The islands of Lawak, Likas, Patag, and Pag-asa in Kalayaan town, West Philippine Sea, will be offered in the tourism product dubbed "The Great Kalayaan Experience." | Photos from Naval Forces West

Kalayaan is taking bold steps to open some island features in the contested West Philippine Sea to tourists to transform the municipality into the “center of adventure tourism by the year 2040”, which it believes will drive its economic growth.

On February 18, a group of 40 individuals, including travel agency representatives and prominent social media influencers, will sail to the municipality for a familiarization tour dubbed “The Great Kalayaan Experience” that is expected to kickstart the municipality’s efforts to become another tourist hub in the province and the country.

The intent is not only to be in the news “for all the negative reasons” due to the protracted dispute between China and the Philippines but also to explore opportunities that could have a beneficial effect on the economy of their geographically isolated town, Kalayaan tourism officer Khenjap Hupanda told Palawan News on Friday.

“Ang Kalayaan wants to make sure na it will progress like a normal local government unit (LGU)—we are special in the fact that we are geographically-isolated, but that doesn’t mean na hindi kami magpa-function as a normal LGU. We should have a growing economy,” he said.

“We are committed to work para ma-achieve yong vision namin kasi ayaw namin na nagiging parang laman lang kami ng balita for all the negative reasons. Hindi naman sa pagmamayabang, but we have all the features para magkaroon ng magandang balita—we will invest on that,” Hupanda added.

Fine-tuning tourism product
The live-aboard journey, which they hope will introduce their tourism product, will depart from the port of Puerto Princesa and sail to Kalayaan, where it will go around the Philippine-held islands of Lawak, Patag, Likas, and Pag-asa for a week.

Lawak is included in the tour package because it is a protected area for some bird species, Likas is a sanctuary for sea turtles that lay eggs on its sandy shores year-round, Patag is devoid of vegetation but is known as an island that shifts its form seasonally, and Pag-asa is the seat of government of Kalayaan and has an airstrip that can accommodate light aircraft.

“Ang attraction talaga is it is isolated, wala pang masyadong nakakapunta, and we never know kung anong meron sa ilalim ng dagat, there’s a lot of things to be discovered. I think this is the best feature of our product—yong meron pa siyang sense of mystery,” he said.

At each stop, he said, the group will engage in activities such as scuba diving, fishing, kayaking, snorkeling, coastal cleanup, tree planting, communing with island residents of Pag-asa, and other fun activities.

After the familiarization tour, Kalayaan will launch their tourism expedition product package worth P85,000-P100,000 per person in March. Hupanda said it will only be offered every year for three months—March, April, and May—due to weather considerations.

“Ang expedition package ay nasa final stage ng product development, kasama dyan ang familiarization tour na mangyayari sa February,” Hupanda said, explaining that it will be joined by the technical working group that will include government and non-government tourism stakeholders and the military to evaluate how it will go.

He said tourists are willing to pay the premium as they want to be the first to explore and see what Kalayaan’s “treasures” are all about.

March travel already fully-booked
Hupanda said their March maiden offering is already fully-booked after making a successful pre-selling activity last year in the Philippine Travel Mart at the SMX Convention Center in Manila.

“Nag pre-selling na kami last year—doon namin unang nalabas yong package kaya napuno na ang March. Ang binebenta na namin, actually, ay yong pang next year na,” he said.

“20 persons lang per trip, tapos ang design ng tour ay reverse tour, parang—kasi ang one way nito ay expedition, and the other way is via air. Ang susundo na eroplano sa nag-jump off dito sa Puerto Princesa na boat, pagdating po sa Pag-asa, may dala ulit na 20 pax,” he added.

There will be room for only 40 travelers to participate in the journey each month, which totals 120 over the course of the three months that the tour package will be available for purchase.

Hupanda said that after two or three trips, and when regular trips begin, the product premium might increase and be reintroduced in the travel market.

Security concerns
Recently, the West Philippine Sea (WPS) has been in the news once again due to an incident in which Filipino fishermen were forced to leave Ayungin Shoal while being harassed and closely followed by a China Coast Guard vessel.

Hupanda stated that the Kalayaan LGU is “very aware” of not only these events but also others that have occurred in the past. However, because they have residents who depend on the municipal government for services, they cannot allow their economic activities to be halted.

The security of the tourists, he explained, will be taken care of by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) through the Western Command (WESCOM) and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG).

A contingency from the WESCOM’s Area Task Force-West will join the tour for the purpose, he added.

He stated that the flagship tourism program of Mayor Roberto del Mundo’s administration cannot be derailed due to excessive fear of what is occurring as a result of competing claims between the country and China.

“Ang mandato ng local government is to develop sustainable communities. Isa doon sa importanteng aspect is economic development. Alam naman natin na ang turismo ay nagdadala ng maraming economic benefits sa isang lugar. Napatunayan na yan sa maraming lugar dito sa Palawan,” he said.

“We are closely coordinating with them sa development ng tourism product. In fact, isa po talaga sila sa directly involve sa project na ito. Hindi pababayaan yong area na yan of the project. Isa siya sa pinaka priority, una muna naming tiningnan siya kung papaano ang security concerns doon, bago namin inilatag yong ibang aspeto ng programa kaya covered po yan,” Hupanda assured.