The perils of overtourism

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Ambulant vendors converse while on a break from selling hats and other stuff to local and foreign tourists enjoying the white sand at the famous Boracay Island. -- PHILIPPINE STAR_MIGUEL DE GUZMAN

By Mark Louis F. Ferrolino
Special Features Writer

The Philippines, which boasts of a colorful history and culture, rich biodiversity and stunning attractions, has continued to become one of the top tourist destinations around the world, recording up to 6.6 million of foreign tourist arrivals in 2017, according to the Department of Tourism (DoT).

Although the flourishing tourism sector may be good for the economy — opening employment opportunities for many Filipinos — the massive influx of tourists, on the other hand, has been resulting to negative consequences. There are certain destinations in the country that have become a victim of overdevelopment and overcrowding that lead to the destruction of the environment and deterioration of local residents’ quality of life.

Boracay and Baguio, for a long time, have been the face of Philippine tourism. These two destinations have captured many tourists with its alluring beauty and exceptional culture. As the number of visitors increases, more establishments were put up, infrastructure projects were rolled out, and expansion of commercial spaces took place. These, in no doubt, encourage more tourists to visit these destinations, up to the point where these places became too crowded.

“I think it became an issue because of the failure of the local government units (LGUs) to enforce the prescribed environmental, ecological laws. A lot of the problems being experienced now in the overcrowding is due to the non-implementation of the law,” DoT Assistant Secretary Frederick M. Alegre told BusinessWorld in a phone interview.

Mr. Alegre noted that when tourists observe the existing laws are not properly implemented by the authority, there’s a tendency for it to be abused or overlooked by them.

Ten years ago, Baguio was a peaceful and slow-moving city. One of Baguio’s local residents, Janikka C. Tabbada, told BusinessWorld, in an online message, that back then, they could still go out [in their streets] during peak season without worrying about the traffic, safety and overcrowding.

“Parks were more beautiful back then… There were few cases of crimes, so residents rarely worry about getting their phones or any valuables being snatched. There were less businesses that catered to tourists, less cafes, restaurants and shops. There were less people of course, but Baguio people then were generally simple, courteous and calm,” Ms. Tabbada said when asked about how’s Baguio City 10 years ago.

She added that the tourism of Baguio during that time started to boom, yet it did not affect the lifestyle of the residents. Today, she said it’s different — pollution and traffic in the city become worse, and residents are now worried about going to work and school as they may be caught in traffic.

Boracay has been facing the same fate. Decades ago, the island was a quiet, subdued and lovely paradise, accommodating number of tourists that is just ideal to its carrying capacity.

Recently, the world-renowned island made headlines when President Rodrigo R. Duterte threatened to shut down Boracay due to violation of environmental law. The problem has been a long time issue, according to Nenette A. Graf, owner of the Boracay Beach Resort and president of the island’s biggest business organization Boracay Foundation Incorporated (BFI). She shared that the island is facing the same problems on sewerage system and solid waste even before.

“We welcome our President Duterte’s order to DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) of six months deadline to fix Boracay. We’ve been waiting for this attention from the government for more than 10 years now,” Ms. Graf said in an online message.

Ms. Graf said that currently, Boracay has “horrendous traffic, more vehicles, taller hotels, less coconuts and greens.” She added, “Forests are now converted into hotels to accommodate more visitors.”

Destruction in environment, culture and quality of life in Baguio and Boracay, caused by overcrowding and non-compliance of environmental laws are not just exclusive to these destinations. They are just a representation of other tourist destinations in the country being overused and abused.

The national government through the office of the DoT are looking for ways to resolve these issues. Mr. Alegre said they are working closely with the LGUs, local stakeholders and other government agencies to ensure the sustainability of tourist destinations in the country, especially in Baguio and Boracay.

While they are still on the process of resolving the issue, the LGUs, on the other hand, have to play their role, he said. “The LGU has to be able to react, has to be able to redirect traffic. It must be able to regulate hotels and facilities, it must be able to enforce the law that disallows construction in areas that are not prescribed. And this again is a concern the LGU must step up and help us achieve a balance between the tourist and development of areas like Baguio.”

“The Philippines has a long coastline, which is in Mindanao, in the Visayas and Luzon. If we are able to promote these aggressively — the other alternative destinations — then we’re also able to decongest the (overcrowded) destinations,” Mr. Alegre added.