Tourists and locals

Most tourists avoid newspapers while on holiday.  They go away precisely to escape the world rather than to wallow in its problems. But there are some who cannot begin the day without reading the papers even if they know that nothing they read will give them any assurance that the world is at peace and it is right to go on a vacation.  Like me, they are experts at denying themselves the full pleasure of a worry-free holiday.

My mother-in-law spent quite a fortune this week to treat herself and us, her two children and their spouses, to a dream holiday at the world-famous El Nido resort on Palawan’s Lagen Island.  At 80, she went kayaking and snorkeling.  I marveled at her endurance.  Nothing fazed her; not even the 90-minute inter-island hop on a small plane to get to the resort or the boat rides on sometimes choppy waters.  She was determined not to allow the recent air and sea tragedies that occurred within a week of one another spoil this trip or define her sense of the sea and the sky.  On our last evening, in a belated celebration of her birthday, the resort arranged for us to have dinner in an uninhabited island, under a canopy of stars and a cloudless sky.

That romantic picnic might not have materialized if she had known that just the day before a band of pirates abducted a group of foreign tourists staying at a resort on Sipadan island off the coast of Sabah. The tourists are still being held somewhere in Sulu by bandits alternating between demanding ransom and issuing political messages.  Newspapers showed photos of the remaining tourists on the  island trying to relax under the uneasy watch of heavily armed security guards. This is the stuff of movies and novels, but hardly the kind of adventure one pays good money to actually experience.

Protected by the calm waters of Bacuit Bay, the El Nido resorts on Miniloc and Lagen islands seem so far away from the pirate-infested waters between Sabah and Tawi-Tawi that it is foolish to even imagine a daring raid like this happening in any of the serene islands of Palawan.  But I did manage to consider the possibility.  I became conscious of the security of the resort and found comfort in the sophisticated communication equipment that the resort personnel carried with them wherever they brought us.  But really, can anything be more vulnerable to pirate attack than an outlying island resort?  I am sure the Sabah kidnapping sent shivers up the spine of resort operators everywhere.  But to hire armalite-wielding guards to secure a paradise retreat, as they now do in Sabah, is to negate the whole notion of a holiday.

High-end island resorts nonetheless must secure their guests in every way they can.  Their wealthy guests are logical targets for all kinds of kidnap-for-ransom groups.  If they wish to avoid transforming their picturesque islands into garrisons of leisure, they must learn to look for security in the bosom of the local communities surrounding them.  What happened in Sabah can never happen in a place like Boracay for example, where tourism is very much a community affair rather than just a solitary corporate operation.  It is inconceivable for criminal elements to sneak into a Boracay resort, snatch the guests, and run away without rousing the whole town.

But in the case of island resorts, almost nearly insulated from any contact with the local population, the very advantage of living in suspended time in isolated controlled surroundings becomes itself a weakness.  To live in splendid isolation is to exist without the benefit of the vigilance of neighbors.  But more than this, it is to unnecessarily deprive tourists the humanizing effect of local contact.

It is clear that the operators of the El Nido resorts maintain an excellent relationship with the town from which they derive their name.  Most of the hotel staff members have been recruited from the nearby community.  But in all other ways, the town does not seem to exist for the resort.   After spending 3 days on Lagen island, doing every conceivable activity on the tourist menu, I began to wonder what El Nido town looked like.  I wanted to see the market, the school, the church, and the fisherfolk on the beach mending their nets.   I wanted to know if there were local handicraft or traces of the generations that settled there long before El Nido became synonymous with the fabulous ecotourism of Lagen and Miniloc. Unfortunately a visit to the old town was not on the program.

A closer encounter between town and resort can surely be beneficial and enriching for both.  It can go a long way in humanizing international tourism, and it can spur the local folk into developing their town so that it becomes as deserving of their pride as the majestic natural landscape with which they have been endowed.  It will give locals a greater stake in protecting tourism in the area, and in securing the safety of guests.

Except as re-invented for the tourist, none of the richness or color of the local culture usually enters the world of the international resort. Tourists travel thousands of miles to exotic destinations, but often the only locals they ever get to meet are the hotel personnel.  Everything is arranged so that during their brief stay they discover the awesome diversity of the forest and marine life, but they leave wondering if other human beings ever made a life for themselves in the area.

Palawan’s strong selling point is obviously its rich natural beauty, and it is right to highlight this.  But it is time that the province also learned to project the local communities that must oversee and protect this environment.


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