Paradise Siargao Surfing Capital could not be another ‘cesspool’ like Boracay

Cloud 9 Surfing in Surigao Island, Philippines

 Cloud 9 Surfing at the Siargao Island, Paradise, Philippines

Philippine surfing paradise Siargao has no desire to be another ‘cesspool’ like Boracay

After witnessing the impact too many tourists have had at other popular Asian destinations, Siargao’s local population sought to set the island on a different, more sustainable course

Despite its location, in the northeast of Mindanao, in the Philippines, long mytho­logised for its isolation, the reef-crowned island of Siargao has had an airstrip since the 1960s. It was opened under President Diosdado Macapagal, when the Philippines was one of Asia’s most prosperous nations. Back then, Siargao and much of the nation looked ripe for development.

When flights started landing in 1963, GDP per capita in the Southeast Asian archipelago was US$168, measured in current dollar terms, more than China’s US$74 and India’s US$101. Two years later, Ferdinand Marcos

came to power, and decades of cronyism and corruption followed, feeding on inequalities established since Spanish and American occupations.  

China’s GDP per capita is now nearly three times that of the Philippines, where one in five people live below the poverty line and remittances from overseas workers account for more than 9 per cent of economic income. As the national economy slumped, the development of physical infrastructure on Siargao became less of a priority.

Then in 2008, under the presidency of Macapagal’s daughter, Gloria Arroyo, Siargao’s runway was extended, opening the island to a new breed of visitor, unlike the surfers who had been arriving on the overnight ferry for more than 40 years, drawn to the pristine reef breaks.

In 2017, passengers on one of the first direct flights from Manila were mostly locals escaping the Philippine capital’s traffic and smog. Also on board were a few youthful travellers ready to brave the potholed dirt roads to the main strip on Siargao, General Luna; looking forward to hunting through petrol-damp air for parties at coastal hotels, sniffing out kinilaw and lambanog, the local ceviche and a palm based liquor, in search of an endless summer.

Sugba lagoon, Siargao Island

Sugba Lagoon, Paradise Island of Siargao, Philippines. Photo: Journey Era

It took decades for Siargao to reach the “backpacker phase”, but a sense of nervous apprehension hung around the young crowds that year, as if they knew it couldn’t last.

That sense of fleeting wonder was captured in the 2017 Filipino film Siargao. Much as The Beach

had done for Ko Phi Phi, in Thailand, almost two decades earlier, the movie cemented Siargao’s status as an offbeat haven of hedonism, making it a magnet for the next wave, the young and fashionable; boutique, as always, followed backpacker.

Unlike Ko Phi Phi, but much like Ubud after Eat Pray Love, in 2010, these swooping revellers did not need to rely on word of mouth or secret maps; this generation was armed with smartphones and social media. The usual issues of overexposure soon loomed large.

Air passenger traffic in Siargao rose from 7,251 in 2011 to more than 128,000 in 2017 per Civil Aviation Authority figures. The island’s population in 2015 was just over 94,000. In 2018, when Boracay was closed, these numbers surged to more than 332,000.

Landing on that airstrip in 2019, now fed by three airlines, fresh arrivals were met by a throng of minivan drivers at the airport exit. Once a neo-hippie trail, the coastal road was now a buzzing strip of restaurants, resorts and bars. Room rates had doubled.

The famed beaches of Boracay, only half the flight time from Manila, remain a cautionary warning of what may await Siargao. In 2007, Boracay’s population was estimated at just over 16,500; that year the island was visited by more than 596,000 people. Over the following decade, tourism arrivals grew by nearly 13 per cent a year to more than two million in 2017. And while millions of dollars were flowing into Boracay, raw effluent was ebbing out into its coastal waters.

In February 2018, before a six-month enforced clean-up operation, President Rodrigo Duterte called it a “cess­pool”. At the time, that was a fairly accurate assess­ment; it was found that only 66% of businesses and 5% of households were connected to the mains sewer system.

Chef David del Rosario moved to Siargao as its popu­larity crested when Boracay closed. After attending culinary school in New York, he established his restaurant brand, CEV, marrying underappreciated Filipino cuisine with Siargao’s freshest seafood.

His Siargao establish­ment is based in Loose Keys, a shared space combining restaurant, bar, gallery and custom motorcycle rental shop. It has not been an easy transition but del Rosario’s contentment is tangible, beaming from his face and each plate served – an explosion of colour and taste.

Despite being boosted by greater prominence in the World Surf League, better accessibility and more coverage, Siargao is a tricky place in which to set up shop. Materials are expensive, shipped in from mainland Mindanao, with fragmented local supply chains, extreme seasonality, brownouts and prime rents approaching Manila prices.

Perhaps because of the local tourism industry’s roots in surfing, there has always been a sense of environ­mental responsibility among related businesses on the island. Over an indulgent breakfast at Greenhouse, Marja Abad – who runs the idyllic restaurant and surf retreat and is co-founder of the Siargao Environmental Awareness (SEA) Movement with her husband, James O’Donnell – details how their work allows “the present generation to absorb and manage the damage of these deeply ingrained issues of society”.

