When the Philippines started implementing lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic last year, the tourism industry was among those hardest hit.
Siete Pecados Marine Park (SPMP), a 153-hectare eco-tourist spot in Coron, Palawan, was no exception. Since quarantine restrictions were put in place last year, SPMP has not generated income, even during the summer months from March to May when it is most popular.
Before the pandemic, SPMP had a daily foot traffic of 300 tourists, who mostly snorkeled to marvel at its vibrant coral reefs. Boat operators used to earn P10,000 to P15,000 by bringing tourists to the park, but all this changed for the worse when COVID-19 struck.
Employees at the park, as well as their families, were also badly affected by the pandemic after losing their jobs and sole sources of income.
Now, the national government—particularly the Department of Tourism (DOT)—is working to revive the country’s tourism industry in an attempt to boost the economy. Because of this, SPMP is gradually reopening to tourists.
With the reopening, new developments at the park are expected, such as cliff-diving, cave spelunking, and even a new spot offering an overlooking view of the ocean.
But even in the middle of the pandemic, the park still managed to make gains through self-sustaining methods.
Because of these efforts, SPMP was named the Best Managed Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Palawan last December, beating 200 other MPAs in the province.
Owing to proper handling of finances, the previously neglected islets of SPMP proved self-sustaining, generating P20 million in user’s fees from 2015 to 2020 or at least $124,000 annually.
This profit supports activities and operations in the park to ensure sustained ecological and socio-economic gains amid the pandemic.
Out of the income generated before COVID-19, they were able to fund the following: cave development, heat press machine, tourism building repair, and rice retailing.
Because of the paralyzed tourism industry, they found ways to earn through their socio-economic enterprise which includes mangrove nursery for their future business, women’s tailoring, and catering services during the study tours.
“The management wants the people to feel that the projects are taking care of them. We can produce a livelihood for them that they can survive even if we have a pandemic now. That is our aim. We’re not just standing or sitting there thinking we have good projects but the people are not benefitting,” says Jose Mazo, park manager of SPMP.
Despite no tourism income, the management still monitors the area for signs of coral bleaching and infestation of crown of thorns (COTs). They also ensured that the strict policies of the park were still implemented so they strengthened the visibility of their day and night rangers.
“We never stop guarding the park. During the pandemic, we adjusted our system of enforcement,” Mazo says.
Before SPMP was established, destructive fishing such as cyanide and dynamite was rampant in the area resulting in damage to reefs and the baseline of fish catch. Despite the decline in coral cover in 2015 due to Typhoon Haiyan, live coral cover inside the MPA was able to recover from 36% in 2015 to 45% (a fair condition) in 2017.
Additionally, biomass inside the MPA continuously increased from 51 MT/km2 in 2015 to 116 MT/km2 in 2017. The high density of fish caught inside the MPA correlates to the improved fish catch in the community from 3kg/fisher in 2005, 8kg/fisher in 2017 to 20kg/fisher in 2020. The recovery of fish stocks is now benefiting the community as those engaged in tourism-related occupations prior to the pandemic are now shifting back to fishing.
Although the pandemic has paralyzed Coron’s tourism industry, people’s organization in Siete Pecados have found sustainable ways to weather the storm while upholding their environmental conservation initiatives.
Community-based tourism has boosted the province’s previously impoverished communities, but many agree that gaining back economically would be difficult in the COVID-19 era.
This story was written by Florence May Majillano as a final output for AYEJ.org’s Green Beat Program – An Intensive Virtual Environmental Journalism Training for young writers and journalists.