Sandwiched between the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea, the island province of Palawan offers a wonderful respite from the busier industrial and commercial centres of the Philippines. The roughly 1780 islands and islets that comprise Palawan are revered for their unmatched biodiversity, while the pristine coastline – measuring about 2000 km – is distinguished by its lack of large-scale developments as seen elsewhere in the country.

This is largely due to a 1967 presidential decree that established Palawan as a marine and wildlife sanctuary, limiting the development of mass tourism resorts that has spread in other parts of South-east Asia. As a result, Palawan has remained a favourite destination of savvy tourists and backpackers travelling off of the beaten path. The conservation of indigenous plant and animal species has made it a top choice for birdwatchers and jungle trekkers.

NATURAL HABITAT: The province is home to 15 endemic mammals and 20 endemic bird species that are naturally found only on the Palawan and Borneo Islands. Meanwhile, over 600 species of butterflies call Palawan home, attracted by the over 1500 plants species that contribute to the 56% of the province’s forest cover. Underneath the waves, the seas surrounding the province are known for their vast collections of marine life, with 11,000 sq km of coral reefs relatively untouched by the scourge of dynamite and cyanide fishing that has wrought havoc on many other marine ecosystems in the country and region. As a result, Palawan has also become a favourite destination for snorkelers and divers.

FIT FOR A PRINCESS: The start of most adventures in Palawan will begin in the province’s capital city, Puerto Princesa, the location of the region’s main airport. While not necessarily amongst the most picturesque destinations in Palawan, Puerto Princesa serves as a launching point, including to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, which lies roughly 50 km north of the city proper.

Designated in 2011 as one of the new seven wonders of the natural world by a global poll, the main draw to the park is a 24-km cave that contains an 8.2-km underground section of the Cabayugan River, 4 km of which are navigable by boat from the sea.

A UNESCO world heritage site since 1999, the region surrounding the park is known for its spectacular array of flora and fauna, while the interior of the cave impresses visitors with its major formations of stalagmites and stalactites.

VENTURING NORTH: If you prefer sugar-white sand beaches to dark caves, Palawan has much of that to offer as well. A six- to seven-hour drive north of Puerto Princesa will lead you to El Nido, perhaps the most famous of Palawan’s destinations. While El Nido has its own airport, services are limited and comparatively expensive given its remoteness.

Known for its steep limestone cliffs that dive straight into crystal-clear blue waters and its semi-hidden lagoons that dot the islands in the area, El Nido has recently become increasingly popular with tourists, though it is still far from a major destination. Efforts to keep the area sustainable mean it is refreshingly free of hotel chains and major resort developments. The large tour groups that frequent Phuket and Bali are notably absent, instead replaced by more intrepid travellers.

The best way to take in the raw beauty of El Nido is on an island hopping tour. Boats with capacity for six to 12 passengers can be hired for an all-day trip to various coves and beaches at a cost of $12 to $24 per passenger. Arrangements can be made through an agency or directly with the crew. The municipality will also charge a $5 environmental fee valid for 10 days. The trip will reward its adventurers with postcard panoramas both above and below the water, and overnight trips that include camping a la “Survivor” can also be arranged.

Those interested can include Matinloc island in their itinerary. Its Secret Beach, accessible only via a keyhole crack below the surface of the water, is said to have inspired Alex Garland’s novel The Beach, the essential South-east Asia backpacker’s manual.

DIVE, BABY, DIVE: While El Nido is known for the plethora of marine life that populates its waters, those travellers that are truly passionate about diving may want to venture elsewhere. If wreck diving is your thing, a four- to eight-hour boat ride north from El Nido will take you to the Coron city, the largest town in the Calamianes group of islands. There are also direct flights available from Manila. A recent refurbishment of the local airport now allows it to handle the increasing numbers of tourists that come for the impressive diving opportunities.

The area is known for its wealth of shipwrecks that sit just below the surface of turquoise blue waters. The 1944 sinking of a fleet of Japanese ships by the US navy took place in the area. As a result, there are numerous well-preserved underwater shipwrecks surrounded by coral reefs, making for a surreal diving experience. This has given rise to what many claim to be amongst the best dive sites in the world. Coron also offers island-hopping trips, with the sheer limestone cliffs often drawing comparisons to its larger and more expensive cousin, El Nido.

If untouched marine habitats and underwater landscapes are more up your alley, plan a trip out to the Tubbataha Reef National Marine Park instead. Sitting 98 nautical miles south-east of Puerto Princesa, the reef boasts over 1000 species, many of which are endangered and protected. Some people have even claimed that Tubbataha rivals the more famous Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

Taking about 12 hours to reach by boat from Puerto Princesa, all of the multi-day journeys are vessel-based given the complete absence of permanent human settlements in the area. However, given its fame as a top diving destination, the boats are often booked years in advance, especially because of the relatively brief dive season of only three months, from March to June. Be prepared to do some major long-term planning to experience Tubbataha’s reefs.

SUSTAINABLE LUXURY: Given the myriad of strengths that Palawan possesses as a potential tourism destination, the region has been receiving increased attention from developers and investors in recent years. Known as the last great ecological frontier of the Philippines, Palawan offers a glimpse of what much of South-east Asia was prior to the arrival of affluent Westerners and the subsequent commercialisation of much of the area. Although most accept that development will occur thanks to the sheer natural wealth of the region, individuals both within the country and internationally hope that this will be undertaken in a sustainable manner, while still preserving Palawan’s natural beauty.

One resort that may serve as a model for future developments in the region, Amanpulo, is set on the privately owned Pamalican island in the Cuyo Island group in north-east Palawan. Located 360 km southwest of Manila in the northern waters of the Sulu sea, the island is served by a private airport with two to three flights a day to and from Manila.

Amanpulo enjoys the wealth of biodiversity seen in other parts of Palawan province, particularly underwater. The island is a nesting site for green and hawksbill turtles, which allows for the waters around the island to be especially rich with these marine animals and makes diving in the area quite rewarding.

Given the fragile ecosystem that the resort inhabits, Amanpulo, like other resorts across Palawan, has made efforts to decrease its impact on the local environments, according to Amanpulo’s management. The resort is currently transitioning to solar-powered vehicles for all on-island transportation, while all roads and paths on the island remain unpaved. Additionally, an organic farm on Pamalican displaces some of the reliance on imported goods and has allowed local villages and tribes to learn organic farming methods, helping to increase the overall self-sustainability of the region.

MULTIPLIER EFFECT: Most of the other 40 islands in the Cuyo group remain uninhabited, though a few have villages. The largest settlement is found on Manamoc Island. Thanks to the location of the Cuyo islands, they have been left largely untouched and undeveloped. The local communities are largely dependent on fishing and the cultivation of seaweed for sustenance. As a result, the arrival of the Amanpulo resort to the island group brought with it valuable employment opportunities. It also demonstrates the potential economic multiplier effects of an expanding tourism sector in the Philippines.

Most importantly, what is possibly best represented by Amanpulo is the potential for the Philippines to develop its niche and high-end tourism sector without compromising the natural beauty and assets that make it such a desirable location for tourism to begin with. Amanpulo has managed to maintain the Cuyo Island group’s pristine environment while providing a luxury travel experience to visiting guests.