Saving El Nido from degradation

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has officially declared the town of El Nido, easily the current main tourist draw in Palawan, as being at risk because of the negative impact of mass tourism. In a statement released this week, Secretary Roy Cimatu said the town has exceeded its “carrying capacity” or the ability to cushion the impact of its tourism practice on its fragile environment.

Secretary Cimatu’s statement may be wanting in more specifics, including fresh empirical data and scientific measurements to support such a conclusion that has been presented as an official department policy, but there is no denying the fact that the town is getting too much than it can handle. With an annual tourist arrival rate at over 30 percent, El Nido last year played host to a flash mob of 200,000 visitors, to the envy of Puerto Princesa City establishments that had been trying to cope with a declining business in the last few years.

The volume of tourists may not have mattered if El Nido is prepared to cushion and absorb its environmental footprint. It is comparatively way below the tourist arrivals of neighboring destinations such as Thailand and Indonesia (Bali) and even Vietnam which are very much ahead of the Philippines in handling mass tourism. Considering, however, El Nido’s fundamental issues such coastal overcrowding and sewage management, it doesn’t take rocket science to make conclusions as dire as what the DENR said.

Secretary Cimatu has ordered an all-hands-on-deck policy to help El Nido, which is probably a good sign.  But again, it did not come with specifics; only that department personnel were enjoined to assist the municipality in whatever way it can.

To be sure, El Nido officials are trying their darnedest best to address their problems. They have firmed up solutions such as limiting access to the top marine-based destinations including the lagoons of Bacquit Bay. They have also announced plans to formulate their comprehensive land use plan as a long-term solution. They have banned plastics and are promoting electric bikes —  among others.

It will be hard to know whether current efforts, assuming they are properly being implemented, are sufficient to reverse the trend of degradation confronting the town. Proper planning always requires an accurate set of information to inform a robust analysis of the problem and to help define appropriate solutions. The matter of having reached a “carrying capacity” suggests a sense of urgency requiring a more radical solution to be in place.

Political will is an important factor necessary to produce meaningful changes in the El Nido landscape, a virtue that is hard to impose by regular means such as legislation and policy. If El Nido needs a triage as a solution, a radical intervention along the lines of retreating from its current tourism strategies, the huge question that lies ahead is whether there can be a political leadership to back it up.

An honest and comprehensive assessment of the damage done by tourism to El Nido is a necessity that hopefully, the DENR position has pushed to the top of the local agenda. Based on this, a more determined set of actions can and must be undertaken, if we are to save one of Palawan’s most enthralling natural wonders.

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