As a traveler, I have always believed that the people that you meet will always have a role to play in your travel experiences and, in some cases, your life. These people can be as mundane as your hotel receptionist who will make you realize that strangers are willing to go beyond their call of duty just to get the right directions to get you to your destination. Or it can be as important as your child who ends up to becoming your travel buddy. In the same way, that we play a part in somebody’s travel and it is just a matter of whether you play the good part or the bad.
It is also interesting that you also get to meet strangers that share the same passion as yours and that you end up sharing ideas like good old friends even if it was your first time to meet or, in my case, we have just been friends virtually.
As I was preparing for a four-day island trip that we have planned since last year, I got more excited with the idea that we will be doing a side trip that would give us the opportunity to reach out to young Filipinos in this far-flung community that we are heading to. It was because of this minor shift in our itinerary that I got to talk with one of the organizers, got to share ideas, and discovered a common ground when it comes to our thoughts about the need for a sustainable tourism program for local communities.
The past years have seen the rapid growth of local tourism in the Philippines. The power of social media platforms and the entry of budget airlines sparked interest in exploring the country’s beauty that is a lot easier to one’s pocket. A beautiful snapshot of a rustic destination can go viral if it goes to the right “hands” in social media. A local’s “secret” then becomes a “discovery” and you can expect travelers of different sorts flocking to see this latest attraction.
It is great to see, that with the renewed attention that Filipinos give our local destinations, Philippine tourism is no longer boxed up to Boracay, Bangui Windmills, the Philippine Eagle, or the Tarsier. Who would have thought that there is a cheaper way to enjoy El Nido? Or that there is more to Baguio City than its cool weather and strawberries? Not to mention, the huge potential in economic gains for the locals of the community. I have seen how communities responsibly adapt to the sudden attention given to their places. Tali Ti Amianan in San Juan, La Union is a good example. It is a local community effort that converts used clothes, collected as garbage from their shores, into creative bracelets handmade and sold by the locals.
Unfortunately, most communities, even local government units, are not equipped with the right mindset and skills on how to address the influx of tourists. The opportunity to earn more outweighs the potential environmental damage of these tourist activities. You cannot blame the locals’ attitude because it is an opportunity for them to provide something better for their families.
I remember having to lecture locals in Calaguas Island about calling the attention of their guests to throw their garbage at designated areas. I was appalled to witness a young lady from Manila leave the wrapper of her chips on the sand when the garbage bin was just three steps away from her! A local went on to pick it up and throw it at the bin. When I asked him why he did that and not call the attention of the guest, he was afraid to sound rude and feared that she might not go back or recommend the place to her friends. The incident had me doing an impromptu lecture about the need to protect their place and it starts by teaching their guests about discipline.
The sad truth is that local government units need to implement programs that put emphasis on sustainable tourism for its communities. A lot of our tourist destinations, especially the new ones, get abused by both tourists and locals because there are no concrete plans in place on how to find a balance between tourist influx and environmental care. Too many times, we see communities just accepting guests to the detriment of nature. All in the name of revenue.
There are cases where LGUs understand their role and put into play a concrete action plan on not only providing a viable source of income for its communities but to ensure the sustainability of this income source. This is what we all need to focus on as the country’s tourism industry starts to mature and we need to understand that this is not only the role of the LGU. Local travelers are at the forefront in making locals understand that sustainability is more important than just cashing the business in.
I have been around the Philippines to actually see the realities that a lot of common Filipinos face. I have also seen how blinding opportunities can be for locals that they set aside the long-term. I have to do my part as a traveler.
I have shifted from being a “checklist tourist” to becoming an immersed traveler. I have learned to haggle “smart” for the prices of services and produce that local’s offer that would be equally beneficial. I have learned to practice being a responsible traveler who behaves like a guest rather than a privileged tourist.
And if given the opportunity, share my knowledge to locals on how they can make things better and more sustainable for their families and communities.
In the end, this new source of livelihood called tourism, if sustained, can be their hope for alleviating their families from poverty.