According to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, the Philippines is one of the world’s 18 mega-biodiverse countries, with 2/3 of the earth’s biodiversity and around 80% of the world’s plant and animal species. Species endemism is also very high, home to, at least, 25 genera of plants and 49% of terrestrial wildlife.
But what lies ahead in these valuable resources as the country braves the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic? This was the topic of a webinar held last May 28, an online discussion initiative by Masungi Georeserve Foundation, Visita and Eco Explorations.
“For ecotourism, the new normal is actually the old normal. We have always been dealing with small numbers in remote areas where risk is very low. Except now we have to incorporate hygiene standards and other health aspects. Ecotourism is also much safer than any other forms of tourism,” said Australia-based Tony Charters, an international consultant and vice-chair of Global Ecotourism Network.
John Roberts, group director of sustainability for Minor Hotels, which operates around 500 properties worldwide, concurs with Charters.
“Hotels and other operations are going to look at what we do on the ecotourism side – how to make money on few people, manage smaller groups, using smaller space,” he said.
According to Roberts, the ecotourism sector already has a head start.
” We should be coming back quicker than mass tourism. Like, camping is a good idea since you’re practically bringing your own room. As long as you follow carrying capacity guidelines and you’re not harming the environment,” he expounded.
For Boboi Costas, founder of Grassroots Travel, he is hoping the government will do its share in helping this highly affected sector.
“Perhaps, the government can review taxes and distribute the funds that DENR has collected from user and environmental fees to the key biodiversity protected areas, and maybe give rebates on the said fees,” said the former provincial tourism officer of Cebu.
He also wanted that training be provided to local communities, to empower them digitally.
“Local communities must innovate – use technology and embrace digital transformation boldly and with confidence. They must be trained in sustainability, digital marketing and in using productivity tools,” he added.
Costas also shared that tourism is the most resilient sector in the economy. Looking at the past crises, tourism has proven to have the capacity to bounce back and even help drive the recovery of other sectors.
He cited how worldwide arrivals returned five months after the 9/11 attacks, how travel confidence was back five months after the SARS outbreak in 2003, and how the industry recovered 10 months after the global economic crisis in 2009.
“It’s just a matter of time as long as there are coordinated and responsible efforts among the players in the tourism value chain,” Costas said.
In the absence of foreign visitors, Roberts said that “we must not forget that we have domestic tourism”.
“You might not be allowed to travel internationally just yet but now is the time to start talking and promote your destination,” he suggested.
Roberts recommended “going to communities and talking about their products day in and day out.”
“Build an audience, and it will come naturally. When people are able to travel, they might want to see what you have been talking about and what they’ve been seeing on the internet,” he said.
Charters also encourage ecotourism communities to always keep their products in the consciousness of the market.
“The rehabilitation of Boracay was a high profile story back then, keep such projects at the forefront. Highlight that the Philippines is doing things in sustainable ways,” he said.
He also recommended to replicate best practices in different areas, and to “build on people and their friendliness,” which worked successfully in other parts of Southeast Asia, and to find ways to get the message across on social media.
Being the most ecologically diverse country on a per hectare basis, the Philippines has a greater chance of pushing for ecotourism even in times of crisis.
“Philippine ecotourism will take great leaps of faith. We have hospitable and happy people who are proud of their heritage. I think that’s a good way to start”, he quipped.