First-time visitors to Siargao often share the same initial reaction: shock and awe at the endless groves of coconut (the likes of which are seldom seen these days) and at the languid village feel that warps all sense of time. This rural idyll, considered remote up until daily flights began just a few years ago, has a calming effect — as someone on holiday mode might hope to experience. Paradoxically, there’s a kind of excitement in the air and heart-pounding action just off the shore: Siargao is, after all, home to raging waves that turned the island into the surfing capital of the Philippines.
More than 30 years since it was “discovered” as a surfing haven, life on the multicultural island still tends to revolve around the waves. Wellness commune Lotus Shores Siargao schedules its daily yoga and meditation classes around the forecasted schedule of the ocean swells. The newly opened Siargao Wakepark in the town of Consuelo closed one Sunday “due to pristine surfing conditions” that day. On such a special occasion, you also won’t be able to get hold of Manuel “Wilmar” Melindo, superstar surfer, Harana Surf Resort‘s head instructor and president of the Siargao Island Surfers Association (SISA), until after he’s ridden his last wave for the day. “Sorry, I was hard at work at my ‘office’,” Wilmar says when we finally meet. It’s after 3pm, and he had been happily surfing since early morning.
- In the surf, safety first: When going for surf lessons, make sure your instructor is certified by the Siargao Island Surf Association (SISA). They’ve been trained on how to properly teach students to surf, as well as to rescue and provide first aid in case of emergencies.
Talking to locals like Wilmar is giving me a better picture of the situation on the ground — there is more happening in Siargao than perpetually waving palm fronds and bottomless banana smoothies by the beach. Beneath its idyllic exterior there are the marks made by the sudden boom in the past two years. Direct flights made it more accessible to tourists, and heavy social media coverage drove it up everyone’s travel bucket list. And thanks in part to its starring role in a local film, aptly titled Siargao, the island suddenly found itself catering to visitors looking for more than a “sleep, eat, surf” holiday.
The local tourism office reports that last year alone, 400,000 tourists visited the island of 250,000. “Since the movie Siargao, we’ve had a surge in tourist numbers, with domestic visitors making up 70% of the total count,” says Donna Estrella, coordinator at the Siargao Tourism Office.
- Read more: 2 eco-friendly accommodations in Siargao
Needless to say, the island is feeling the strain from the influx of tourists. As has been asked in the past of holiday capitals like Baguio and Boracay, how much can a mountain or an island hold? There are growing and consistent concerns on basic necessities such as effective sewage and solid waste management systems, food and healthcare. More locals are calling for sustainable tourism on the island to help preserve its natural beauty, having seen the closure of other celebrated islands around Asia to “heal”, such as Thailand’s Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi Leh (featured in the film The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio). The Philippines’ very own Boracay island, scheduled to reopen this month, used to be a place that other island locales aspired to become. Instead, the phrase “the next Boracay” now means something entirely different: a concrete example of an island imploding on itself.
This Juan’s for Siargao
As a response, Cebu Pacific Air has chosen Siargao as the pilot destination module for its Juan Effect campaign, a sustainable tourism action plan in cooperation with the local government and tourism associations. The move is part of the airline’s corporate social responsibility efforts aimed at providing support on educating passengers on the environmental protection initiatives of a particular destination, apart from helping address its sustainable tourism and waste management needs.
- Travel green: The next time you travel, remember to bring your own water bottle and eco-bags, reduce your plastic waste, dispose of your trash properly (or take it back with you) and choose to stay in resorts that implement eco-friendly practices. Find out more about CEB’s Juan Effect campaign: fb.com/groups/juaneffect
The partnership started rolling out initiatives at the beginning of Siargao’s surf season in late September. These include a total ban on plastic such as bottles, sachets and bags during the recently concluded annual international Cloud 9 Surfing Cup. The airline will be preventing passengers from bringing plastic onto the island and will also help provide garbage bins and garbage collection for the trash that tends to pile up during peak season. Next to come: an environmental awareness drive with the help of Manila- and Siargao-based visual artists, which tourists will see more of in the coming weeks.
For many locals, tourism is a double-edged sword in Siargao. “It created more jobs and gave more people access to basic needs,” says Abe Tolentino, president of the Siargao Tourism Operators Association (STOA), “but increasingly at a cost that no amount of beach clean-ups will be able to solve in the future — if we all don’t act faster.”
