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Travel, tourism, and missteps in between

I grew up in Camiguin, a small island in Northern Mindanao fairly known as a tourist destination. The whole island is rife with attractions: beaches, waterfalls, diving spots, historic churches—you name it. Year after year, locals watch as visitors flock and go, as tourism earnings swell with the crowds, and as the island is changed bit by bit with each peak season. In fact, this time of year, the local community braces itself for the annual surge of summer travelers as well as the litter, the “I was here” graffiti, and the money that comes with it.

Camiguin and other provinces in the Philippines have to continually strike a balance between tourism and preservation. And every year, this proves to be a challenge, especially as tourists become less interested in experience and immersion, and more in “Instagrammable” snapshots.

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There was a time, for example, when Filipino coastal communities welcomed with open arms every snorkeler and scuba diver that explored our seas. But in 2014, the discovery of coral vandalism off the coast of Lapu-Lapu City raised alarms. Several corals were found with chemically etched graffiti—an act that was practically unheard of among locals before. Local and national officials had to step in to enforce more measures protecting marine habitats in the area.

The pitfalls of tourism are not always as drastic. Sometimes, they occur in subtle ways that take time—ways that tourists and even local guides may fail to consider. In the town of Oslob in Cebu, whale shark ecotourism has enormously contributed to the local economy and provided livelihoods to fisherfolk who found lucrative niches as whale shark guides. But the flourishing industry has drawn flak as studies found that it has a negative impact on the marine creatures.

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As part of whale shark watching and swimming tours, boatmen in Oslob feed the whale sharks with small shrimps to lure them to shallow waters. This practice, according to studies from various groups, alters the behavior of the animals: It not only changes their feeding patterns but also leads them to swim too closely to the boats. In recent years, some whale sharks in the area have been found to have propeller scars around their mouths, apparently because of incidents of bumping into the vessels.

Drastic or subtle, such unwelcome impacts of tourism are becoming more and more apparent throughout the country, from the congested roads of Baguio to the diminishing ecosystems of Boracay to the littered hiking trails of Davao.

There has to be a shift in how we see and approach tourism. So far, we have focused heavily on drawing in more tourists to our provinces and islands, spending so much time and money on slogans, logos, and advertisements. But it is clear that along with our vigorous tourism campaigns, there have to be stronger efforts on environmental conservation, historic preservation, and tourist management.

Our natural resources and heritage sites are worth protecting not only because they attract sightseers and money, but more because they are integral to our environment, culture, and life at large as inhabitants of this blessed country. The protection of our natural and cultural gems should be of higher priority than milking them for income.

And while that is an appeal for our local governments, it is a call for travelers and tourists as well: See our beautiful country with wide, wandering eyes, but leave each place as it was—or better than—before your visit. Traveling is not merely tramping about for the next Insta-worthy spot; instead, it is a broadening of horizons, an immersion in wonders that have been as they are for years and years, constant and sublime, enough to carve a change in you and not the other way around.

So as the tourist season peaks again this year, the most important travel tip just might be to be mindful of the sites we set foot on. In addition, skip bringing plastic forks: Seaside picnic food tastes better when eaten with bare hands. Take it from a local.

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TAGS: beaches, camiguin, diving spots, Northern Mindanao, Tourism, tourist destination, travel, waterfalls
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