The management of the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park (PPSRNP) is conducting an assessment of the impact of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on tourism-dependent communities around the park
The assessment is part of the city government’s development of an economic recovery plan.
The park believes that assessing the impact of the COVID-19 disaster is highly diverse with significant implications for crisis management and policy responses, said PPSRNP information Jan Elmer Badilla on Monday.
He said the results of their assessment of 8 CBST sites within the park will be included in the recovery plan when travel restrictions are lifted.
On July 28, the park management started engaging Barangay Cabayugan residents — farmers, fisherfolk, vendors, drivers, other tourism workers behind the CBST sites — to determine how they think the city government can help their situation.
Badilla said that based on their initial assessment, they could say that most of the residents are on survival mode since they are highly dependent on tourism.
“Dahil nga ‘yong majority talaga ng community members ng Barangay Cabayugan ay dependent sa tourism, talagang pagdating ng COVID-19 at pagsara ng airport, totally wala na talaga silang trabaho. Wala na silang income. Karamihan sa kanila, based sa assessment natin ay survival mode talaga sila, na-assess din natin ‘yong interventions na ginawa ng park sa kanila even before ‘yong COVID pa,” he said.
Backyard farming for survival
Badilla said some of them have resorted to backyard farming to survive the pandemic as the quarantine control continues, while the others are subsisting with the help they can get from the alternative livelihood provided by the park before the pandemic.
He said they are yet to figure out the degree of income loss from the time the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) was imposed to the current level of quarantine control. It will be included in the final report they will submit for the comprehensive recovery plan of the city government.
The impact assessment being conducted is in CBST sites in Barangay Salvacion to Brgy. New Panggangan. Badilla said they are now on Phase 2 of the assessment, focusing more on validation of data from “the ground”.
“If I’m not mistaken, ito rin ang bubuo sa tourism recovery plan ng buong Puerto Princesa City. Alam naman natin na ang underground river ay one of the main drivers ng tourism dito sa lungsod, especially dito sa northwest cluster from Brgy. Buenavista ay from Salvacion hanggang New Panggangan, talagang ang mga community ay dependent sa tourism industry na meron ‘yong park,” he said.
CBST sites ready to open under new normal
Badilla said the communities are ready to open under the new normal due to the health crisis, but there is a growing concern that the number of tourists will no longer be the same pre-COVID.
“Most of them ay ready na rin naman talaga. May mga health protocols in place, ang pinaka-concern namin dahil pagkapasok ng new normal, hindi na talaga siya ’yong katulad ng dati. Mas konti ‘yong number ng turista, ‘yong demand din magiging mas mababa. Ang gusto sana natin ay maging resilient ‘yong mga CBST sites, gusto natin na magkaroon sila ng alternative tourism products,” he said.
Alternative tourism products, he explained, can be additional sources of income while the crisis is happening and until flights resume.
Badilla said CBST communities have already anticipated that there will be decreased income due to the continuing pandemic.
PPSRNP will assist in the capacity building of the community, he added, which includes preparing them with technical assistance. Badilla added that they are also exploring to look for funders that could help CBST groups for new investments.
“Hopeful kami and based din sa data, unanimous din sa assessment, majority talaga ng tourist profile mga turistang bumibisita sa atin ay mga local tourist. Once nag-open na ‘yong domestic airports at puwede na bumiyahe within the Philippines, feeling namin ganoon pa rin, nandoon pa rin ‘yong demand. Pinaka-set back doon ay ‘yong carrying capacity na 50 percent na lang, kahit gustuhin pa nila na ganoon karami pa rin ang guests nila, mababawasan pa rin,” he said.
At the start of the coronavirus disease, he said the park management assisted the CBST sites by providing them grocery packages and seedlings to produce vegetables in their backyards.
As the ECQ relaxes, they were provided several training skills such as mushroom cultivation and making hand soaps, sanitizers, dishwashing liquids, and alcohol.
The park management plans to connect the community members to some partners who would buy their products as additional sources of income. Badilla said that they are now working out with lobster and crab fattening plans.
“Isa sa opportunity na gusto namin i-tap ay lahat ng tao, gusto nila tumulong. Isa ‘yon sa gusto namin i-take advantage na ilalapit namin sa market, ano ba ‘yong mga produkto na meron ‘yong mga nasa loob ng national park. From there, titingin tayo kung sino ‘yong gustong tumulong sa atin na pailan-ilan sa ngayon ay meron na rin talaga,” he said.
No tourist, no income for CBST sites
Anesto Elijan, president of the association that operates the Mangrove Paddle Boat Tour said the absence of tourists has given them zero income since March.
The impact was so hard for them to survive, but they had to endure the orders of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Malaki ‘yong impact sa kabuhayan namin kasi ‘pag wala kaming bisita, wala rin kaming kita. Talagang hirap noong pag-lockdown, negative talaga tayo kasi sumunod tayo sa batas. Sa buwan ng March, peak season ‘yan, expected namin na income P15,000 o P30,000 kapag peak season sa isang buwan. Gawin na lang natin na P20,000, naka-prepare na sana kami para sa peak season,” he said.
Elijan is also uncertain if they could reach even half of their regular income before the pandemic once the operation of the CBST sites resumes. His group is also thinking about new alternative products they could offer such as producing rattan baskets as the use of plastic bags is prohibited.
“Kahit na mag-umpisa, hindi naman ganoon agad karami [ang turista] kasi meron pa ‘yang nag-aalangan. Kung mag-open kami, mag-adjust din kami, hahatiin din namin ang mga miyembro, ang kalahati ay mag-duty ngayon, iba ay bukas naman para lang mabuhay lahat,” he said.
Two-decade souvenir vendor Mary Jane Tolentino said that this is the hardest phase to endure in their lives.
“Sobrang laki talaga, pinakamahirap kasi dito lang nabubuhay ‘yong peddlers natin, araw-araw nagtitinda. Dahl nawala ang turista dahil sa COVID, ang hirap. May souvenir shop ako, kumikita ako minsan ng P30,000 ang pinakamahina ko ay P7,000 samantala ngayon ay zero talaga, wala talaga,” she said.
“Para sa akin, para akong natatakot sa ganon kasi hindi natin alam—parang walang kasiguraduhan, nakakatakot kung gaano katotoo ang safety natin,” Tolentino added.
Other tourism-dependent sectors
Reynaldo Dadores, president of the Sabang-Cabayugan Tricycles and Operators Association (SCTOA), has been earning by driving his tricycle for 12 years ferrying tourists within Cabayugan. He is one of the 35 members of the association who is greatly affected by the pandemic.
In accordance with the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) guidelines, tricycles are only allowed to convey a single passenger. Dadores said there are also “very few” passengers to service, and the matter adds to the hardship the SCTOA members are suffering.
Before the pandemic, they used to earn around P500-P700 every other day and a maximum of P2,000 when it is the peak season. But COVID-19 happened, affecting their livelihood “beyond measure”, he said.
Because they have nothing to earn from driving, the members of SCTOA resorted to planting vegetables for their family’s consumption. Some would even join fishing sojourns despite having no idea about fishing.