Signs that Siargao is “barely coping” with the continued influx of tourists have become apparent: the demand for accommodations is so great that even unfinished hotels in General Luna (GL), where most of the tourism infrastructure is concentrated, are already being occupied. There were times when the public market ran out of fish for locals (bigger resorts get first dibs on the day’s catch). The smell of stale trash or garbage being burned fills the air on occasion.
Even up north, along the towns of Pacifico and Alegria, where I joined one of the regular beach clean-ups on the island — this one with The Sun Crew, a non-profit surf school — it took us less than 15 minutes to collect trash that could have easily been placed in a nearby bin or the litterbug’s pocket: plastic bottles, candy wrappers and cigarette butts.
Abe adds that tourism is fast becoming Siargao’s top product, overtaking the island’s copra and fishing industries. “We are all selling one product: Siargao. We need to protect it because it’s basically what sustains us now,” Abe says. “If we don’t keep up, we’ll end up [being closed] like Boracay, where there was flooding, open dumpsites, soil and water pollution, trash on our beaches… basically all of the things you don’t want to see in paradise.”
Marja Abad, co-founder of the Siargao Environmental Awareness Movement (SEA Movement) says the island also needs more people working to prioritize environmental conservation and inclusive growth as part of sustainable development. “Not all locals are benefitting from the tourism boom,” Marja says. “In fact, for locals who live further inland, tourism is more of a threat because of the food supply shortage. It has now become cheaper for them to buy canned sardines than fresh fish.”
Indeed, agri-social enterprise AGREA’s founder and CEO Cherrie Atilano says Siargao’s farmers and fisherfolk don’t feel the economic growth of the island. “During our consultation for our farm project, people told us their food became more expensive and that there are no more male farmers tilling the land because they have chosen to become habal-habal (motorbike) drivers or surf instructors instead.”
What can be done?
Of course, the tourism industry’s utopian dream would involve basic public needs, environmental preservation and waste management taking natural priority over business gains. Until then, however, local government action is “slowly, but surely” taking shape, says Donna.
Apart from collaborative projects with Cebu Pacific, the business community and NGOs, Donna lists a few more projects that are underway: provincial ordinance on a total plastic ban (with some municipalities such as Pilar and Del Carmen implementing no-plastic policies ahead of the ordinance); an upcoming mobile materials recovery facility (MRF) that shreds bottles, plastics and other waste on the spot; plus the increased use of eco-bricks and appointments of environment ambassadors in schools — taskmasters whose mandate is to make sure the ordinances are being implemented. “We’re trying our best to expedite what we can by the beginning of 2019 when more tourists come, but these things take time,” explains Donna. “We don’t expect to just tell people to stop and expect them to follow immediately. We will need everyone’s help — including the tourists’ — until it becomes a habit.”
Locals are also determined to be optimistic and have been relentless in their own efforts for sustainable development on the island. “We have to keep hoping that there’s a healthier balance between environmental protection and commercial development,” Marja says. As an example, SEA Movement and STOA have been working with the local government in raising awareness about pollution, participating in related legislation and policy-making, as well as the random evaluation of accommodations’ waste segregation, recycling and disposal practices.
Fundraising efforts by Nature Kids of Siargao and its Siargao Recycling Art Studio has also resulted in the procurement of machines that help manage waste: shredders that turn plastic into smaller pieces for bean bags and pillows. Their recent “Save Siargao” fundraiser with established surf resorts Kermit and Harana was aimed towards purchasing a glass crushing machine that turns bottles back into sand (cases of sand mining, illegal in a protected area like Siargao, are still reported).
Visitors to Siargao have already begun seeing all these actions being put in place, alongside a concerted effort from everyone in the community. It makes one hope that, in the words of Bob Marley, whose voice echoes in practically every island setting, including this one, “every little thing is gonna be all right”. It has to be.
. . .
It takes a village to keep Siargao sustainable
- Medical care: Donna adds that the local government is working on making sure the Dapa District Hospital becomes a Level 5 facility that will enable them to perform surgery, upgrade medical equipment and provide 100 beds for patients. “There is also a planned Siargao District Hospital in Dapa,” Donna says.
- Road safety: STOA is working on a program that will allow the group to work closely with the local government to create legislation that improves road safety on the island.
- Food security: Cherrie Atilano says that AGREA is working with the government to set up a farm school, along with several organic farms in towns that are further inland, as well as introduce a “garden classroom” in every public elementary school. These projects aim to ultimately produce enough locally sourced food for both island folks and tourists.
This article first appeared in the October 2018 issue of Smile magazine.