We revisit the tourism hotspot to see what it’s like in the midst of the gold rush
After almost two hours aboard a full-capacity plane out of Manila, a familiar sight: the emerald mangrove forests of Del Carmen, followed by plains of timberland thick with coconut trees and then the short runway of Siargao’s Sayak Airport. It’s an island airport built for small aircraft that, judging from the number of people raring to leap out of the plane almost as soon as it touches down, now feels a little inadequate.
It is mid-March, months before peak surfing season — which usually starts in late August and tapers off around October — and yet Siargao is already packed. How packed?
“Super,” is municipal tourism officer Arcely Forcadilla-Gallentes’ emphatic reply. In her office later that day, she shows me figures that demonstrate the leap in visitor traffic and new openings. Her expression tells me that despite having an insider’s view, Siargao’s popularity has caught her by surprise. She’s not alone.
I first came to know my grandfather’s home island as a mildly angry tween carted off against her will on a family vacation to some remote seaside village where, we’d been warned rather gleefully before the trip, the power supply was intermittent and bathing water had to be pumped out of a deep well. The adults couldn’t wait to get away from Manila’s frenetic pace and chill out on a deserted strip of beach, but a whole week without the TV didn’t sound all that promising to us kids. I imagined we would need to leave the mother-of-pearl windows wide open to all kinds of nocturnal creatures at night, not to mention enlist a buddy with considerable upper-body strength just to take a shower in the mornings.
But when we finally got there, I quickly realized that the lack of creature comforts was part of its charm as a secret paradise of white-sand-ringed islets and waters so clear you could see the seagrass waving at you below the surface. When the moon was full, it cast a bright, otherworldly light over the dark sea, creating a distinct silhouette of that ever-familiar coconut-tipped outcrop you often find in vernacular paintings of the rural seaside. To get from Malinao to Cloud 9, then known only to a handful of hardy travelers on an endless quest for the perfect surf, you had to bounce for half an hour or more on a motorbike powering its way along a pockmarked gravel road bisecting a coconut woodland. If you cut yourself on the lonely reef allegedly named after a candy bar, despite the dire warnings not to venture towards the large barreling waves, you wrapped up the gash and shut up about it. If you wanted baby clams for lunch, you only had to buy them off village children picking them along shallows — five pesos for a tin can filled to the brim.
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Land and SEA Movement. People who spend a great deal of time in nature almost certainly become its greatest stewards, and for Marja Abad, founder of the Siargao Environmental Awareness Movement (SEA Movement), that ought to be everyone. SEA Movement relies 100% on volunteers — people who call the island home and those who love it as a paradisiacal playground — to run clean-up campaigns, train communities in building livelihoods from recycled and repurposed materials and spread the word on efficient solid waste management crucial to a holiday hotspot booming at warp speed. To volunteer your talents for Siargao, visit seamovement.ph.
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Over the years and during random visits, I witnessed Siargao transform into a surfing hotspot — the annual Siargao International Surfing Cup is now in its 25th year — and then into a holiday destination that appeals to a much wider audience. The menu of activities has also broadened over time. When you were done learning how to surf at beginner spots like Jacking Horse, for instance, you could swim in the rock pools at Magpupungko, escape to the quieter beaches of Pacifico and Sante Fe, dive off a platform at Sugba Lagoon and, as of last year, wakeboard at the Siargao Wakepark.
Sisters and champion surfers Aping and Ikit Agudo, ages 26 and 22 respectively, have known the small archipelago in the northeast of Surigao del Norte all their lives, and have felt much more keenly the way things have changed in the last decade. Born and raised in General Luna, now the island’s center of gravity, they remember what life was like in the early 2000s, well before the boom.
With the typical candor and penchant for hyperbole coded into the local dialect, Ikit recalls how she and Aping used to hawk fresh tuna on cellophane-covered plates all the way over in Magsaysay, several towns north of General Luna, the dusty roads so lonely that “the only things trailing [them] were giant flies”. They describe a not-too-distant time when copra was the primary source of livelihood for families in Siargao; arable land was the choicest cut and the beach-end of a property was the throwaway piece no one wanted. These days it’s hard to find anything close to the water’s edge that hasn’t been fenced off as private property.
