How tourism helps an island in Davao

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Samal Island reclaims their identity as a city of its own and not merely an extension of Davao City. In photo: Vanishing island, Samal Island, Davao Del Norte. Photo by PORTIA LADRIDO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In September 2015, unidentified gunmen abducted three foreigners and a Filipina from a resort in Samal Island, Davao Del Norte. In 2016, the Armed Forces of the Philippines reported that 13 foreign nationals are in the hands of the Abu Sayyaf, including the victims of the 2015 kidnapping.

“It really hit our tourist arrivals, they really went down,” says Al David Uy, the mayor of Samal Island, a ‘resort city’ that is a 10-minute ferry ride away from Davao City.

The apprehension of tourists gradually lessened when, in 2016, the municipality started hosting big, tourism-friendly events such as the AirAsia Durianman Triathlon, an international race that was previously set in Davao City. The recently concluded triathlon involved a 1.5-km point-to-point swim in the island’s Pakiputan Channel, a 40-km bike course along the city’s circumferential road, and the 10-km run along the same road.

The event had triathletes mostly from the Davao region as well as those from Luzon, Visayas, and even the U.S. and Spain. “Events like this not only makes tourists aware of Samal, it also makes the tourists feel that a place like Samal [is] safe,” explains Uy.

Through Durianman, Uy says they are able to also expose visitors to the many sites within their island, a deliberate move to reclaim their identity as a city of its own and not merely an extension of Davao City.

durianman2.jpeg The 2018 Durianman Triathlon held in Samal Island involved a 1.5-km point-to-point swim in the island’s Pakiputan Channel, a 40-km bike course along the city’s circumferential road, and the 10-km run along the same road. Photo courtesy of AIRASIA PHILIPPINES

Tourism is crucial

Because of Samal’s close proximity to Davao, Uy explains that most people outside of Mindanao would assume that Samal is part of Davao City, some even say that the island is “the beach of Davao.” And for the longest time, they went along with the attention Davao City was getting; not bothering to separate themselves from what people presumed.

But the municipality decided it’s high time to get out of the shadow of the more popular city, and highlight the many beaches (the luxury resort Pearl Farm is here), mountain and hill ranges, waterfalls, vanishing islands (islands that literally vanish when the tide is high), bat sanctuaries (the island hosts the world’s largest population of fruit bats, which are the main pollinators of Durian trees) and snorkeling spots that rest on their lands.

Tourism, Uy adds, is particularly crucial for locals whose only source of income is agriculture or fishing.

“‘Yung closed season kasi ng fishing dito sa Davao runs from June to September,” Uy explains. “We all know that during these months, ito ‘yung opening of classes, so kawawa ‘yung mga fisherman natin ... they cannot fish so how can they send their children to school?”

davaoairasia2.JPG “‘Pag hindi na kaya ng isang lugar yung carrying capacity, may problema na tayo sa sanitation, sa garbage,” mayor Al Uy says. “Sad to note, medyo na-fe-feel na namin dito yan sa Samal.” In photo: Hagimit falls, Samal Island, Davao Del Norte. Photo by PORTIA LADRIDO

When there are visitors during events like Durianman, fishermen would have their boats rented for tourists who want to go island-hopping, and other times, the locals also act as tour guides. The most popular of these tours is Taklobo Tours, a community-based initiative where tourists can snorkel to see the giant clamshells that span the 14-hectare area.

This tour was devised by the local government, Davao Del Norte State College, and Barangay Adecor in order to promote biodiversity conservation and to give livelihood to the community. “[The locals] guard the project, they manage it, they are the ones who look after the project,” Uy explains. “And of course technical assistance from the Davao Del Norte State College. ‘Pag may mga pupumuntang tourists doon, [‘yung locals] ang humaharap.”

Is Samal prepared for tourists?

While tourism does give an extra stream of income for the communities in Samal, tourism also comes with its pitfalls. Considering the Boracay closure and the fact that the Philippines has over 50 million domestic movements, with domestic tourists making up 70 to 90 percent in a destination, it was only a matter of time for Samal to fall prey to various environmental concerns.

“‘Pag hindi na kaya ng isang lugar yung carrying capacity, may problema na tayo sa sanitation, sa garbage,” Uy says. “Sad to note, medyo na-fe-feel na namin dito yan sa Samal. Just recently, during Holy Week, I went around, ang dami nang trash along the circumferential road, which before hindi namin nakikita. Ang daming plastic bottles. Siguro ‘yung mga nag-bi-bike o nag-pra-practice siguro for events like [Durianman], they leave their trash everywhere.”

locals.jpg When there are visitors during events like the Durianman triathlon, fishermen would have their boats rented for tourists who want to go island-hopping, and other times, the locals also act as tour guides. Photo by PORTIA LADRIDO

Uy also explains how unlike Davao City, which has thick layers of soil, Samal’s land is mostly composed of limestone. If there are septic tanks that are not properly sealed, when water gets outs from these tanks, the soils act as natural filters that cleanse the water.

“So that's why we are really strict during the construction of houses,” he says. The local government is also asking for assistance from the World Bank and the ADB for a centralized water septage sanitation in Samal so they can properly monitor surface water and groundwater pollution.

What visitors and residents can do

Samal is now dubbed as one of the fastest-growing tourism spots in the Philippines, and Uy says that President Duterte even promised to put up a bridge connecting Davao City to Samal. While this is welcomed by the city, he worries about what this could mean for the environment and the locals in Samal.

Since the surge in tourists can become a challenge rather than an opportunity, he says that the local government is looking at ways to ensure that they are armed with the necessary tools to welcome visitors, such as conducting coastal clean-ups and leading educational programs about segregation. But even with these initiatives, Uy emphasizes that it is most vital for every single person, visitor or not, to be more mindful of how their waste affects the island.

davaoairasia1.JPG Samal is now dubbed as one of the fastest-growing tourism spots in the Philippines, and mayor Uy says that President Duterte even promised to put up a bridge connecting Davao City to Samal. In photo: Club Samal resort, where the Durianman triathletes were housed. Photo by PORTIA LADRIDO

“We need the cooperation of everyone, every citizen, not only here in Samal but sa mga sister cities din since most of our trash here in Samal comes from the mainland,” he says. “‘Pag malakas ang ulan sa mainland, napupunta talaga sa amin. And of course, ‘yung galing din dito, so it adds up to the garbage problem.”

When asked what citizens and tourists can do to address this seemingly inevitable problem, Uy says that it only boils down to discipline. “Kahit gaano kaganda ‘yung mga facilities natin when the constituents are not disciplined, ang laki ng problema.”