Partnering for marine conservation

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Nowadays it’s difficult to paint a bright picture of the planet in the face of climate change, but we can at least try.

That’s what we did during the second part of our Sustainable Tourism Panel Discussion Series in MakeSense Philippines, this time tackling beaches!

I’ve been a volunteer in MakeSense for over a year now. The first event that our team organized was Sustainable Tourism: Tribes, and we can proudly claim that event as a success as well. We were able to gather over 30+ people and exchange ideas during that event.

This time, we invited different people with initiatives related to sustainable tourism and the beach. Our panel members come from different sectors, from the academe down to the industry. One of our main goals for the event was to find synergies among these different people coming from different backgrounds. Despite their differences, they’re each working for the same thing, which is the conservation of our beaches and waters. 

I know this sounds like a very academic and ideal thing to do. But it’s something that we can strive towards. 

Personally, my career right now revolves around the academe. In the academe, you’re taught and trained to think of the ideal and what the world should strive towards. At the same time, I can honestly admit that what we lack is an accurate grasp of the realities on the ground. Several of my colleagues can attest to this. However, despite being a weakness, these are the exact leverage points that the academe can work with together with the industry. If the academe has insights or models for a better future, industries are at the pedestal to execute these. This is where the synergies among different sectors come in. 

But how exactly will these synergies work?

In Sustainable Tourism: Beaches, we gained insights as to how this can be possible. One of our speakers, a coral reel scientist, talks about how there are only less than 100 marine scientists in the Philippines working to protect our coral reefs. With more than 7,000 islands in the country, clearly this number is not enough to monitor the coral reefs. According to him, only 2% of organizations working on corals employ marine scientists. 

This is a possible entry point for cross-sector partnerships. This is where collaboration comes in, because not one sector alone can save our coral reefs. 

And this just so happens to be another one of the main goals of the Sustainable Tourism Panel Discussion Series. If we can identify synergies and collaborations among different sectors, we will have better chances of saving Mother Earth. In this case — protecting and conserving our marine biodiversity. 

On sustainable tourism and tribal communities: What makes it truly sustainable?

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What makes sustainable tourism, ‘sustainable’?

My team and I at MakeSense Philippines hosted a panel discussion yesterday, March 11, 2019 to talk about exactly that. We had speakers from the local sustainable tourism sector talk about their initiatives, best practices, and things to improve on for the sector. For this discussion, we focused on tours held in tribal communities.

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It’s important to note that sustainability is nowhere near the realm of “simple”. When you talk about a sustainable kind of tourism, it becomes even more complex because now we’re talking about three sides of the equation: social, environmental, and economic impacts of tourism activities. In the case of sustainable tourism initiatives such as those highlighted in our panel discussion, there’s a lot of things to consider. However, there are nonetheless a few important things that need to be highlighted.

Impact assessment of sustainable tourism initiatives. It’s hard to measure impact. It’s still a young practice in itself. We can go very technical and quantitative about it, and we can also become qualitative. But one thing’s for sure, sustainable tourism activities would need to have a comprehensive set of impact metrics to measure their actual sustainability. From carbon footprint, plastic waste, higher income of the target community, number of trees planted, demographics of the community — you name it. There’s a lot to measure, and these kinds of initiatives would actually need to spend a lot to be able to track all these different kinds of impact.

But why measure impact in the first place?

For one, it lets the project or initiative know more if what they’re doing actually created changes in their communities. Since our panel discussion talked about sustainable tourism in tribal communities, they would need to know the social, environmental, and economic impacts that their initiative created for their target tribal communities.

One of the most commonly cited experiences in the initiatives when talking about social impact in tribal communities is how one interacts with the community. This brings us to…

Traveling etiquette in tribal communities. One important thing to note when visiting tribal communities is that you’re mainly there to visit. Realistically speaking, you’re not obligated to give donations or cash to these communities, because not only are these dole outs or unsustainable, they somehow create an ‘imbalance’ in the community.

What does it mean that it creates an ‘imbalance’? For one, it gives the tribal communities the impression that they can just rely on cash and donations from tourists all the time. When that happens, it’s going to become a cycle until the tribal communities would just become dependent on tourists for alms. While the hearts of the tourists are at the right place, that is honestly not the right time to give cash or donations. We would rather immerse ourselves in their culture, understand where they’re coming from, hear out their stories, and come home with fresh ideas on how we can contribute to this initiative. If you want to further get involved, you can simply join a relevant organization, volunteer your time, and create initiatives that will actually last long-term for these communities. The bottom line is to not rely on dole outs to help these communities — we’d rather help them through more sustainable ways.

Designing travel experiences that cater to both travelers and the targeted community. What’s unique about the projects and initiatives in our panel discussion is they have different designs and business models. One enterprise is focused on environmental preservation, a second on poverty alleviation, and the others on cultural immersion. One thing in common, however, is that they are all ultimately trying to design experiences that matter, experiences that promote social impact.

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Another thing to note is that when designing sustainable tourism initiatives, it’s important to keep all your stakeholders in mind. For instance, in the case of one of the initiatives in the panel discussion, their focus is on providing a booking platform for impact-driven tours managed by local tour guides. It aims to give travelers local experiences.

