Wednesday, September 27, 2017


By Roger Pe
September 28, 2017 issue
Business Mirror

It is not just an award. It is meant to extol sustainability for humanity, modernity with less impact to the environment. It may sound like a motherhood statement but demographically, it means, all of us, and generations of our children, can look forward to enjoying this paradise, just like Mother Nature made it.

On that bright and sunny Thursday morning, a few hours after we landed at Lio Airport, the scene that greeted us was like in Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar winning motion picture “Apocalypse Now”. Only this time, there were no helicopters but motorboats, the undisputed king of the seas in El Nido.

In the movie, people remember the 12-minute chopper assault that was meticulously storyboarded and executed by Coppola and his production designer Dean Tavoularis when they shot in the Philippines.

Yes, we were on our way to ‘assault’ the blue waters of Bacuit Bay. Our mission: Reach El Nido’s famed lagoons, and subsequently, enter the more secluded nooks and crannies of Miniloc, Entalula, Pangalusian, Pinagbuyutan, Shimizu, and the longest sand bar I have ever seen, Snake island.

“Get ready for the time of your life,” our island tour guide hollered. As we sat and panned our thrilled eyes like Arriflex cameras, we saw 12 other bancas, each with about 20 passengers, going our direction, as if wanting to chase us.

Our voices were now drowned by the sound of motorized bancas. As we passed by Pinagbuyutan, the most recognizable of all rock formations in the area, our heartbeat stopped. The structure was so hairraisingly beautiful, the iconic location of “Survivor 10”, the Israel reality show and “Bourne Legacy”, the Hollywood blockbuster.

Soon, three other bancas came closer, and further down, a line of bancas followed. Now, I could really hear Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries,” Coppola’s movie soundtrack assaulting my ears.

Lagoons of wonder

Motorized bancas used to lull me to sleep. In El Nido, they gave me goosebumps and adrenaline rush. Not only they were bigger than usual, they cruised unbelievably fast, running like the wind as if mimicking the movements of flying fishes.

Here, the islands are not spread out from each other and can easily be accessed in less than an hour. In about 30 minutes, we reached the “Big Lagoon”, the picturesque landscape that was always on the pages of Conde Nast and Travel and Leisure magazines.

“Here I am, I have finally seen it. Now I could die,” I whispered. All passengers of the boat then scampered for their smartphones and alternately took selfies. They posed with the lagoon as backdrop and made the de rigeur El Nido signature shot.

From a 50-meter distance, smoke billowed from the prow of four boats. They also emitted a strange smell. We were told that they were roving ‘restaurants’ with chefs onboard. Want to have the freshest catch from the sea? They can whip up a delectable dish for you, served grilled and scrumptious.

Closer and closer, the cliffs started to look daunting. A raft then gently slid from behind our boat. There was a man paddling and peddling “Buko” juice, young coconuts and canned colas. What a pretty sight! But then again, I asked: “Where do they dispose their trash?”

The “Big Lagoon” was about the size of three football fields to my estimation. When we arrived, foreign and local tourists were already basking in its glory, and most of us were ready to take the plunge. But then again, our tour guide, who sounded every inch like a marine biology and anthropology professor, told us that visitors are not encouraged to swim here.

I got the drift. The flurry of boats coming in and out of the lagoon posed some risks and there could be accidents. He also mentioned that thousands of marine species lie underneath and reminded us to be extra careful in not disturbing their sanctuary.

The water was so irresistible, four of my companions jumped into it. I did not but listened to my instinct. The color of the water was a tell-tale sign. One could tell, turquoise blue was rather deep.

Small and ‘secret’ lagoon

We were now moving towards a jawdropping limestone karst formation, a crystal clear waterway with refreshingly clear emerald water. We had gotten off our boat and now paddling on kayak.

The entrance to the “Small Lagoon” is a narrow 3-meter wide rock hole. “One kayak at a time only or you’ll hit the stone wall”, the boatman said.

