There’s an incredible chain of tropical islands in the Pacific that is sprinkled with pink, white and black sand beaches, ultra-relaxing luxury resorts, charming countrysides and villages, exotic foods and an enticing nightlife. READ FULL STORY
By Ana Maria Lykes
THERE was once was a fair maiden who lived on the edge of Panay Island. She was so pure that sea creatures fearlessly sunbathed on her bosom. Her eyes were so pristinely blue that mystical fishes swam in them. Then came enterprisers and explorers, plundering her bounty and beauty. More and more of them came, crowding her and driving away the wondrous creatures. Her sighs are drowned out by loud chatter and merriment.
Will we ever hear Boracay’s song again?
“She’s sinking,” laments a local as bikini bunnies with henna tattoos and hair braids chitter past. These women aren’t the only ones overwhelming Boracay. Last year over 1.36 million tourists have trampled her white sands, leaving trash and destruction. Then there’s the mushrooming of establishments pushing too close to her shores. McDonald’s and Starbucks sit as shamelessly as the scantily-clad sunbathers on the beach. Construction is limited with a 25-meter setback, but many structures are sitting happily by the water.
“If more and more establishments are put up here, there will be no more open spaces left. We will lose Boracay,” airs Glenn Sacapaño to the Philippine Daily Inquirer. The Task Force Redevelopment head and Island Administrator complains about the fast-paced and almost mindless development. The continuous expansion in Boracay doesn’t follow any urban planning and now narrow roadways and lack of parking are also troubling the island.
Overdevelopment is not the only thing that the island is facing. The country’s pride is postcard pretty, but what many do not see is the dirt that she hides. Boracay is overcome by trash and flooding. According to reports, the sewage system is constantly clogged and even on some sunny days, the poorly built roadways are flooded. On the seafloor, irresponsible fishermen and thoughtless tourists leave a boneyard of coral reef stumps at their wake.
And while many marvel at her skirt of gloriously white sands, they are unaware that she is quickly eroding due to climate change, reckless constructions, and irresponsible tourism. The erosion is so severe in certain parts of the island that sewage pipes have been exposed.
Eventually this can lead to even more serious problems as leakage can gravely contaminate the island’s water. Acute gastroenteritis is already becoming one of the leading illnesses of Boracay due to water contamination.
She mourns her denuded shoreline, cleared of her beloved coconut and palm trees. Overhead, fruit bats are skittering nervously, facing extinction due to the frenzied noise from the nonstop parties and construction.
Amidst all the noise, there are a handful who hears her call. Reaching out a helping hand, the President had mandated a redevelopment plan for the island. The Presidential Task Force, composed of representatives from the Department of Tourism, Department of Justice, Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, and Department of Interior and Local Government, in cooperation with the local government unit of Malay town and the Department of Public Works and Highways, is enforcing the demolition of illegal structures that do not comply within the 30-meter easement regulation or do not have Environmental Certificates of Compliance. About 300 illegal structures, including seawalls and embankments, are expected to be closed down and demolished.
The program does not seek to shut down the thriving tourism completely and has reassigned areas for business. Over 123 hectares have been allocated to new investors, spreading the concentration of commercial zones to other areas. A comprehensive land use plan was designed to accommodate at least 2 million more visitors by 2018. New ports and roads will be constructed with the help of the Philippine Tourism Authority and a PhP200-million investment. Manila Water is also working to improve the water and sewerage system.
Aside from government efforts, private organizations are also pitching in. The Sangkalikasan cooperative launched the Code Blue project to revive the island’s coral reef system by planting 5,000 “reefbuds” on Boracay’s ocean floor. Code Blue is said to be the most extensive artificial reef project in the Philippines so far.
This year the non-profit organization Boracay Foundation Inc. launched the Coral Reefurbishment Project to protect and restore coral reefs. It has also launched a mangrove rehabilitation program through massive tree planting. Mangroves help prevent erosion and improve water quality by filtering sediments. The non-profit organization is involved in many programs including environmental forums and regular beach clean ups in their mission to preserve and restore their beloved paradise.
