Because we are an archipelago, we tend to take our beaches for granted. Fishing communities see the beaches almost as incidental to their greater concern of fish catch. Those living inland see the beaches as recreational areas, but more as a treat, an occasional day trip (for Manileños, Matabungkay), or a summer outing.
It took foreigners to discover the potentials of our beaches. A Dutch friend tells me how, in the 1970s, she and her best friend went beach-hopping from north to south, often finding themselves alone on long stretches of white sand. Yes, one of the areas was Boracay.
Today, she wouldn’t go even if she were paid to, knowing she’d have to make her way through crowds of visitors, many interested more in partying than enjoying what’s left of the beaches.
But besides Boracay, other beaches were being discovered in the 1970s, with tourism booming in Cebu, Bohol, and Batangas—different places for different interests ranging from plain sunbathing to snorkeling and various water sports.
Surfing is fairly recent, starting with Siargao and spreading to other areas. When I visited La Union in December to observe the surfing, older people shook their heads, telling me about how, until recently, they looked at their own beaches as “ugly” because the waves were too high!
Today, as we try to develop our tourist industry, with beaches as a main draw, we might be going for short-term gains that will result in long-term losses, maybe even destroying the very industry we are trying to build.
President Duterte raised the alarm recently, commenting on the state (or nonstate) of waste disposal in Boracay, as usual with not very polite language. But he made his point: Shape up, or else. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources has since announced it would crack down on Panglao in Bohol, and El Nido in Palawan.
We must learn from Thailand, which used its beaches as a main draw for tourists much earlier than we did. Compare its 30 million tourists last year compared with our 6 million, but foreign friends have told me over and over again that we have many more beaches than Thailand, with many of the beaches better in all respects, from sunsets and mountain views to the locals’ hospitality.
Thailand went overboard, with no controls on the tourists. Entire islands became totally dependent on tourism, with a bars-and-beaches economy that wrought havoc. Tourists had a free run of the islands with booze, drugs and sex, making you wonder if maybe the beaches were there just as a backdrop. I visited one of Thailand’s more popular islands, Phuket, about 15 years ago, and vowed never to return to that big tourist trap.
There were many more islands to choose from and I depended on Thai friends to tell me which to avoid. Many of them were worried as well about the destruction, and welcomed, in 2016, the closure—temporary, the government said—of four popular beaches. Last week, the government made an even more earth-shaking announcement: It was closing, from June to September, Maya beach on Koh Phi Phi Leh. (“Koh” is Thai for beach.)
I said “earth-shaking” because Maya was made popular by the movie “The Beach,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The movie boosted tourism for the beach, with some 5,000 visitors per day.
Our own government is mainly concerned now about the waste (as in human waste) that goes into the sea, but there’s much more we should check out. In interviews run in British newspapers, Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a marine scientist at Kasetsart University, names the many problems associated with tourism in Thai beaches. The overcrowding does not concern just people, but also the stuff they need: sun chairs, umbrellas, food stalls, tour boats and the boats’ anchors, all of which can destroy beaches. Thamrongnawasawat says that some 77 percent of coral reefs in Thailand were destroyed by tourism.
Blue carbon and climate change
Last year the Thai government banned smoking on 20 of the more popular beaches. The ban was imposed after a thorough study of the effects of smoking, not on people, but on beaches. When the British newspaper The Guardian featured an article about the ban, some of its smoker-readers wrote in with the usual argument that smoking is a right, and why the fuss over butts that stay on the beach and get buried in the sand.
The problem is that the butts, besides being unsightly, are toxic. The cigarette filters contain toxic chemicals from tobacco like cadmium, lead and arsenic, which can reach the sea and poison the natural food chain.
We need such studies on the effects of different types of human trash (I’m using that phrase with two meanings) on our beaches and what they will do to the coastal ecosystems. Even scientists are not always aware of the many roles of our coastal areas: human habitats, a source of food, protecting communities from destructive typhoons, and what is called blue carbon, the ecosystems “sequestering” carbon from the atmosphere and ocean. We used to think that forests do most of this sequestering, but it turns out the coastal areas capture the carbon much more, mitigating climate change.
Even marine scientists would not advocate a ban of all tourism around beaches and the sea, but we need to be more scientific in looking at how we can better manage these valuable resources. We will need interdisciplinary studies involving people from tourism and both the social and natural sciences.
But I am wary about waiting for more research before acting. We already know what the problems are, and some solutions are fairly simple. Palawan, for example, sets limits on the number of people who can visit the underground river each day. (I note, though, that the DENR is still going to zero in on the degradation of the river.)
We can start campaigns to help educate the tourist industry, the communities, and the tourists on responsible recreational use of our coastal areas. Some problems are obvious, like waste management. Others, we might overlook.
For example, I worry less about Filipinos preying on tourists than on how we go overboard to please them. Some years back I was in Panglao, relaxing in a small beachfront hotel, when I overheard people bludgeoning a dog to death. I went to investigate and found out it was barangay officials doing this, and the reason they gave was that stray dogs would disturb the tourists. I knew I had to play their game and explained that slaughtering dogs would upset Western tourists even more. I reported the matter to a provincial government official, but have not returned since to Panglao.
We already have enough bad press about extrajudicial killings and other horrors. Add postings on social media about an unpleasant beach vacation—from litter to dog slaughter—and you will have many more potential tourists choosing another country with beaches.
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