ethical. By being ethical and working together with society, business can actually gain more profit.

Therefore, people involved in the ecotourism industry can benefit more by showing enthusiasm and cooperation with government policies of equitable and sustainable tourism development. A case study of Kaniki Point Resort, in Northern Palawan, shows the importance of a commitment by the developer to conservation and dialogue with both the local government and the community. Through responsible management, thoughtful consideration, careful planning and appropriate technology; the ecotourism industry can profit more at the same time help reduce potentially adverse environmental effects. (Trousdale, 2001).

Another way of looking at ecotourism, as a business is that because of this very aspect of ecotourism, it becomes an instrument of modernization and this may be interpreted as unsustainable. Weaver (1998) argues that this contradiction means that ecotourism is "inherently misrepresentative and dishonest". As the industry grows, expansion to untapped and fragile areas would be a natural consequence of success. The environment, people and culture of a destination become products that can be assessed for their economic value --a process that can be described as commodification of non-instrumental goods (Meethan: 2001). The common practice of assigning positive economic value to the environment in the form of cost-benefit analysis can be shortsighted in recognizing value in a utilitarian sense. One obvious criticism about this is that the environment, people and culture have inherent values independent of being needed or desired.

A question further arises about who benefits from ecotourism. To give a possible answer one has to first ask the following questions. Who are the developers? Who are the tourists? The main concern here is the leakage of profit from developing countries to developed countries --- a manifestation of the dependency model wherein ecotourism becomes an industry for tourists from developed countries controlled by nationals of developed countries. Britton (1982) argues that "developing countries suffer from structural distortions to their economies as the indigenous economy is undermined and redirected to serve the interests of external market" --- surplus value becoming distributed among local elites. The Philippine situation appears to be a good example of this phenomenon. The law itself gives special incentives such as a six-year tax holiday to non-Filipinos who invest at least US$50,000 in a tourist related project. The investor is also permitted to repatriate the proceeds of the liquidation of the investment. Moreover, under the Foreign Investments Act of 1991, foreign nationals are allowed to invest up to 100% equity participation in new or existing companies. (DOTb, 2002).

Ecotourism in the Philippines?

Ecotourism is commonly thought of as an alternative model as opposed to mass tourism. This is a typical example of an alternative form of development wherein problems are solved using a bottom-up approach as opposed to the traditional top-down approach. In this sense local communities have the autonomy to make decisions about their livelihood and environment. The assumption is that people will become empowered and free to determine their future.

In a way, this focus on local concerns can be interpreted as a paradoxical response to globalization. There is an inherent tension in the term, that is, ecotourism would not have evolved without globalization; but in order for ecotourism to be sustainable, "localities and lived experiences" need to be emphasized (Kong, 1999). Another implication here is that while the concept of ecotourism assumes a "greater degree of autonomy" from the government; at the same time, it is vulnerable to "the global system itself"(Meethan, 2001). In this polarity, local or indigenous communities are represented as simple, natural and therefore real. The value assigned to localities reflects a romanticized view of authentic life as opposed to the alienation of modern life. There are certain problems in applying this interpretation in the Philippine context.

In its rhetoric, the Philippine government has adopted ecotourism as a vital component of its overall plan for sustainable development. On the surface, government, civil societies, local and indigenous communities seem to be in agreement about the logic of promoting economic growth and environment conservation. Sufficient incentive, strong motivation, and social justice are just some of the reasons why ecotourism should succeed. However, agreement and commitment may not make much of a difference in the end. Agreement alone is not satisfactory in the presence of self-interest (Mackie, 1977). That is, agreements tend to be broken when it is advantageous to do so. Another variant is making agreements in the interest of pakikisama , a form of social interaction, which avoids direct confrontation in favor of unexpressed hostility (Lynch, 1984). One can agree socially but disagree personally. This then becomes a rationale for not actually agreeing. As the cliche goes, one remains true to oneself.

In other words, there exists a basic lack of trust of the public world---that is, anyone outside of one's private sphere. "Philippine society is largely maintained by the astute manipulation of strategic ties along the basis of kinship, locality or personal connection "(Pertierra, 2002). In this arena of conflicting interests, with a government characterized by personalism, individuals engage in practical tactics for success. Despite being underpinned by strong personal religious values, Philippine society is often controlled by a powerful elite that furthers its interests ---which may run contrary to environmental and social interests. As can be seen in Boracay, "socially responsible" civil society groups themselves are often members of the local elite.

Mulder (2001) argues that contemporary Philippine society's response to globalization seems to be closer identification to "more particularistic, more primordial bonds", such as those offered by the family, region of origin, religion and sects". Given this social structure prone to inequity and personalism, it may be difficult for local elites to allow an authentically empowered local and/or indigenous community to exist, let alone control the benefits of ecotourism. In this sense, ecotourism may become a tool for increased marginalization and authentic alienation of local communities in ecotourist destinations.

Is there no hope for ecotourism in the Philippines? Is it a possibility that in this neo-feudal system of vested interests, ecotourism is just another buzzword in a long line of buzzwords such as that 70s poster child for development- green revolution. What about the poor themselves? One finding of the World Bank's report on poverty is that poor Filipinos do not tend to belong to people's organizations or non-government organizations (World Bank, 2001). Contrary to this being a sign of apathy, one obvious reason is that people in developing countries can not afford to be out of work. In effect, people are actively taking part in the global system. The poor "do not recline in their uncomplicated, unsullied existence, at one with nature, but strive to free themselves from poverty and drudgery" (Butcher, 1997). What can be more authentic than this? Taking this into account, the self-interest model mentioned previously can then be reinterpreted as a move towards preservation or "love of life" (Macer, 1998) in the form of an inherent hope for a more dignified and humane existence.


The author wishes to thank Dr. Hiroko Nagai and Dr. Darryl Macer for their valuable insights.


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. *See on-line publications of Eubios Ethics Institute

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