How the Philippines Is Protecting Its ‘Last Ecological Frontier’

Date Published
March 20, 2020
The local government of Palawan promotes sustainable tourism and ensures popular sites, such as the Puerto Princesa Underground River, are not overcrowded with tourists. Photo: iStock/aldarinho.

Limestone cliffs, hidden lagoons, coral atolls, and tropical forests make Palawan province one of the top ecotourism destinations in BIMP-EAGA

Known as the Philippine’s “last ecological frontier,” Palawan is a biodiversity-rich cluster of islands in the westernmost part of the country, with its main island not far from Borneo. It is home to more than 200 endemic species. The Calamian deer (Axis calamianensis), which is considered endangered, is found only in Palawan, specifically in the Calamian islands of Busuanga, Calauit, and Culion. Marine turtles, dugong, and whale sharks have also been spotted in the province.

Tourism in Palawan is booming because of these natural attractions. Rated as one of the world’s most beautiful islands by CNN Travel, it attracted close to 2 million tourists in 2019. It caters to both sophisticated travelers and the budget-conscious. The municipality of El Nido offers world-class beach and island resorts as well as affordable lodgings. It is the jump off point for those who want to explore the Bacuit archipelago, considered one of the most beautiful bays in the world. Coron Island is known for World War II-era wreck diving, crystal-blue Kayangan Lake, and Barracuda Lake, a divers’ paradise.

Protected areas

Protecting ecosystems in Palawan is important both for the preservation of globally important flora and fauna and for its sustainable development. The province has several protected areas: the Calauit Game Preserve and Wildlife Sanctuary in the northern Calamianes island, a pair of coral atolls known as the Tubbataha Reefs in the Sulu Sea, the Puerto Princesa Underground River along the west coast, and in the south, Ursula Island and Mt. Mantalingahan.

Coron Island and its fishing grounds were declared in 1998 as the ancestral domain of the Tagbanua. They have since limited tourists’ access to the island to preserve it. The island has 12 lakes, including Kayangan and Barracuda.

Sustainable tourism

Still, Palawan has suffered environmental degradation over the years. Last year, the government stepped up efforts to rehabilitate and preserve its unique ecosystems, and promote sustainable practices, including in the tourism sector.  

In October, a project was launched to provide environmentally sustainable urban facilities and services for El Nido and Coron, and strengthen marine environment protection in anticipation of higher numbers of tourists visiting the islands over the next decade. It is part of a Department of Tourism-led program that involves other government agencies, local stakeholders, and multilateral development banks.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is supporting the project in El Nido and Coron, which will include improving solid waste management, drainage and sanitation, and access to clean drinking water. ADB will also help build the capacity of local stakeholders to protect and conserve healthy oceans and rehabilitate key biodiversity-based tourism sites. It will explore innovative funding mechanisms for local business enterprises and community-based groups for skills and product development to improve tourism services.

In November, the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (TIEZA) Board approved major projects in Palawan estimated to cost about $16 million. These are the construction of a wastewater treatment facility, modular floating docks, and solar streetlights in Coron; modular floating docks in various barangays in Puerto Princesa; and the construction of housing for hyperbaric chamber facilities for divers in El Nido and Coron.

For its part, the local government promotes sustainable tourism. It prides itself for being called the cleanest and greenest province in the country. It has ensured that popular sites, such as the Puerto Princesa Underground River, the country's longest subterranean river, are not overcrowded with tourists.