Situated in the northernmost tip of the island province of Palawan, Coron has long been known as a premier diving destination for underwater explorers. Whereas the western neighbouring municipality, El Nido, boasts larger limestone formations and extensive beaches, impressive landscapes and underwater scenery has turned Coron into an increasingly popular tourist destination. A recent refurbishment of the local airport in Busuanga, which receives direct daily flights from Manila, also caters to the increasing number of visitors that come for the impressive diving opportunities.
ANCESTRAL DOMAIN: Coron is the largest town in the Calamines group of islands, and is home to the Tagbanwa people, one of the oldest ethnic groups in the Philippines. In 1998 the Tagbanwa were awarded a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) for more than 22,000 ha of land and sea in Coron, earning them the right to manage the area and preserve marine and land resources. This, combined with a 1967 presidential decree that declared Palawan as a marine and wildlife sanctuary and established the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, has ensured sustainable development and put in place a restriction to mass tourism resorts that have developed elsewhere in South-east Asia. In the aftermath of both rulings, a nascent ecotourism industry has emerged, catering to diving enthusiasts and tourists seeking pristine wilderness, where conservation of indigenous life and the natural environment coexists with a luxury travel experience.
UNDERWATER HAVEN: Coron’s most distinctive attraction consists of Japanese shipwrecks sunk by American Helldivers during the Second World War lying in the seabed of Coron Bay, as well as the surrounding shores of Busuanga. Sunk in the 1940s, these shipwrecks remain at depths between 10 and 40 metres below turquoise blue waters and surrounded by coral reefs, creating a unique diving experience. Aside from shipwrecks, Coron has plenty of other dive sites, including underwater caves and marine sanctuaries teeming with diverse marine life for those preferring nature diving.
Around 11,000 sq km of coral reefs relatively untouched by cyanide fishing or dynamite usage, which have disturbed most other marine ecosystems in the country, and a variety of marine wildlife, from manta rays and dugongs to whale sharks, make diving in the area an extremely rewarding experience. Barracuda Lake, famous for its thermocline and the freshwater barracuda, is one of Coron’s primary attractions as a diving and snorkelling spot, consisting of a 40m-deep underwater cave, bounded by sharp limestone cliffs.
Only a three-hour boat ride to the western side of Busuanga, the world-famous Apo Reef Natural Park covers an area of more than 20 dive sites populated by large fish species and composed of a reef plateau sure to impress divers and snorkelers alike. With an area of 34 sq km of coral reef where different species of fish, marine mammals and invertebrates thrive, the Apo Reef is the largest contiguous coral reef in the Philippines and the second-largest one in the world. The reef’s shallow lagoon, with a depth ranging from two to 10 metres, is surrounded by a mangrove forest, which serves as a sanctuary for flora and fauna. However, similar to its the southern neighbour of Tubbataha National Marine Park, the main geographical features of the Apo Reef remain submerged.
BEYOND DIVING: Palawan Province in general, and the Calamines Island Group in particular, have much to boast on dry land as well as their underwater biodiversity. If untouched marine habitats and aquatic landscapes are not the main focus of your vacation, Coron offers a number of other activities due to its rich history and island-hopping opportunities. In and around Coron, one can take a guided mangrove kayak tour, trek in the jungle or engage in island camping, among a range of different outdoor experiences.
On land, tourist opportunities are magnified by the existence of thousands of small, undiscovered islets that populate Coron Harbour and Coron Bay. Meanwhile, shallow aquamarine waters surrounded by towering karst formations make for an outstanding destination. The island town of Culion and the animal sanctuary Calauit exhibit a historical side that Coron’s larger and more expensive neighbour, El Nido, does not. Chosen as the site for the Philippines’ leper colony by the American Occupation government in 1904, Culion now stands as one of the region’s most unconventional attractions. The site has been isolated for around 100 years, which has blessed Culion with a rich and colourful history, brimming with anecdotes told through heritage sites that the locals have managed to preserve.
