PCG vessels in the West Philippine Sea. | Photo by Kalayaan information officer Ariel Carlos

[Updated] The municipality of Kalayaan has downplayed the continued presence of Chinese vessels in the contested West Philippine Sea in its bid to develop its tourism industry.

The presence of the China Coast Guard (CCG) in the area was described as “not very concerning” by the town’s tourism official.

Kalayaan’s local administration is pushing adventure tourism to boost the local economy and elevate the municipality from fifth to fourth class. The Kalayaan Islands Tourism Agents Cooperative recently hosted “The Great Kalayaan Expedition”, which brought 32 individuals to the islands of Lawak, Patag, Likas, and Pag-asa.

Ken Hupanda, tourism officer of Kalayaan, said the trip will not happen if the local government does not believe in its potential to boost its tourism industry.

Kalayaan Mayor Roberto del Mundo hits the gong to formally launch the series of expeditions that will take place in the island town to help improve its tourist industry.

“Sa audience, it looks like a very risky thing pero sa amin na working inside, especially sa mga tao na nakapunta talaga sa mismong expedition. They would say that the security threat that we are actually most concerned about is really not very concerning,” he said.

The expedition left the port of Puerto Princesa on March 16 on the BRP Melchora Aquino and returned to Buliluyan on March 21 aboard the BRP Malapascua.

Hupanda says that the most memorable part of the trip was proving that the Kalayaan islands are tourist destinations and seeing the abundant wildlife, particularly on Lawak Island. Due to its vulnerable avian inhabitants and potential as a green sea turtle nesting location, a sizeable piece of Lawak has been classified as a protected area.

He claimed that, while they noticed a CCG vessel tailing and shadowing the BRP Malapascua around Ayungin Shoal, he did not consider it a security concern. The local government is positioning its aim for adventure tourism on the belief that there is a possibility that the CCG “doesn’t really have plans to instigate fear.”

“Baka nandoon lang sila sailing over tapos mapuputol ang aming dreams and hopes for our municipality because of that negative possibility, that would be very tragic,” Hupanda said.

CCG shadowing BRP Malapascua
Hupanda said that the CCG followed the expedition vessel BRP Malapascua of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) for 30 minutes as it returned to Puerto Princesa on March 21.

He added that the participants to the expedition already knew that the Ayungin Shoal is tightly patrolled by the CCG, thus they were neither surprised nor intimidated.

The Kalayaan expedition members aboard the PCG’s BRP Melchora Aquino shortly before their March 16 departure for Kalayaan. | Photo from the PCG

“We’ve been followed by the Coast Guard for a good 30 minutes during the trip. Pero wala naman kaming na-experience na feeling namin it’s going to be a security threat. Para sa akin it is not really a security threat, from the onlookers point of view, maybe it’s a big concern but for us that’s actually a minor concern,” he said.

“We saw them and we can see they are following us. But sabi ko nga, it’s really a normal thing pagdating doon. Hindi talaga natin maiiwasan, because we are sharing the same sea—I think it’s a normal case now,” he added.

He also assumed that the PCG vessel BRP Melchora Aquino skirted Ayungin Shoal on its route to Pag-asa Island on March 16, altering their predicted arrival time.

Tourism as “soft protest”
According to Hupanda, the fact that they have chosen to grow their tourist industry is evidence that the WPS is a territory that belongs to the Philippines.

Tensions between the Philippines and China have risen anew in recent months as a result of the CCG’s military-grade laser assault on the BRP Malapascua and Chinese maritime militia vessels (CMMVs) swarming in various locations near Pag-asa Island and Ayungin Shoal.

After a lengthy break, a gray ship from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was also sighted again patrolling the WPS with the CCG.

Bird watching on Lawak Island. | Photo from PCG

“I would say na ang possibility is masasanay tayo—we have chosen tourism as means of soft diplomatic proof that we are claiming what is right and ours. But tourism is a very good avenue kung saan ay hindi siya aggressive of claiming the islands. It’s more realistic to say that it is going to be a usual thing pagdating ng araw,” he said.

Aside from boosting its tourism industry, he said it is also the local government’s way to claim the islands less aggressively. The presence of CCG will also be included in the briefing before the conduct of the next expeditions.

Absence of amenities
The local administration feels that selecting adventure as a tourist product will not necessitate them to provide the necessary infrastructure to operate the industry.

“Pagdating kasi sa expedition package, your customers do not really expect to have hotels, restaurants in the destination kasi lahat ng amenities na ito ay will be provided inside the expedition vessel,” he said.

Yet, participants who talked to Palawan News on the condition of anonymity stated that Pag-asa Island where they spent a night need to have sleeping facilities and restrooms if it’s not going to be live aboard.

Kalayaan needs these facilities to provide some comfort for visitors if it is serious about developing its tourism sector.

Kalayaan expedition
The recent expedition gave the realization that it is possible and promising for the Kalayaan government, Hupanda said.

The local government of Kalayaan and the provincial government launched the Kalayaan expedition on March 22, expecting two new trips this year.

Among the 32 participants of the first expedition were award-winning photographer George Tapan and broadcast journalist Raffy Tima. Traveler Marco Puzon also completed his 1,634th trip in cities and towns by joining the expedition.

These Kalayaan expedition participants proudly show off their fish catch. | Photo from PCG

It also launched its first Pista ng Karagatang Kanluran, where its first Kalayaan March was sung in public. The first expedition could be perceived as life-changing and eye-opener to the guests to a lot of things about the West Philippine Sea, Hupanda said.

Beltsazar Alindogan, vice mayor of Kalayaan, foresees a prosperous, equitable future for the municipality that includes a specific zone for marine, fisheries, and tourism.

The local government is in talks with the six operators of vessels used for Tubbataha tours, who will also cater the next trips slated for April 29 and May with no firm date yet.

The tourism office agrees that the expedition’s fee of P120,000 per head is costly for the general tourist market. Kalayaan indicated the need for its own vessel in order to cut the rate by at least half of the introductory price and entice locals to visit the island community.

He emphasized, however, that this may not be doable over the next three to four fiscal years because a vessel may cost P100 million.

“Kailangan talaga namin ng sarili namin vessel dahil ang pinakamalaking challenge sa amin is that we are selling the package for quite a hefty amount as introductory rate kasi wala kaming sariling vessel,” he said.

“We will charter vessel na same din sa nagbibiyahe sa Tubbataha. Tubbataha is already established, kami bago pa lang sa market and we have to compete with them pagdating sa pag-charter ng mga vessel,” he added.

*** EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated at 10:14 p.m., March 24, to correct the caption of the banner photo. The photograph depicts two MRRVs of the Philippine Coast Guard and does not reflect a near encounter with a CCG vessel.