(CLOCKWISE) Kota Island, Pag-asa Island, Panata Island, and Parola Island, in Kalayaan municipality, West Philippine Sea. | Photos from CSIS/AMTI/MAXAR

Although the proposed legislation designating some Philippine-held islands in the West Philippine Sea as an ecotourism destination and protected area is gaining traction in both the upper and lower houses, some are concerned about the potential risks it may cause.

At the Senate tourism committee hearing on Wednesday, presided over by Sen. Sonny Angara, provincial board members Ryan Maminta and Aris Arzaga explained that Senate Bill No. 1166 declaring the Pag-asa Island Cluster Ecotourism Destination and Protected Area will strengthen the country’s claim to the West Philippine Sea (WPS) and pump up Kalayaan’s municipal economy.

But, they also noted that sending tourists to the contested waters could lead to additional cases of harassment from other claimant nations, particularly China, which has recently started employing military-grade laser light to deter Filipino coast guard and naval vessels from approaching Ayungin Shoal.

“By making it a special ecological tourism zone, the Philippines essentially sends a message to other nations that we intend to keep the WPS as part of our jurisdiction,” Maminta said.

He added that China Coast Guard’s (CCG) persistent patrols of the WPS poses a risk of coming across with one of the Philippine tourists vessels, which might result in further intimidation.

Maminta advised speaking with members of the Philippine Navy to determine which routes are safer for navigation.

In addition to the potential security issues, Maminta also underlined the potential negative environmental repercussions.

“We cannot turn a blind eye to the dangers it may push. Number 1, environmental damage. Tourism has an impact on our environment. If it is not managed properly it can lead to the degradation of the pagasa island cluster. Should also note that the species of birds that are in the area. If their natural habitat is disturbed, there is a possibility that they may leave,” Maminta raised.

1st District Palawan Rep. Edgardo Salvame, in his comment submitted to the committee, noted that the legislation will actually protect the natural resources in the area.

“The declaration of the protected area of Pag-asa Island Cluster will help ensure its coastal and marine resources are protected from overfishing, large scale ocean filling, reclamation, and safeguarding the remaining coral reefs ecosystem in the area which comprises 34%of the world’s total coral reefs. And is home to over 3,000 species of fish and 600 species of coral reefs,” Salvame wrote.

Salvame further recommended to include the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) to the proposed Pag-asa Island Cluster Ecotourism Governing Board, which Maminta also echoed.

Under the proposed bill, the governing board will be composed of the Governor of Palawan as Chairperson, the First District Representarive as Co-Chairperson, the DENR Regional Executive Director for Region IV-B as Vice Chairperson, the Department of Tourism (DOT) Regional Director for Region IV-B as Co-Vice Chairperson, the Mayor of the Municipality of Kalayaan, the Barangay Chairperson of Pag-asa, the commander of the AFP Western Command, a member of a nongovernment organization whose advocacy is environmental preservation, a member of the academe, a representative of the business sector, and a representative of the private sector.

“This Board shall rationalize all efforts pertaining to environmental protection and making the tourism industry a major source of livelihood for the covered municipaiity and an avenue for employment generation,” the bills explanatory note read.

“This proposed measure also mandates the Pag-asa Island Ecotourism Cluster Governing Board in coordination with the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (TIEZA) to prepare an eco-tourism master plan to ensure the promotion of tourism, the generation of employment and most importantly, the protection and preservation of the area’s environment and ecosystem,” it read further

PCSD Staff Director Levita Lagrada said the proposed bill’s initiatives should be integrated with the Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) framework for Palawan, as stipulated by Republic Act 7611 of the SEP Law.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) further stated that, while preparatory steps for the designation of the island cluster as a protected area are currently underway, several technical prerequisites must yet be completed.

“The DENR through the Environment Management Bureau (EMB) is already working for the establishment of the areas and matter of fact we have already conducted initial protected areas suitability analysis which is a standard step number 1 in the establishment of protected areas and we’ll also like to add that on top of the need to complete this analysis, we further recommend to ascertain the technical description of the proposed area,” said DENR National Parks Director Roneo Vicente

On the tourism side of things, Fe Abling-Yu of the Philippine Tour Operators Association (PhilTOA) welcomed the legislative measure as a chance for the tourism industry to diversify its portfolio; however, she emphasized the importance of imposing a carrying capacity to protect the area from the effects of tourism.

Angara assured that the recommendations will all be considered before elevating the measure to the legislative mill.

Currently, there are two other versions of the proposed bill in the lower house: House Bill 6228 to develop Pag-asa Island as a recreational fishing destination authored by Surigao Del Sur Rep. Johnny Pimentel and House Bill 6373 authored by 3rd District Palawan Rep. Edward Hagedorn proposing to declare the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG), Scarborough Shoal and its surrounding waters as a Marine Protected Area (MPA).

The bill proposes to cluster Pag-asa Island and adjoining Parola, Kota, and Panata islands in Kalayaan as special ecological tourism zone for domestic and international tourists while protecting its natural resources and diverse flora and fauna. The measure also seeks to declare the islands of Parola, Kota and Panata as protected area under the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS).

The measure also proposes mandating the Pag-asa Island Ecotourism Cluster Governing Board in coordination with the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (TIEZA) to prepare an eco-tourism master plan to ensure the promotion of tourism, the generation of employment and most importantly, the protection and preservation of the area’s environment and ecosystem.