Mangroves grow extremely slow, and it will take years for the coral reef to recover, but even then, Boracay can never go back to its former glory. Back when, according to many wistful locals and the few nostalgic purists who had the privilege of walking on her then uncorrupted shores, there were only a handful of cottages that stood on the beach, illuminated by gas lamps and a thousand stars. This was back in the ‘70s and ‘80s when beautifully dark- skinned Atis, the first settlers in the island, played on her sands truly white as snow.
It was in the 1800s when Aklan locals Lamberto Tirol and Sofia Gonzales discovered the island and cultivated her with coconut trees, tobacco, and marijuana. But the marijuana was for medicinal purposes. Back then the intoxication was to be had from her untainted beauty.
In the ‘70s, Hollywood set foot on the island, shooting Too Late the Hero and opening the doors for foreigners. Before that Boracay was a backpacker’s best guarded secret. Jens Peter, a German writer, also wrote a book introducing the virgin to the world as the most beautiful island in Asia. Before long, people were coming in droves to feast on her.
But just like scarred women, she is beautiful and remains to be one of the world’s most admired jewel. The New York Times may have called her “a tropical convenience store fully stocked with jet skis, resort pools and hangovers”, but many are willing to overlook that because she still maintains corners and curves that allow her children to bask in the blessings of the sun in peace.
She continues to be hailed as one of the most romantic islands in the world and one of the top islands by Travel + Leisure. Not surprisingly, she is also part of the magazine’s top 10 party beaches. Trip Advisor and other travel authorities constantly praise her. But all that acclaim means nothing to her. When the blaring music continues till dawn and the sun paints a rosiness on her horizon, she endures to sing her haunting pleas that only a few could hear.
Three beaches in the Philippines landed on CNN’s “100 Best Beaches” list. These are Palaui Island in Cagayan Valley (No. 10), El Nido in Palawan (No. 14) and Puka Beach in Boracay (No. 84). CNN cites Palaui’s “raw beauty’, calls El Nido “the gateway to adventure”, and bills Boracay “a tropical paradise”. READ FULL STORY
By Ana Maria Villanueva-Lykes
I once met a vagabond from Belgium who went from one country to the other, hawking her exquisitely handmade jewelry. Her dirty hair was tied up to reveal a pretty sunburned face, the face that looked like it had seen many places. But my assumption was quickly challenged with her straightforward question. “Where is that?” she asked when I told her where I’m from. “The Philippines. In Southeast Asia,” I said again, thinking she didn’t hear me clearly. She replied with a puzzled look. To save us both from embarrassment, I said, “It’s close to Thailand,” and moved on.
Unfortunately for the Philippines, this is not a singular incident. For some reason, our country remains as several tiny dots in the tourism map. Those who wish to explore Southeast Asia would quickly pin Thailand for the beaches, Indonesia for the culture in Bali, and Hong Kong for the shopping. As a country of over 7,000 islands, we have more than just beaches, culture, and shopping to offer. The Pearl of the Orient Seas has a treasure chest of gems overflowing, stunning or maybe even more brilliant than the finely cut jewels of our neighbors. A UK travel website claims the Philippines as “Asia’s undiscovered gem.” Yet we remain dulled like an unpolished precious stone.
On one hand, this can be an advantage, especially to travelers who prefer places that are not as heavily choked with sightseers. Many backpackers tout the Philippines as uncharted territory, their legendary hideout, and they’d like to keep it secret, the way The Beach in the novel of the same title was said to be. Ironically, it is said that the beach, which Alex Garland wrote about in his novel supposedly set in Thailand, was actually inspired by the beaches of Palawan.
We can’t blame Garland for keeping Palawan as his secret paradise. Neither can we hold territorial travelers culpable for the fact that we have yet to reach our tourism potential in spite of what we have to offer. According to the UN World Tourism Organization, the Philippines’ share of the whole Asia and the Pacific region was at 1.7% in terms of international arrivals in 2008.
It’s easy to blame the government for our country’s every failure. So let us point accusing fingers at them for a moment, drawing light on the fact that there is not enough effort to make tourism a national policy priority. We can also hold our leaders responsible for not creating enough incentives for foreign investors. According to former Economic Planning Secretary Gerardo Sicat, we are making progress in terms of tourism, but still lagging.
