Bernardo M. Villegas
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Best Island in the World

           Last September 9, 2015, some 200 decision makers from national and local governments, business people, academics and officials of nongovernmental organizations attended the Palawan Investment Forum organized by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Palawan Tourism Council and the University of Asia and the Pacific.  A good number of those present were potential investors, big and small, in what has been proclaimed by Travel Leisure Magazine in 2013 as the World’s Best Island and by Conde Nest Travel in 2014 as the World’s Top Island.  From what I heard from both the speakers and members of the audience. I can truly forecast that within the next decade or so this province that is made up of close to 2,000 islands will rival Bali as the tourism center of Southeast Asia.  Already there are world-famous sites in this group of islands such as El Nido, Amampulo, Puerto Princesa, Coron, Busuanga, and San Vicente.  Ayala Land is developing an exciting project called LiO.  Once the planned infrastructures are built under the leadership of one of the most pro-active and entrepreneurial governors in the country, Jose Ch. Alvarez, Palawan can host anywhere from 3 to 5 million tourists, both domestic and foreign, ten years from now.

          At present, there are some 40 million Filipinos who constitute the bulk of domestic tourism.  At some point or another in time, these forty million and growing at a rate of 6 to 7 percent annually, will all want to discover the beauty of Palawan.  Their demand will lead to an explosion of bed-and-breakfast facilities all over the islands, as can be gleaned already from the mushrooming of B and B’s in Puerto Princesa.  In 2014, there was an estimated one million of domestic and foreign tourists combined.  As I told the audience, my preference is for them to cater to domestic tourists who are the ones who travel with their large families in tow.  These homegrown tourists will usually stay in inexpensive B and B’s that can be run by family entrepreneurs, maximizing the contributions of SMEs to the economy and the creation of employment since the smaller hotels have a much higher labor to capital ratio.  My own experience living in the Mediterranean coasts for a few years is that there is a lot of “moral pollution” that foreign tourism can bring with them.  Families traveling together as tourists make for more wholesome environments.

          Let me quote part of the speech of Governor Alvarez delivered in the Investment Forum:  “I see Palawan as an investment haven for agro-tourism development.  Endowed with natural beauty, rich and highly diverse natural resources, Palawan—with its 1.5 million hectares of land and more than 2,000 kilometers stretch of shorelines—offers enormous opportunities for tourism and agriculture.”  Just on the basis of domestic demand, the two sectors complement one another.  Just imagine 5 million tourists having to be fed in the hotels, restaurants and family homes in Palawan!  There will be a tremendous increase in the demand for high-value fruits, vegetables, and livestock.  Palawan can also enjoy the longest stay of tourists because of the diversity of tourism attractions, e.g. from cultural heritages, to immaculate beaches, to subterranean rivers, to nature’s and animal parks. 

          Again, Governor Alvarez backs up his boasting with hard facts:  “Palawan is home to two UNESCO World Heritage  sites:  1)  The Tubbataha Reefs and Marine Park in Cagayancillo—dubbed as the 8th World Best Dive Sites by CCNgo Travel Website; and 2) Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park—one of  the new Seven Wonders of Nature.  Then there are the Cayangan and Baracuda Lakes, both Hall of Fame Awardees as the cleanest and greenest inland body of water in the country.  For even greater diversity, there are the Calauit Safari Park in Busuanga, Tabon Cave in Quezon dubbed as the “Cradle of Philippine Civilization”, and the Snake Island in El Nido, one of the amazing sand bars in the country.  Journalists have also showered Palawan with superlatives:  the award-winning photo of the Onuk Island in Balabac by George Tapan;  the title conferred by The Daily New Dig  to Linapacan Island as among the “35 cleanest waters in the world to swim in before you die”; and International Science Magazine including Palawan  as “Earth’s fourth most irreplaceable area for endangered species.”  

          Governor Alvarez has a very clear vision:  “Today, there are more than one million tourists visiting Palawan every year.  But I am targeting to hit 3 million visitors in 10 years.  These tourists will spend more than Php200 billion because they will find it easy to move from North to South, East to West in Palawan and will spend on activities and products in the process.  More importantly, Palawan will be linked with the ASEAN as Palawan shifts gears to integrate itself not only with BIMP-EAGA but with the broader ASEAN.  Today, the Palawan stakeholders are moving ahead to take advantage of these opportunities for inclusive and equitable tourism development that will benefit micro, small and medium enterprises that seek greater market access in the ASEAN.  But let me be clear on one thing, while we as a province, are promoting greater trade in tourism and agribusiness, we are likewise waging a battle to protect the environment and fight against human trafficking.  Through the Bantay Palawan Program, we are supporting the government’s National Greening Program.”  With a determined and action-oriented Governor like Jose Ch. Alvarez, I have no doubts that Palawan will retain its moniker as the “Best Island in the World” for many years, even decades, to come.    For comments, email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.