Ecotourism is picking up in Philippine national parks

“CLIENTS are the lifeblood of a mountain.”

This was said by Lito Z. Babaison, a Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) forester based in Camiguin, in a press release. Luckily, after two particularly bad tourism years because of the ongoing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, things are finally looking up.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP), together with the DENR and the Department of Tourism (DoT), collaborated on the Year of the Protected Areas (YoPA). Launched on May 23, the awareness-raising campaign aims to bring visitors back to the country’s national parks.

The Philippines has 246 protected areas totaling three million hectares — the latest being Mr. Arayat in Pampanga and Tirad Pass in Ilocos Sur.

With the challenges brought about by the pandemic, government resources are thinly stretched, according to DENR Biodiversity Management Bureau director Natividad Y. Bernardino.

“All the protected areas need funding… so part of the upkeep funds must come from the public via ecotourism,” she said in a press statement.

Guides and porters at the Camiguin volcano Mt. Hibok-Hibok earn P1,500 and P800 per day, respectively. The forester, Mr. Babaison, said that since opening in December 2021, guides and porters in the island-province have been able to resume their livelihood.

Other national parks in the Philippines are starting to see an influx of visitors too.

Apo Reef in Occidental Mindoro, for one, welcomed 212 visitors since it reopened in April, generating revenues of about P250,000. Between March 2020 to March 2022, it only had 35 visitors.

Mt. Pulag in Luzon, for another, has been welcoming over 2,700 visitors since January, resulting in about P500,000 in revenues. In 2021, it recorded a thousand visitors.

Because COVID-19 is still a reality, so is the use of face masks.

“Face masks should be worn especially at the jump-off point and when passing through communities,” said UN consultant Gregg H. Yan, in an e-mail. “Local guides constantly but gently inculcate the need to follow safety measures, even in the bush. Better safe than sorry, after all.”

They are also empowered to advise visitors against knowingly or unknowingly breaking the law.

“We have plantitas [plant enthusiasts] who love to pluck orchids and other plants illegally,” said Ronald G. Rabile, who comes from three generations of mountain guides in Camiguin. “Like the guardian in the lake, we protect this mountain too.”

The Philippines is a consumer, source, and transit point for the illegal wildlife trade, per the Asian Development Bank. Possession of wild plants and animals can warrant a fine of P300,000. and a four-year jail term.

“Let’s keep wildlife where they belong: safe in our forests, rivers, lakes, and coasts,” Mr. Yan added.

The DoT launched the second phase of its sustainable tourism campaign on May 18. Activities under the “Keep the Fun Going” campaign include encouraging travelers to hike or bike more often; promoting volunteerism in community restoration efforts like planting; and motivating tourists to book eco-friendly accommodations.

Healthcare practitioners in countries such as the US and Canada have been prescribing “nature therapy” to patients. Also called ecotherapy, exposure to nature has been known to counter depression, improve blood pressure, and boost immune function. — Patricia Mirasol

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