An online image search of the words “El Nido” produces pages upon pages of island paradise photos: crystal clear blue water, beautifully strange limestone formations, and thriving biodiversity evoke the sense that this region is one of pristine nature undisturbed by human activity. It was with these images in mind that I took off for El Nido seven weeks ago, and as such was surprised upon arrival to find a bustling town teeming with the issues of rapid, unplanned urbanization.
In the past fifteen years, tourism has increasingly gained attention for its potential as a tool for development. Indeed, the backward and forward linkages of the industry— particularly in terms of infrastructure and demand for services—could work wonders for a local economy. With 2017 as the “International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development”, and specifically cited in three of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, tourism is the shiny new thing in development, and as a student of the field, I took this internship because I wanted a closer look.
Living in El Nido for just under two months now has revealed what happens when the glimmering possibilities of tourism collide with the many interests and incentives of industry stakeholders. As evidenced by the many construction projects taking place in El Nido town, tourism and its affiliated services have undeniably raised incomes and opened up opportunities for residents of El Nido. With tourist arrivals reaching more than 123,000 last year, however, the mad rush to get ‘a piece of the pie’ has also catalyzed issues of overcrowding, improper waste management, and poor drainage systems. Easily spotted along the coastline of Bacuit Bay are hotel and restaurant sewage lines emptying directly into the ocean, yet the demand for these establishments is so high that it outweighs any local authority’s willingness to enforce compliance with proper sewage disposal guidelines. Is it possible that there is too much tourism in El Nido? While most residents would answer that the benefits of tourism outweigh its detriments, the challenge posed by the current state of affairs in El Nido is how to curb the effects of those detriments in such way that they don’t destroy the very thing that defines El Nido as a destination—its stunning natural environment. In other words, how do we build a sustainable tourism industry in El Nido?
In the past few weeks, the Fellows have spent many hours in focus group discussions and informal interviews with tourism stakeholders in El Nido around this very question. While feelings about the problems and obstacles are varied, the general theme throughout all of our discussions has been centered on the issue of accountability to the roles and responsibilities each stakeholder has in building a healthy tourism industry. For tour boat operators, this means not dropping anchors on corals and having proper waste bins on boat to prevent trash falling in the ocean during island hopping. For accommodation and restaurant owners, this means responsibly sourcing their materials, and complying with the municipal environmental protection policies. For the local government, this means enforcing those policies, and following through on the infrastructure plans they have set for El Nido.
With only ten days left until our Sustainable Tourism Forum, the Fellows are working hard every day to ensure that this event brings together all of these stakeholders in an honest, action oriented discussion about how all parties can do more to protect the raison d’être of El Nido’s tourism industry. Aptly named Usapang Turismo, or “A Conversation on Tourism,” we hope this forum will initiate a sustained dialogue between industry stakeholders, and raise both personal and cross-sectoral accountability for all actors involved. El Nido is still one of the most beautiful places on Earth— if we play our cards right, it can stay that way for both locals and tourists for many years to come.
Nadia Ilunga is a Masters Candidate in the Global Human Development program at Georgetown University. Following the completion of her Bachelor’s Degree at The College of William and Mary, Nadia began work in program management with HEAL Africa, an NGO based in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The challenges and opportunities of this experience spurred her interest in sustainable, private sector approaches to development, which now serves as the focus of her graduate studies. At Georgetown, Nadia is a fellow in the Global Social Enterprise and Development program, and serves as the Vice-President of the Georgetown Africa Forum. Nadia is excited to learn about tourism as a vehicle for economic growth during her summer with El Nido Resorts, and looks forward to applying the lessons learned to other regions with high tourism potential.