We had expected to be the only group of visitors, but alas, a number of tourists had beaten us to it. Nature as its chief architect, the “Small Lagoon” is largely enclosed. I was in disbelief when I learned that it has an almost perfect circular shape. Inside, I saw people in suspended animation, as if paying homage to the beauty of Mother Earth. I saw a man clamber up a rock, lied behind his back as he looked up the sky unmovingly.

This must be the ‘altar’ of the whole lagoon cavern. Towards the inner sanctum, people were visibly in awe, looking as if they’ve found their fountain of youth. Stillness was all over and the only sound you’d hear was the sloshing of water made by canoe paddles.

The eerie sound of silence would be intermittently broken by people exclaiming in glee - one found a baby shark gliding under the water. Little ‘sharkie’ and a green turtle were playing hide-and-seek in a ‘forest’ of corals as big as wheels of a 10-wheeler truck. Tiger, Parrot, Jack, Butterfly, Sweetlips, Snapper, Grouper, name it. Multi-colored fishes, all of them in their natural habitat, not is some mall or man-made aquarium.

Behind the “Small Lagoon” is an island visited by author Alex Garland years ago. Captivated by a “secret” beach, it became an inspiration for his “The Beach”. The bestseller that became a movie shot in Thailand starring Leonardo de Caprio.  

We wanted to linger a while but the sun was scorching our skin. Lunch was served at Entalula Island where my table was right beside a magnificent limestone wall. We headed next to Snake Island, nature’s wonderful work of art - a white sand beach that connects the island to the mainland. Depending on the tide, you can see the longest sandbar in the Philippines.

Rocked by Earth, Wind and Fire

Ever wondered why El Nido’s geographical formation is similar to Vietnam’s Halong Bay, Thailand’s Krabi or Indonesia’s Raja Ampat? They are all part of Asia’s Sunda Plate, one of the most seismically active and tectonically complex regions on Earth. Each one with its own unique attractions but many travel magazines agree, “El Nido is the best.”

How can El Nido not be “Best Island in the World”? Allow us to tell you why.

The date: September 15, 2017. The event: International Coastal Clean-Up Day. It was to happen in El Nido, Palawan. The participants: Hundreds of local school children, the youth, adult volunteers living in coastal areas, and tourists staying in island resorts.

They came in droves, by boats, buses and jeepneys to do their share in making El Nido’s beaches and seas free of plastic trash, ready to “get dirtied”.

After a few minutes of briefing, Estefania Mahecha, the pretty Colombian leader of the coastal clean-up, divided us into five groups. We were handed out sacks to put in our garbage loot and turn them over to big trucks parked on different parts of the beach when filled up. They would then bring them to recycling stations.

Global coastal clean-up

If other towns in the Philippines revel in their fiestas, people in El Nido celebrate coastal clean-ups. 

Every year, El Nido and the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC), an environmental movement, work together with volunteers to clean up the sea and its beaches of plastic trash.

Through ICC, hundreds of thousands of them in various parts of the world comb lakes, rivers and beaches for trash. For over three decades, more than 12 million of these volunteers have collected about 220 million pounds of trash.

Ten Knots Development Corporation, owners of El Nido Resorts has been celebrating coastal cleanups since the 1990s, teaming up with the local government, schools, restaurants, resorts, dive operators, and residents of all barangays in El Nido to participate.

“We plan to do this not every year. Not every month, not every week … but every single day,” said Mariglo Larilit, Sustainability Director of TKDC, who gave an inspirational talk after the coastal cleanup on Lio Beach, Casa Kalaw Resort.

Here’s a one-on-one interview with Larilit, an award-winning environmentalist and former UP Biology Professor who has stayed in the island for almost two decades:

What are your priorities and steps you are doing to make them realized? 

Larilit:  We are mandated to push for shared value - this is taking Corporate Social 
Responsibility to the next level. Creating shared value compels members of the organization to find ways to build partnerships with as many members of the community as possible. Partners look after each other and each other's interests, and seek growth together. The relationship always strives to be mutualistic.

