EDITORIAL: Branding the CBSTs of Puerto Princesa

A significant spike in foreign tourist arrivals in Puerto Princesa City has been noted, following the opening of direct flights to South Korea, Taiwan and mainland China. By the city tourism office’s reckoning, the increase was around 35 percent since the new international flight routes opened. These include direct flights to Incheon, South Korea, Changsha and Beijing, and Taipei. An additional flight from Busan, Korea is expected to open this month.

This development bodes well for Palawan’s tourism sector. It also poses a unique challenge  to Puerto Princesa City, which arguably serves mainly as an international gateway to the province’s more popular nature destinations such as El Nido and Coron.

It is still too early to say if the current flow of tourists will be sustained. Tourists come to Palawan for the novelty of the experience, with whatever the province has to offer. With nothing to see, they will simply stop coming and the planes will stop flying.

The current efforts of the city tourism office to develop tourist destinations that are managed by local communities is a significant step in ensuring that tourism, at least in Puerto Princesa City, could remain viable. Dubbed community-based sustainable tourism (CBST), these little projects have sprouted in the last few years within the vicinity of the Underground River.

The CBST’s concept is hugely different from a straightforward tourism business. Central to the CBST framework is the element of community participation and the practice of conservation. Built into it is the enterprise aspect of tourism. In a way, the CBST is both a business model and a resource management strategy. CBSTs are good examples of management tools in protected areas such as the Underground River because they ensure that the communities, as stakeholders of the resource, are engaged and directly benefiting from its conservation.

Puerto Princesa City already has decades of experience with CBSTs to draw lessons from. Some CBST projects such as the current system of ferrying tourists around the islands of Honda Bay are already making generous profits for local communities that are running them. Still, many are on their beginning stages and are faced with the challenge of proving their viability.

As a tourism product, the CBSTs of Puerto Princesa can cater to a niche market. They offer a variant of experiences to tourists different from other, perhaps more picturesque, attractions like El Nido or Coron. This is because CBSTs are really more about how ordinary people live and how they understand and care for their environment.

There had been days when tourists used to complain that after seeing the Underground River, there was nothing more to do in Puerto Princesa City. City-based establishments have seen the trend of visitors skipping the city or spending less time in it and proceed instead to places like El Nido, San Vicente and Coron which arguable offer more places to see.

The CBSTs need all the help they could get to promote their destinations and improve their products. The city government, through its tourism office, has been working on this but there are still gaps by which the private sector can fill in.

Developing the CBSTs of Puerto Princesa is an opportunity to define the brand for the local tourism experience. But perhaps more importantly, it is a sound strategy in maintaining the integrity of the environment. At the end of the day, this is still the most important bottom line.

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