FLORA & FAUNA: Additionally, the Calauit Game Preserve and Wildlife Sanctuary, just off the north-western coast of Busuanga, is home to African animal species co-existing with Palawan’s indigenous species. Populated by wild animals imported from Africa in the 1970s, the artificial African landscape was further reinforced during the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos, who ordered locals inhabiting the island to move elsewhere and cleared the bamboo forests to make the landscape resemble the African savannah.
The island caters to scientific, educational, tourism and recreational activities by promoting greater awareness on the importance of conservation of the natural and cultural heritage of the area. Calauit can be reached via a 3.5-hour boat trip from Coron; and the diversity of fauna thriving in the island ranges from giraffes and zebras to animals endemic to Palawan such as the Calamian deer, mouse deer and bearcat.
INCLUSIVE TOURISM: Amid emerging resorts and diving spots, the Tagbanwa communities in the Calamines Island Group stand front and centre of the ecotourism paradigm of non-disruption and inclusion. Despite the influx of Tagalogs, Visayans and other Palawan groups into the Calamianes, the Tagbanwas of Coron compose more than 20% of the municipality’s population and largely engage in subsistence fishing, and to a smaller degree in palay farming. After the approval of the CADT, the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act was passed in 1997 to ensure the decision-making rights of indigenous people over resources that affect the future of the island. The Tagbanwas communities in the Calamianes similarly united to form Saragpunta, a federation of Calamianes Tagbanua indigenous people, with the aim to defend and manage their ancestral domains.
To adjust to the increasing number of tourists and interest in Coron, Saragpunta leaders have subscribed to the vision of sustainable and careful development of eco-friendly ventures while shying away from mass tourism alternatives. One main example of the former is Sangat Island Dive Resort, which occupies the major portion of south-western Sangat Island and consists of 14 native-styled nipa huts and rooms within beachfront and hillside cottages.
Having started operations in 1994, Sangat Island has quickly transitioned into a local model for an emerging ecotourism industry. Alongside its commitment to non-intrusiveness, the resort boasts all the comforts of a top resort, with western-style bathrooms and ceiling fans furnishing its beachfront cottages, bungalow suites, hillside cottages and hilltop chalet. For those hoping to enjoy privacy within the 300 metres of sandy beaches, the Lambingan villa, assembled from locally available materials, offers unspoilt views of the neighbouring islands within a private beach area.
To complement the experience of stunning landscapes and diving sites, community efforts lie at the heart of ecotourism. Sangat Island has not only managed to maintain respect for the natural environment and preservation of surrounding natural beauty, but also strengthen the local community. Some 90% of Sangat’s employees are from Palawan, and as owner Andy Pownall said, “We also work to provide ongoing supply assistance to nearby Punabangto fishing communities. We are looking for investment and support for these communities; the overall success of our ventures would not be meaningful should they not included.”
SUSTAINABLE LUXURY: Environmental sustainability efforts in many cases outpace existing legislation. Two Seasons Resort is a leading example of a 100% self-sustaining environment that does not sacrifice any of the comforts of a luxury hotel. Located on the tropical peninsula in Malaroyroy, a 40-minute speedboat ride away from Coron, Two Seasons offers 42 bungalows with a full service spa and four-star restaurant. As many other Coron destinations, Two Seasons offers a range of marine activities, such as diving and water sports. The site is also a turtle and giant clam sanctuary.
Among the many things Two Seasons adheres to in tandem to sustainability are desalination plants, generators, rain catchers, sewage treatment plants and solar panels, all of which aid the operation of the resort, as well as generating minimal disruption to the island ecosystem. “We acknowledge the vital resources upon which our business is founded and actively nurture their growth. In doing so, we can generate long-term value for both our host communities and shareholders,” John Penaloza, owner of Two Seasons Resort, said.
Coron’s success represents the potential for the Philippines to develop a high-end tourism sector without compromising the natural beauty and assets that make it such a desirable location for travellers.