A specific example would be committing to assist the LGU in Tourism Planning. This is an activity that will result in greater benefit for the entire municipality. This requires a long-term outlook and commitment, to ensure that we become part of seeing the plans through, as opposed to a one-time charity event.

A Tourism Plan is all-encompassing, requiring inputs from many sectors and expertise.  As one of the country's leading real estate entities, we have access to a pool of talents from whom the LGU can draw. We are glad to be of help, as this taps into our core competency.

Your brand of stewardship raises the bar when it comes to environmental protection, what else are you doing to TKDC a leader on this aspect?

Good environmental practices make good business sense. We have proven this time and time again. We would like to share this with as many entities as possible to assure them that these best practices are scale-able and not a luxury that only large business entities can afford.

We are also happy to draw from years of experience to demonstrate how to this scale-ability works for different types of resorts and hotels.

We embrace our leadership role, and we do appreciate a lot of followers, but we look forward to the day when more leaders in sustainable tourism in the Philippines will rise and help us push for this across the country, 7107 islands, plus - plenty of potential for leadership.

What were the tough challenges you encountered and how you dealt with them?

Working with communities can be a challenge because some of them operate within a different development framework and timeline. 

Agreeing on standards could also be a challenge sometimes. But we benefit from an employment ratio that is 90% locals - every one of them is an ambassador to the barangays where they come from. So they can attest to the sincerity and seriousness with which we carry out our programs. 

What are the great rewards in teaching people about environmental protection?

No one has tested this recently but I can bet that El Nido has a high environmental awareness quotient. No matter how remote the barangay, children know about turtles and why their eggs should not be harvested. They also know why blast fishing is wrong. There are several other indicators that tell us our efforts have hit their target.

What do you think are the best things that happened to El Nido as a community over the lst 10 years?

I see the benefits of tourism spread more equitably. People are able to prepare their and their children's future with greater confidence because of improved economy. People have greater access to information, and the influx of people of different cultures enrich the locals in various ways.

I, however, am very much aware that tourism carries the seeds of its own destruction, that it is a double-edged sword. The natural environment has taken a hit with increase in population density and demand for building materials.

Would you like to be in the same job if you were to start all over again?
Without a doubt.
Bird’s nest haven

Old Palawenos still call El Nido, Bacuit, a name that evokes long, torturous travel (because it is located at the tip of the mainland) and edible Swift bird’s nests. The latter, when turned into a soup, gave aphrodisiacal experience to the Chinese who paid premium for them.

Before the Spanish came, Chinese boats flocked to this once sleepy village. Bird’s nest trading thus gave birth to a thriving town and was renamed El Nido (meaning Nest).

The town sits right at the foot of a menacing limestone mountain. Menacing, because it drops vertically to the sea, and its jagged edges seem to challenge only those with the fiercest of hearts.

Adding fear to the bystander are its greyish monotone hues with dark crevices in between. If you ask what lurks inside, the answer is they’re home to thousands and thousands of Swift birds that build their nests from their own saliva, a prized-catch for those who believe in its medicinal value.

The dome of the mountain is likewise scary, gothic-like with spikes protruding to the sky, not the usual mountaintop you see in the Philippines. They’re cragged, sharp stones that could pierce your body if you make a false move.

Unregulated hunting has diminished bird inhabitants of El Nido cliffs. On the verge of extinction, the collection is now banned - by virtue of “El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area” declaration, making it the largest marine sanctuary in entire Philippines, covering a total of 903.21 square kilometers.

El Nido was part of Taytay town before it became a first class municipality. The latter was previously a Spanish settlement, capital of the whole Calamianes island region and the entire Palawan mainland.

The other El Nido

Word of mouth has fanned El Nido’s reputation as mecca for the legendary edible bird’s nest. Until a stunning discovery that unraveled the town’s other beautiful secrets to the world - the 45 limestone islands that now compete for attention, sparkling gemstones in its tourism jewel box. Precious rocks that never fail to mesmerize thousands of visitors daily.