“It’s funny that we miss the old days when we had hoped for this,” Aping tells me with a half-resigned smile. The word she uses is nangandoy, Surigaonon for “longing”.
And now here we are, in 2019, when over 300 hotels and resorts can barely accommodate the number of visitors and boats need to jostle for parking space at Daku, the island across General Luna popular for boodle fight lunches of grilled seafood served at rental beach huts.
To dock at Daku during the midday rush hour, our boatman, Richard Escabal, drops anchor at a rocky part of the beach. Like the Agudo sisters, Richard has seen Daku grow from an island with very few prospects to a tourism boomtown that offers more opportunities. Richard’s wife cooks lunch for boatloads of tourists, and his eldest son works as a boathand and guide. Richard himself manages the grounds at the soon-to-reopen Serenity Resort, a five-tent glamping spot tucked into a stony hillside, overlooking a surf spot. He never would have guessed that surfing — which he calls duwa, the local word for “play” — could inspire such a transformation in the place where he was born and raised.
But the most visible proof of the great boom is right in General Luna where, along a significant stretch of the main drag called Tourism Road, establishments now stand cheek by jowl, and relentless construction promises to close up whatever gaps remain. There are other telling signs of Siargao’s rising star: its own dedicated tattoo parlor; the number of people in the service sector who are from out of town and can’t speak the local tongue; and a more palpable sense of purpose — to preserve and protect the island they’ve come to call their own, wherever they’d come from — in many of the island’s young tourism entrepreneurs operating small businesses.
Camille Porras, who runs Sea Green Café + Boutique Rooms in Davao, first visited Siargao in 2009, but never considered it a place she could live in. Last month, she opened the first four rooms of a planned 15-room black-and-white boutique hotel in a clearing just off the main road. “An opportunity came [for a space] and when I kept coming back to check it out, I slowly fell in love with the island,” she recalls. “It wasn’t an instant decision to move here. We were visiting the island every month for a whole year and slowly it felt like home.” The new Sea Green Boutique Rooms offers 18m2 to 24m2 spaces, all built using sandwich panels and designed to exude a sense of affordable luxe. Here, as with many like-minded hotels on the island, single-use plastics are banned, shampoo bottles are refillable, wooden toothbrushes are available only upon request and the plastic trash is cleaned and donated to an art studio for repurposing.
Anna Sansone, a Cebu-based architect and restaurateur who’s one-third of the trio behind L’Osteria, an Italian eatery not far from Cloud 9 (she runs it with husband Gaetano Sansone, who hails from Bologna, Italy, and chef Hicham Merouane, originally from Morocco), shares a similar concern for the environment.
For the restaurant and the two luxury suites available to let called the Penthouse, she says, they use an organic wastewater system, only organic laundry soaps and, when possible, only energy- and water-efficient equipment. “We loved Siargao from the very start — everybody was so friendly to us, both locals and foreigners, ordinary folk as well as restaurant or resort owners,” says Anna. “The island itself was so beautiful, it gave you the feeling that there are so many beautiful places to discover … so different from the city.”
It’s been a few years since the first visit, and a whole year since they opened L’Osteria, and the island has changed. “We think that Siargao will continue to grow in popularity,” she says, “but we hope that aside from road building, regulations — such as proper zoning of businesses in General Luna — can be set in place. Environmentally, we are very hopeful as there are a lot of conscious individuals who are concerned about the environment.”
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EveryJuan counts. Cebu Pacific, in cooperation with the Department of Tourism, launched its Juan Effect campaign last year on the premise that everyone has a role to play in sustainable tourism — the carrier that services the route, the tourists that flood the destination, the local communities and government — and that even the smallest acts, such as traveling with a refillable water bottle or a reusable shopping tote, contribute a world of good. The campaign rolled out in Siargao, its pilot location, in February this year — you’ll see it in the murals enjoining everyone to do their bit, and in the dedicated bins of segregated waste all over General Luna. To find out more about the initiative and how you can make a pledge to sustainable tourism, visit juaneffect.com.
