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Philippine province builds on lessons learned to grow ecotourism industry

  • Antique province in the central Philippines is looking to boost local revenues through ecotourism, after the COVID-19 pandemic put the brakes on a thriving tourism industry.
  • The province is home to a rich biodiversity, including the critically endangered writhed-billed hornbill, giant rafflesia “corpse flower,” and rare bowl corals.
  • Taking a leaf from the experience of nearby Boracay, the resort island where a tourism boom led to severe environmental damage, local officials face the challenge of balancing tourism-driven development and environmental protection.
  • A prominent lawmaker is pushing for seascapes and coastal zones in the province to be given national protection.

AKLAN, Philippines — Although it lies less than 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the globally famous resort island of Boracay, the province of Antique in the central Philippines remains primarily an agricultural and fishing province. Today, provincial government leaders are working to lure more tourists to Antique, an endeavor for which Boracay — where the boom in tourism has often come at the expense of the ecosystem — has proved both inspirational and instructive.

Tourism numbers in Antique had started ramping up before COVID-19 hit. In 2017, the local tourism office recorded about 500,000 tourist arrivals. By 2019, that had tripled to 1.3 million. The number, however, dropped in 2020 to just 10,706 due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.

But as tourism promotion efforts grow, officials and conservationists are grappling with the challenge of how to balance tourism development with conservation of the environment.

Panay Island, Antique Province. The province of Antique in the central Philippines remains primarily an agricultural and fishing province. Image by Gary Todd via Flickr.

Antique is known as a haven for flora and fauna, which officials are banking on to draw in the tourists.

Loren Legarda, a congresswoman who represents the province, says Antique offers opportunities to explore and experience marine and terrestrial biodiversity that complements the world-class tourism in Boracay.

These include giant Rafflesia “corpse flowers” in Sibalom Natural Park and in the neighboring municipality of San Remigio, as well as critically endangered writhed-billed hornbills (Rhabdotorrhinus waldeni) and endangered Visayan tarictic hornbills in Pandan municipality in Antique’s north. Writhed-billed hornbills have been named the provincial bird to raise importance of their conservation.

And as recently as last October, divers exploring the seas off Antique discovered several colonies of bowl corals (Halomitra pileus), a rare species whose dome-like structures can reach 60 centimeters (2 feet) in diameter. The group also sighted manta rays at least three times during their explorations, which were supported by the provincial tourism department.

Panay Island, Antique Province. Antique is known as a haven for flora and fauna. Image by Gary Todd via Flickr.

Legarda has sought the help of the national Department of Tourism and Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to conduct a full inventory of the biodiversity that she says can lure tourists to Antique.

However, there are already signs of trouble for the province’s biodiversity.

Aldwin Alojipan and Jude Dionela Sanchez, members of the dive team that spotted the bowl coral colonies, said several of the sites already showed signs of damage, suspected to have been caused by illegal fishing in 1980s. “We are now coordinating with the local governments in LIPASECU Council” comprising representatives from the municipalities of Libertad, Pandan, Sebaste and Culasi — “and the DENR including the office of Congresswoman Legarda for the protection of our environment,” they said.

Some of the emerging problems appear to be directly linked to rising tourism numbers.

From January to June 2019, when tourism in Antique reached its pre-pandemic peak, the DENR’s Environmental Management Bureau detected a high presence of fecal coliform in the Pandan River. The river flows down through the Malumpati Cold Spring and Bugang River, a rising tourism destination.

In 2009, the Bugang River was ranked as the cleanest inland body of water in the entire Philippines.

Local and provincial officials say they plan to act to prevent further contamination of the environment.

Divers exploring the seas off Antique discovered several colonies of the rare bowl corals. Image courtesy of Sabadd Samurai Extreme

After the DENR survey, the Pandan municipal government formed a task force to clean up the Pandan River. “We have learned a lesson and right now we are strict in imposing environmental safety to my town especially in Pandan Bay where the rare bowl corals have been found,” said Pandan Mayor Plaridel Sanchez.

Andre Untal, chief of the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office (PENRO) in Antique, said the 300-hectare (740-acre) Pandan Bay is being proposed as a protected area under national legislation.

Congresswoman Legarda was the one who proposed the move, citing the area’s “unique physical and biological significance,” Untal said.

If the bill is approved, the DENR would work with stakeholders like local governments and national government agencies, NGOs, and academics to craft a development framework that aims to balance conservation and livelihood concerns in the face of an anticipated influx of tourism.

Legarda also filed another bill in Congress to create the Northern Antique Protected Seascape and Landscape (NAPSL), which would protect the area as a designated ecotourism zone.

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Banner image of a writhed-billed hornbill by Callan Bentley via Wikimedia Commons.

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