In this sense, it goes beyond the traditional notion of travel wherein you go to a place to take Instagram-worthy shots or visit the most famous landmarks. You can say these are the types of tours that involve off the beaten tracks. But in this case, they are off the beaten tracks that promote social impact, and I think that’s beautiful.

Making sustainable tourism initiatives truly sustainable. This is not easy. The whole discussion around sustainability is not easy. What more if you’re going to actually make a sustainable tourism initiative a truly sustainable one?

I’ve been to a number of similar events and one of the running and typical questions when the open forum comes is on the aspect of the initiative’s sustainability. Let me be the one to address the elephant in the room that there can never be a “perfect sustainability”. All we can do is make the most of what we have.

To give a better perspective on this, one of the speakers in our panel mentioned positive and negative externalities. He explains that there can never be a perfect kind of sustainability because there are always externalities on both ends. This means that what we should be looking at instead is the net impact of sustainability once you’ve accounted for all the positive and negative externalities. It’s simple as saying, “There may have been negative things that happened, but when the overall result is positive, then we can consider that a success”.

At the end of the day, sustainability merits a ton of discussion and systemic thinking. I’m even confident to admit that what I talked about here merely scratches the surface of sustainability in tourism. There needs to be more discussion on this area. Lastly, if we’re going to be solving the challenges of our time, we’re going to need to think beyond and into the complex systems that make up these challenges.

Trekking through lava and sand: A sustainable tourism initiative in Taal

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Last February 2, I booked a tour in a sustainable tourism initiative in San Nicholas, Batangas. It was organized by the local community with the help of makesense Philippines and Primer Group of Companies. It is currently on its pilot stage which will conclude on February 9. The idea is to create a sustainable social enterprise in Taal focused on increasing the livelihood of the locals, educating the tourists about Taal, and promoting environmental conservation in the area.

It’s ironic that the first thing our group sees going to Taal are plastics scattered near the lake. That’s one problem we initially saw along the way. Perhaps a feature of the tour can be something where the guests pick up trash near the lake?

We rode the boat going to the trekking and tourist area.

…and passed by some lush greenery before docking.

I like taking photos of landscapes with my phone. Here’s just one of the picturesque views in Taal during that time.

Here we have our tourist guide explain to us what we’ll be expecting throughout the trek. Fun fact: it’s the community’s first time to tour guests. As I mentioned, this is a sustainable tourism initiative that’s currently in its pilot phase. Me being there during their first successful activity made me feel like I belong in their impactful initiative.

The tourists are attentively listening to the tour guide. We’re ready!

Off we go! The first part of the trek involved walking through volcanic ash. It was rather difficult because our feet would sink through the thick ash–it was indeed an exercise.

Here’s a beautiful view of Taal lake while standing on top of volcanic ash.

My fellow tourists, taking a quick break. That inclined slope is no joke.

We’re almost at the crater of Taal volcano, but before that, time for another quick break with the locals.

…and here we are!

The tour guides said there’s an area in the crater that’s hot enough to cook an egg within seconds. “I could live here”, I said to myself. Unfortunately, they closed off this area due to hazardous reasons, such as a boat toppling over.

After the trek to the crater, we went back to the tourist reception area. What we have waiting for us is… *drum roll*

BOODLE FIGHT! We had tilapia, egg, bananas, and vegetables elegantly laid out on banana leaves.

The boodle fight was amazing. After that, we got more in store for us as we’re still going to view the fish cages and “walk through lava”. Exciting activities ahead!

Going to the fish cages involved a very cool breeze and sweet sailing across the lake. In the photo above, we’re docking beside the fish cages to check out the fishes being grown by the fishermen.

In these fish cages, the fishermen grow bangus and tilapia. There’s also a cat roaming around for whatever reason–maybe it’s waiting for the fishes to grow and then eat them? Leave some for the humans, floofer.

My fellow tourists checking out the fish cages.

This is what they call the “lava walk”, because, quite literally, you’re walking on top of lava. The dark rocks you see on the side are the lava, which was caused by a volcanic eruption decades ago.

After the lava walk, we all went back to the reception area to conduct a feedback session. This is to ensure that the sustainable social enterprise that the local community wants to establish will know points for improvements in time for future tours.

We were able to come up with several strengths and points for improvements in the initiative, which include but are not limited to the following:

  • It would be more proactive if the tour guides also shared local histories and facts about Taal. The idea is to engage the tourists and make them really feel that this is a sustainable tourism initiative. Hence, the tour guides would learn more about communication.
  • Considering this is the first time of the tour guides, they actually did a good job.
  • Other minor technical issues such as broken concrete railings in the trekking path can be easily addressed with the help of the local government.
  • Some safety concerns such as the lack of life vests while riding the boats are also raised. This is also a minor technical issue that can be easily addressed.

I’m pretty sure there will be more challenges for the local community along the way. I believe, however, that they can get through it. Besides, there is strength in numbers. This sustainability initiative reinforced my belief that with the participation of various stakeholders–in this case non-profit organizations, local communities, and corporations–we can make social impact scalable and possible.

After the pilot phase of this tour, the initial idea is that everything will be turned over to the Primer Group of Companies and the local community. Under that setup, Primer will act as the booking platform, whereas the local community will handle all the logistical concerns. Amid all of that, I believe their main challenge would be to consistently send across the sustainability message to all their tourists. With the help of different stakeholders, I believe they will succeed and ultimately make this a sustainable social enterprise.