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One of them is architect Melvin Patawaran, who has designed a few notable buildings on the island — Harana Surf Resort’s villas, Siargao Island Villas and Bulan Villas Siargao — and who is, in the process, contributing to a distinctive island aesthetic while promoting the idea of sustainability among the coolest dudes in town: the local surfers. Melvin is the founder and CEO of Manila-based Tropiks Design Studio. His background includes conservation training at Sweden’s Lund University and cultural and heritage studies in Bali’s Bamboo U, making him ideally equipped for his bamboo and tropical design crusade. It also helps that he’s a little bit obsessed with surfing. His immediate goal is “to make Siargao a sustainable island by using bamboo as a primary construction material”, but he’s also playing a long game by training local surfers in bamboo craft. “I’m introducing them to a hobby outside surfing as a source of income but also as a way of promoting sustainability that you can feel is beautiful,” he says. “Appreciating natural materials such as bamboo is innate to them. And once the kids see their older brothers and sisters make something nice, like a beautiful bamboo villa, they’ll want to do the same.”
Coffee entrepreneur Omar Tawfek of MA+D Siargao, a social enterprise advocating fair-trade coffee from around the Philippines, likewise has sustainability and livelihood in mind. In February this year, he opened a beachfront coffee bar and kitchen called MA+D x 1543 with Gray Otacan — an artist who plans to introduce more artistic and cultural activities, such as pottery making, to the island’s ever-growing list of attractions. MA+D x 1543 opens at 5am, just in time for the island’s stunning sunrise and early morning waves.
For now MA+D x 1543 is the first stop for Bathala Land Tours, a cultural tour company owned and operated by Camille Banzon and Max Nicolas, which takes guests to far-off and lesser-known yet still interesting places around the island. The tours, which use a hand-painted jeepney kitted out with local materials such as rattan, include a walk among the flora in Pilar, a sunbathing session at Pacifico Beach and a weaving workshop in Burgos run by Lokal Siargao, another social enterprise dedicated to getting the word out on Siargao weaves and creating a revenue stream for the community. Bathala also takes guests to the couple’s favorite food stops in the north. The whole idea behind Bathala, Camille explains, is to “give tourists a chance to know and discover Siargao in a more grassroots sense”. She adds, “We also want to scatter tourism around the island, giving locals from other towns something to gain from the sudden tourism boom.”
Perhaps it’s a lucky thing that Siargao’s popularity comes at a time when modern tourism advocates squarely for the health of a locale and the people who are meant to benefit from the tourism in the first place. The life of a tropical island as a holiday destination, after all, more or less follows the same general trajectory: from a secret paradise of pristine waters and very little infrastructure, it grows into a half-persistent blip on the tourism radar and eventually into a wildly popular Instagram star whose original residents and early visitors can’t stop talking about the halcyon days before fame. Then comes a three-pronged fork in the road: it either becomes the overcrowded cautionary tale of botched sewage systems; a second-choice has-been happy to take in the overflow from the new island of the moment; or a shining example of sustainable tourism. Siargao, it would seem, is coming to that fork. And, in the hands of the right kind of people, it could be the model island we’ve all been hoping for.
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Directory: here’s how to get in touch with the people and places we mentioned in this story:
- Serenity Resort. Daku Island, +63 966 831 6166, +63 947 263 1228
- Sea Green Café + Boutique Rooms. Tourism Rd, General Luna, +63 939 936 1081
- L’Osteria Restaurant. Tuason Point, Catangnan, +63 917 892 3537; fb.com/losteriasiargao
- MA+D x 1543. Behind Abukay Resort, Tourism Rd, +63 917 312 3241, fb.com/1543siargao
- Bathala Land Tours. Purok 1, General Luna, +63 995 011 7805; fb.com/bathalalandtours
Cebu Pacific flies to Siargao from Manila and Cebu. cebupacificair.com
This article first appeared in the May 2019 issue of Smile magazine.