Poor infrastructure is one of the major reasons why we are still behind our Southeast Asian neighbors and not in tourism alone. The Department of Tourism is making waves with different advertising promotions, especially with the recent “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” campaign, but if we are to invite visitors over, we need to make our place more accessible and give our guests a pleasant stay with more world class establishments for high flyers and more budget friendly accommodations for backpackers.
But many regulations hinder the entry of big foreign hotel investors. “A major impediment here has been the constitutional provision against land ownership and the equity restrictions pertaining to land in corporations. Associated businesses tied up to these provisions have impeded a vibrant growth of the tourist sector over the years,” explains Sicat. Next door, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Indonesia are enjoying a steady influx of travelers because their laws are more accommodating to foreign investors in the tourism sector.
We could write an entire paper on the government’s failures to boost the country’s tourism, but while we’re pointing fingers, we need to remember that we too are responsible for promoting our country and welcoming guests. And those of us abroad are also ambassadors of our nation. We are after all the face of the Philippines, but somehow we have blurred our cultural identity. It is not that we have little pride for our motherland, but because we have become so adaptable, we have weakened our identity as Filipinos. In the U.S. for instance, we have become so Americanized that to foreign eyes we are no longer so different and thus less interesting. Our capability to quickly adjust to our situation – perhaps based on our long history of oppression and poverty – has led us to blend in with our surroundings and have become one of them – Americans, Canadians, Europeans, etc.
Even our children no longer speak the native tongue. Not only has the tongue become more fluent with the English language, it has also become more inclined to international cuisine. Our palates have quickly learned to adjust. If the Chinese crave for dumplings, they don’t just make it, they build their own restaurant which eventually grows into a town. Where in the world can you find a Filipino Town? If a Pinoy craves for lechon, they quiet the hankering with a slice of pork roast.
We have also become overcritical of our country’s flaws. When we welcome guests into our home, there is always a little bit of that hiya involved. A plate of pansit is almost always served with “pasensya ka na sa handa namin” on the side. Abroad, this can be translated to “you’ll love it, but beware of the potholes and the pollution.”
One journalist even went as far as asking if we should even consider promoting at this point when our major cities are dirty and littered with beggars everywhere. Returning to our homeland, we are quick to compare and criticize. “The traffic is horrendous. Why can’t they implement a better road system like they do in Salt Lake City?” Back in our adoptive country, we talk about how wonderful it was to go home but we miss the efficiency of the foreign system. I too have been guilty of that many times. Perhaps when asked where the Philippines is, instead of just saying that’s it’s close to Thailand, I should add that it’s more fun in the Philippines than anywhere else. And I can name more than 7,000 ways.
(The author maintains a travel blog — www.anaviajera.com.)
By Maribel Castillo
Rest and relaxation were on top of our agenda when my husband and I decided to make a quick getaway from Manila’s impossible traffic and humidity by flying off to Palawan, an island paradise southwest of the Philippine Islands chain. Bounded on the north and west by the South China Sea and on the east by Sulu Sea, Palawan and its cluster of surrounding islands formed what was once a land bridge linking the Philippine archipelago to Borneo and the rest of the Asian continent.
The promise of adventure got the better of us as soon as we touched down at the Puerto Princesa Airport. Ignoring the call of a secluded beach resort, we would take a detour and have a peek at the famous Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, newly declared as one of the world’s Seven Wonders of Nature. At 8.2 kilometers, the world heritage site is reputed to be the longest navigable underground river in the world.
Joining a small group of Korean and German tourists, we motored two hours up north through sun-drenched, palm-fringed countryside. The tour guide warned us to hang on to dear life as our driver negotiated zigzags and undulating roads on a drive that felt like a roller coaster ride. We had butterflies in our stomachs by the time we hit Sabang, Puerto Princesa’s northernmost barrio.
There, before us, was our pleasant reward for enduring the bumpy ride — a stunning expanse of turquoise glass comparable to the waters of Santorini in Greece and Lake Louise in Banff, Alberta.
