As the Philippines attracts tourists in ever greater numbers, the focus of the sector has shifted away from the mass market to promoting the country as an ecotourism destination. Crucial to this strategy has been an focus on sustainable development, emphasising projects with a minimal impact on the environment, as well as efforts to avoid the displacement of indigenous people.

This strategy has centred on the MIMAROPA region, the acronym encompassing its members Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon and Palawan, and home to some of the country’s most renowned natural wonders. Most notably, Busuanga and Puerto Galera have been consolidating their reputations as the archipelago’s premier ecotourism destinations. They are located in the neighbouring island provinces of Palawan and Oriental Mindoro, respectively, in the MIMAROPA region.

Wildlife Sanctuary

Situated in the western third of Busuanga Island, which is the largest island in the Calamian Islands and hosts the Philippines’ other leading diving destination, Coron, Busuanga lies around halfway between the islands of Mindoro and Palawan, and is bordered by the South China Sea (known locally as the West Philippine Sea) to the west and the Sulu Sea to its south-east. The combination of impressive natural landscapes and underwater shipwrecks has made Busuanga into a popular destination. The recent renovation of its local airport, which receives direct daily flights from Manila, has allowed the municipality to handle increasing numbers of tourists who are keen to take advantage of the island’s diving opportunities.

Busuanga Island is home to the Tagbanwa people, one of the country’s oldest ethnic groups. In 1998, the Tagbanwa were awarded a certificate of ancestral domain title, including more than 22,000 ha of land and sea in Coron. This award gave them the right to manage the area’s marine and land resources. Furthermore, a presidential decree in 1967 declared Palawan a marine and wildlife sanctuary, establishing the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development. There has been a concerted effort by authorities to avoid the growth of mass tourism resorts of the kind that have developed elsewhere in the region. Alongside these efforts, an eco-tourism industry has emerged, catering to environmentally aware tourists and diving enthusiasts alike.

Similarly, Oriental Mindoro is bordered by the Verde Island Passage, which separates the island province from Batangas and is known for its marine biodiversity, hosting more than half the Philippines’ documented fish species as well as many globally threatened species. The Verde Passage occupies more than 1.14m ha and remains an important area for shipping, tourism, fishing and other economic activities. Designated by UNESCO as a biosphere, the passage is at the apex of the Coral Triangle, traversing the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. It thus has the distinction of being a global centre for marine biodiversity. Puerto Galera is the north-western-most municipality of Oriental Mindoro and lies 140 km south-west of Manila. Over the past decade, Puerto Galera has shed its reputation for booming nightlife, becoming better known for its marine conservation efforts, as well as its beaches and coves.

Underwater Haven

Busuanga’s most distinctive attraction consists of the Japanese shipwrecks sunk by US Helldivers during the Second World War. These lie in the seabed of Coron Bay and its surrounding shores. Sunk in the 1940s, these shipwrecks remain at depths between 10 and 40 metres below the turquoise-blue waters and are 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 that are teeming with diverse marine life for those preferring nature diving. A three-hour boat ride towards the western side of Busuanga, the internationally renowned 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 snorkellers alike.

With an area of 34 sq km of coral reef where various species of fish and marine mammals have thrived, the Apo Reef is the Philippines’ largest contiguous coral reef, and the second-largest one in the world. Its shallow lagoon, with a depth ranging from two to 10 metres, is surrounded by a mangrove forest, which serves as a sanctuary for local flora and fauna.

Diving And Beyond

Puerto Galera includes diving spots found around the areas either side of Escarceo Point, a reef dive of pristine coral slopes and abundant marine life. Diving in Puerto Galera is generally done with the assistance of an experienced local guide or a local dive centre. The area has become a principal technical diving destination in Asia, and Technical Diving International has several centres in the area. More than 30 dive sites exist all within a 10-minute banca ( traditional boat) ride from Sabang Beach. All sites exhibit considerable underwater biodiversity, with over 180 species of nudibranchs in the area. The surrounding waters house a variety of wrecks that have sunk over the years, including the wreck of an engine of a Japanese patrol boat dating back to the Second World War.

However, the area’s appeal is not limited to its underwater biodiversity. In and around Coron, for example, visitors can hop on a guided mangrove kayak tour, trek into the jungle or engage in island camping. Above-surface diversions are further magnified by the existence of thousands of small undiscovered islets that populate neighbouring Coron Harbour and Coron Bay.

Opportunities also exist to explore shallow aquamarine waters surrounded by towering limestone formations. The neighbouring island town, chosen as the site for the Philippines’ leper colony by the US occupation government in 1904, is now among the region’s most unconventional attractions. Culion has a rich history, with buildings ranging from La Immaculada Church, formerly a fort built by the Spaniards to defend themselves from the invading Moros, to Fort Culion. This was constructed in 1740 and then later rebuilt into a church by the Jesuits in 1930 using coral rock. The Calauit Game Preserve and Wildlife Sanctuary, off the north-western coast of Busuanga, is home to African animal species that coexist with Palawan’s indigenous species. The island works to promote greater awareness among tourists of local wildlife, which ranges from giraffes and zebras to animals indigenous to Palawan like the Calamian deer, mouse deer and bearcat.

Snorkelling Spots

Puerto Galera’s coastal environment is also popular for its numerous pocket beaches and snorkelling spots. Among the municipality’s most famous beaches are White Beach and Sabang Beach, both of which are traditionally known for their active nightlife scenes. Conversely, Puerto Galera town is a calmer destination best suited for bonfires, volleyball or beach hopping, and leisure trips. The area also serves as the location for a nine-hole golf course resting above White Beach, as well as a home for the Mangyan tribes which are scattered over the mountain sides. Of the eight tribes on Mindoro, the Iraya are the largest. High-profile events like the annual Malasimbo Music and Arts Festival, which started in 2011 and is now a five-day affair held on the last weekend of February at the foothills of Mount Malasimbo, have further boosted the area’s visibility by promoting the arts.

Inclusive Approach

The area has become increasingly engaged in bringing public and private sector players to join forces as they undertake environmentally friendly projects, including luxury developments. An example of these initiatives is Huma Island Resort and Spa, a Maldives-inspired luxury destination located in a remote area renowned for its wildlife and biodiversity, including mangroves and tropical gardens. According to Jurgen Geier, Huma’s assistant vice-president for hospitality, “We are endorsing and following ‘responsible tourism’ as a pathway towards sustainable tourism by taking responsibility for the local communities and culture as well as wildlife conservation and the environment.” The resort’s name derives from the Great Galleon Huma and the legend of Captain Ibrahim, and it is located one hour away by plane from Manila, or a 30-minute speedboat ride away from Busuanga.

As they initiate new projects, developers must also ensure direct support to local communities of indigeneous people. As Geiger stresses, “Local communities benefit from sustainable tourism through economic development, job creation and infrastructure development, which can raise the standard of living in destination communities. Equally important is developing tourism infrastructure without disturbing ecology and with a positive impact on the environment.”

The potential of Puerto Galera has also attracted interest from investors interested in luxury developments. For instance, Infinity Resorts & Spa, which opened in 2013, sits on a 2-ha property three hours away by car from Metro Manila. It is surrounded by the mountains of Malasimbo, Talipanan and Alunbayan of Oriental Mindoro on one side and the waters of the Verde Passage. Guests can access luxury amenities as well as enjoy opportunities for outdoor activities.

The Long Term

Alongside the development of tourism infrastructure, wildlife preservation and the inclusion of local indigeneous communities are therefore urgent priorities as the region seeks to ensure its long-term sustainability as an ecotourism destination.