The government’s pending temporary closure of Boracay, I prefer the term “intensive care,” and threats of similar action for other popular local tourist destinations, has only emphasized the need for better long-term planning in tourism. The “rise and fall” pattern of tourism has become all too familiar and what better example to use than Boracay?
Movies and celebrities seem to figure all the time when it comes to the world discovering a new tourist destination—think of “Apocalypse Now” filmed in Pagsanjan, or Caramoan Island in Camarines Sur being used for various countries’ “Survivor” series.
Boracay first caught international attention through the 1970 movie “Too Late the Hero” with Michael Caine in the lead role. Pristine Boracay was used to depict a prison island. Gina Lollobrigida, one of Imelda Marcos’ jet set friends, visited the Philippines in 1975 to take photographs for coffee-table books, which included the controversial “Stone Age” Tasaday tribe as well as Boracay, seemingly as isolated as the Tasaday.
Boracay’s attractions began to draw in more tourists, mainly as part of an Asian backpackers triangle, with sun worshippers moving from Chiang Mai in Thailand to Sagada and Boracay in the Philippines and to Bali in Indonesia.
Ironically, for Filipinos, Boracay was still too distant and inaccessible and were content with the puka necklaces from the island.
Interest did pick up as higher-end establishments came in. By the mid-1990s there were golf courses and large resorts. The last five years or so, reports began to appear every peak season of the waters becoming contaminated, until President Duterte hurled a less profane but still deadly epithet—“cesspool” (this is one time I would have preferred he used Filipino; kubeta would have been even “deadlier”). As Boracay’s intensive care approaches, people ask what will happen with plans for a huge Macau casino. President Duterte said last April 9 that there will be no casino, and is talking about land reform for the island.
So when I was asked to give welcome remarks for a UP Diliman workshop on inclusive tourism, my mind was set on Boracay. I was glad to hear that the workshop, organized together with the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, involved not just our Asian Institute of Tourism (AIT) but also the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, the School of Urban and Regional Planning, the School of Labor and Industrial Relations, and the College of Social Work and Community Development.
I thought that was such a radical move forward, expanding the stakeholders and players. In tourism, the term “stakeholder” usually refers only to the travelers and the tourism industry. Government is acknowledged more often in some vague support role rather than as regulators.
The academe is almost never seen as a stakeholder for tourism except to produce hotel and restaurant management graduates, with large hotels as the main clients.
In Thailand, the recent closure and rehabilitation of beaches came in part because of strong lobbying by university-based marine scientists, who finally got government’s attention with facts and figures about the environmental degradation, and how this could destroy the country’s coastal tourism in the long run.
I would have liked to hear more voices from our natural scientists in UP to give a more inclusive view of tourism but I am glad our social cluster is taking the lead, in particular our AIT.
In my opening remarks, I mentioned a recent visit to Lake Caliraya with a friend, who had a lakeside residence. The place is beginning to attract tourists, and Ayala Corp. is starting to offer real estate there.
After the visit, I did some internet research and got back to my friend: “Did you know it was the Americans who built Lake Caliraya?” She was surprised, not even knowing the lake was artificial. I plied her with other historical vignettes, from its construction in the 1930s by the Americans to generate electricity, creating a recreational lake by seeding it with bass for fishing, to the decline of Caliraya with informal settlers and now, a revival.
My friend laughed hearing all this and commented only a UP professor would dig up such information.
Indeed, tourism suffers from a lack of historical awareness. Tour guides think of history as dates and names of great men (rarely women) and something to get over with: a quick look at an old church before shopping and the beach. Have you heard of the joke of a tour guide rattling off his spiel about the church being really old, built before the Spaniards?
No wonder cultural sites are demolished to give way to tourist and commercial establishments.
Residents and communities
This is where I thought again of inclusive tourism in terms of stakeholders, in particular the way residents themselves are often excluded from tourism planning.
In the case of Boracay, I learned recently that the Atta, the original residents of the island, have a certificate of ancestral domain title covering only 2.1 hectares, the smallest in the Philippines. Adding insult to injury, the Atta have been using only about 1 hectare, with large businesses surrounding them.
The organizers of this inclusive tourism workshop did assure me they were going to look at all issues: human rights, employment opportunities, poverty, culture. And architecture. Which left me somewhat perplexed, until I looked up more information on inclusive tourism on the internet and it turns out the term is used most widely in relation to improving access to tourism for particular travelers.
I’m all for improving access for travelers, having traveled with the elderly, with young children, with pets, or, with all of the above. Architecture is important. Don’t just think of ramps for people on wheelchairs. What about parents with the baby’s trolley and a bag filled with diapers and toys?
But there’s more. As a medical anthropologist, I prepare health professionals and health establishments to be on the alert for culturally-based needs from room assignments (no number 4 for ethnic Chinese) to diets (are staff aware of halal, vegetarian, vegan?). The health establishments are progressing but tourist establishments, which have far more clients than hospitals, are notoriously negligent when it comes to these concerns.
That’s not all. Inclusive tourism is more than access to the physical and the tangible. There are also potential tourists who may not push through with a trip because they feel discriminated against, simply because of their ethnicity or skin color.
I do worry though that in our capitalist world, “inclusive” can become shorthand for expanding the market reach, for example getting more of the “gray” dollar (retired people) or the “pink” peso (lesbian and gay travelers).
Perhaps we academics can be more critical in talking about inclusive tourism in its widest sense.
On my way to my next appointment after the inclusive tourism workshop, I thought of one of the Strathclyde professors mentioning “slum tourism”—bringing tourists into slum areas—and commenting how it is a form of commodification, transforming slum dwellers into objects for display.
Inclusive tourism must start with identifying who’s excluded not just from tourism but by tourism.