After partaking of a Filipino-style picnic of chicken adobo and pork inihaw, it was time to head for the underground river. In Manila, we had heard stories of exotic wildlife springing from the water or greenery and popping out of stalactites and stalagmites inside a pitch-black cave. True enough, there was wildlife galore. Near the river’s mouth is a crystal-clear lagoon teeming with many fish varieties. Also within the Underground River Park is the Monkey Trail, a winding trek into a small forest where monkeys, squirrels, lizards and some 60 species of birds are found. My fears were quickly put to rest when we were greeted at the dock by a perky monkey. The monkey was more social than menacing, posing for the flashing cameras and obviously enjoying the tourists’ attention. The resident bayawaks — large monitor lizards that resemble baby crocodiles – seemed as friendly and non-threatening as any housebroken pet.
Properly outfitted in orange life vests and yellow hard hats, we boarded a banca steered by a local guide with a flair for comedy. As we entered the cave to explore the Underground River, we joined the company of bats that have inhabited the river for thousands of years. Fortunately, the bats were asleep at daytime so we didn’t bump into unidentified flying objects. It was pitch black inside until our torch-bearer turned on the spotlight to reveal amazing works of art that took millions of years for nature to create. Floating through the chambers of the underground river was like gliding through an art gallery. My advice to visitors: give your imagination free rein and the caves will disclose amazing revelations.
As dusk fell, tired but happy, we once again boarded the van and headed south to the promise of a relaxing evening at Crystal Paradise Resort and Winery. Crystal Paradise, a gem tucked away in the little-known town of Narra, is two hours southeast of the bustling provincial capital of Puerto Princesa. A full moon cast a soft glow over the island by the time our van pulled into the resort driveway. What a pleasant surprise to be greeted by an attentive staff who not only welcomed us warmly with song and solicitous care, but also offered us cool drinks right out of the buko (young coconut) shell.
I was ready to hit the sack when we were ushered in to our waterfront villa, but that did not stop me from noticing the surprisingly luxurious, 5-star hotel features such as a tastefully decorated bedroom and kitchenette, a king-sized bed, roomy bathroom with jetted bathtub, and a patio overlooking a private pool, the beach and Sulu Sea beyond. What luxury to be served dinner poolside at the villa’s private patio, soothed by the gentle rhythm of the waves! We knew then that we had come to the right place for a few perfect days of pampering and relaxation.
By morning, after a good night’s rest, we took the opportunity to explore the resort’s amenities and attractions. No doubt at the top of the list was a quiet, solitary stroll along the palm-fringed beach, far away from the hordes of tourists who descend upon the Philippines’ more popular waterfront destinations all throughout the year.
The cozy resort has a total of six waterfront Amihan Pool Villas, four of which are family suites and two are executive suites perfect for honeymooners. For visitors on a smaller budget, there is also the Katala Lodge within Crystal Paradise, which offers a number of deluxe King and deluxe Twin rooms.
Crystal Paradise is nestled in a beautiful wildlife cove that has almost year-round sunshine. It offers a number of island adventure packages, including excursions to Arena Island, a turtle sanctuary, and Rasa Island, a bird sanctuary. Because Narra is on the southern tip of Palawan, nearby islands are readily accessible via outrigger boats and these islands complement the beauty of Crystal Paradise and provide added value to the guests’ tropical island holiday.
Nature has bequeathed this little piece of Palawan paradise with a naturally nourishing ambiance of clean air and warm, sun-soaked days. To complement the health benefits of nature, the resort offers a variety of nurturing spa packages. It’s two thumbs up for the Exfoliation Massage, which was so soothing, the treatment almost lulled me to sleep. Crystal Paradise Resort and Winery also boasts of a small selection of naturally fermented fruit wines, such as banana, pineapple and mango.
Perhaps the amenity that has won praise from most guests is the excellent service provided by resort staff. The resort chef also deserves special mention. During our four-day sojourn at the Crystal Paradise Resort, the chef impressed us with a delectable and visually appealing repertoire of culinary delights. A must-try from the savory menu are the Seafood Paella, the Spicy Sizzling Prawns, and the Bicolano Laing (gabi leaves in coconut milk). At Crystal Paradise, this top-notch quality cuisine comes at a reasonable price.
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