To enjoy El Nido’s real beauty, one must also look at them with a drone-like perspective. One must not just sit there and wait for its world-renowned beauty to reveal itself. 

When one explores, the experience is just as incredible as finding a rare stone.

Regulating visitors

Recently, the management board of the El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area (ETMRPA) issued a statement that it will start imposing a limit of visitors to its environmentally sensitive islands. 

To avoid further deterioration, a “carrying capacity” policy will be implemented to regulate the number of visitors at any given day.

Tourist arrivals in El Nido increased by 30.70% in the last three years, according to the Municipal Tourism Office (MTO). The town registered 126,000 visitors last year.
Would we still see El Nido’s Swiftlets and Hornbills that were there many years ago? Would the town’s famed islands, seas and coastal areas be always free of garbage and plastic trash? Would its corals and beautiful lagoons continue to grow and be as astonishing as they were, and not suffer degradation? Will its forest not felled illegally?

With the town’s environmental culture and mindset, there is hope for planet Earth.

“You don’t just create a destination, you see the bigger picture,” Larilit said. 

She also mentioned that we are literally swimming against the tide of trash. 

“We consume so much and at some point in time, we will discard them. It is easy to trash and the potential to do it is at its all-time high, reaching a feverish pitch. Before we buy, we need to examine ourselves,” she said.

Beautiful planet

On our way to El Nido Cove Resort, accompanied Lio Estate Resort Senior Manager Ramil Lagrosa, we saw a few forest trees standing tall in the middle of the street that was apparently widened. They had caught everyone’s attention. “Why didn’t you cut them,” I asked. “Why should we? They were here ahead of us,” he said. Well said.

Lagrosa started his career as a waiter and bartender. He moved to Manila after seven years to gain more experience in resort management. In 2013, he was offered a Group F&B Manager position handling El Nido’s Pangulasian, Lagen, Miniloc, Apulit and El Nido Cove resorts.

In two years, he was promoted as the Resort Manager of Apulit Island Resort. On his 4th year, he was given the opportunity to become the Senior Resort Manager of all Lio Estate Resorts (Casa Kalaw, El Nido Cove, Balai Adlao and Hotel Covo).

Born and raised in Palawan, Lagrosa wants El Nido to become a world-renowned destination, known for its stewardship towards responsible and sustainable tourism. He is proud of the El Nido kind of service that he has helped become famous - personalized, impeccable and beyond guests’ expectations, the kind of service with a personal touch showing the local community’s remarkable nature, and making them feel ‘at home’ while on vacation.

Gemstone islands and resorts

Miniloc allows you to discover popular attractions around Bacuit Bay. It is the gateway to “Big” and “Small” Lagoons and Snake Island. Here, you can get up close and personal with a school of 1.5-meter jack fishes and an amazing variety of marine species.
Pangulasian has a pristine white beach amidst a tropical forest setting. You can frolic in its 750-meter stretch of white sand beach and be amazed by the marine sanctuary right at its doorstep. They say you get the most spectacular photos of sunrises and sunsets here.

Lagen is often referred to as El Nido’s eco-sanctuary island. It nestles between a lush four-hectare forest and a calm, shallow lagoon, ideal destination for those seeking a relaxing holiday in a private paradise.

Casa Kalaw features a 42 well-appointed guestrooms, each equipped with air-conditioning, hot and cold shower, wireless Internet, 42” cable television, coffee and tea making facilities, safety deposit box and bathroom amenities to ensure a delightful experience for everyone.

El Nido Cove Resort is a beachfront paradise that is also located in a forest, just 20-minute ride from Casa Kalaw. On our way here, I saw a squirrel darting off from the bush and crossing the street. A beautiful Mynah, perched on tree, also made my day.

Progress, as in any part of the world, cannot be stopped.
Islanders must police themselves against pollution and degradation of paradise. Tourists must be responsible. Developments in El Nido should blend with the natural landscape.

If they are master-planned to be ecologically sustainable and guided by the principles of sustainability, and with the least impact to the environment, El Nido will be forever called the World’s Best Island and make our planet Earth happy.