Advocating environmental best practice, running educational workshops and overseeing volunteer initiatives and clean-up programmes, SEA Movement challenges the lack of ecological awareness. Supported by the Siargao Tourism Operators Association, they helped pass a ban on single-use plastic bags last year.

Waste is a serious issue on the island. Its infrastructure was not designed for current tourist numbers. In June 2019, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) forced the closure of a dump outside General Luna, evidence that existing landfill capacity had long since been exceeded.

A visit by the environment secretary that August highlighted the issue that 30 per cent of 1,298 structures investigated along the coast violated easement rules, which forbid construction within 20 metres of the shoreline, and faced demolition. A function hall in Cabontug Resort, own­ed by the local government, was the first to be dismantled.

Sunset in Sohoton, Siargao Island

Sunset in Sohoton, Paradise Island of Siargao, Philippines. Photo: Journey Era

Sewage running directly into the ocean from about 600 family homes was also highlighted, but without reference to any remedial assistance. This is all despite Siargao having been a “protected landscape and seascape” since legisla­tion was passed in 1996. While it is encouraging that the DENR has formed a task force within the Environmental Management Bureau to investigate Siargao’s challenges, there are many deep-seated issues to be addressed, and soon.

Whereas Boracay’s close proximity to Manila made it vulnerable to the capital’s easy money, Siargao is further removed and has a proud and sizeable populace intent on protecting what they have, as demonstrated by a growing number of NGOs, in addition to SEA Movement.

Hardin ng Pagbabago (Garden of Change) is a commu­nity organic farming project established by a General Luna police captain. It not only strengthens barangay relations but addresses a deficit in locally grown produce, reducing food miles while rehabilitating vacant ground.

The project is being expanded with support from the mayor’s office. Meanwhile, businesses such as Lokal invest profits from rental accommodation and a restaurant into social enter­prise projects spanning sustain­able architecture, art, and innovation in the coconut industry.

Nature Kids of Siargao is a charity that educates the next generation about the importance of environmental protec­tion and preservation. In tandem, it operates recycling and upcycling projects to reduce the burden on landfills, raise funds and provide employ­ment for local people.

Heading away from Siargao’s main strip, traffic thins to reveal a sweeping landscape of emerald palms and paddy fields. Block housing gives way to wood and wicker, and an old farmer teases his buffalo uphill, dragging a tree trunk behind it.

In Pacifico, two women in bikinis stand in the middle of the road, selfie sticks raised high. Towards Burgos, once famed for its steady broadband connection, the pigs and fighting cocks stay a safer distance from the street. Further south, in Del Carmen, one of the first Spanish outposts, established in 1600, nearby mangroves defended the town against Moro pirate raids. Its hills protect the island from a more contemporary invasion.

With limitations on the numbers and size of aircraft that can land, Siargao may yet escape the degradation seen in Boracay, where there were no such checks on visitor numbers. The government and local community have a window of opportunity in which to execute a fairer, more inclusive and sustainable development plan; a blueprint for invest­ments in Bohol, Palawan and many other idyllic spots throughout the archipelago. With the island already protected by national legislation, Siargao is the ideal starting point.

Down a back road near the waterfront in General Luna, the veranda of a small bamboo house is packed with surf racks, each board bashed but lovingly repaired. Two bright-eyed puppies bound down the steps, followed by Emily O’Shea and Joshua Goña. The Australian-Filipino couple are the co-founders of Grom Nation, a charity established in 2017 to help Siargao’s young people cope with the tourism development through a combination of life-skills training, tutoring and counselling.

The Bent Palm (Now The Maasin River Rope Swing), Siargao Island

The Bent Palm (Now The Maasin River Rope Swing), Paradise Island of Siargao, Philippines. Photo: Journey Era

“Oh, that’s just Oscar, don’t worry about him,” O’Shea says, shooing a dark, darting form off the veranda. “We get mice in these huts but it’s nothing.”

As in countless other beach destinations that are home to more tourists than locals at certain times of year, tourist money often takes precedence over education. Grom Nation provides school catch-up classes and children receive training in hygiene, healthy living and the concept of consent – a taboo subject but a necessary one given the influx of big-city vice in a country where the legal age of consent is 12.

While sunseekers pay up to US$730 a night to stay at luxury Siargao establishments such as Nay Palad Hideaway – a price that can buy three rooms at the iconic Peninsula hotel in central Manila – O’Shea and Goña embody the spirit of the grass-roots movements that have risen in reaction to unequal progress, a lack of education and poorly thought out state systems.

Despite the kind of progress envisioned for the island as far back as that first airstrip in the 60s, such development must be guided to ensure that the local community shares in its success.

Goña was born on Siargao and is seen as a Kuya, or “big brother”, by the dozens of children he helps. O’Shea was captivated enough by the island and its people to plough her Australian nursing salary into helping Goña and the community.

Everyone here wants to enjoy the fruits of progress, but not at the expense of that which they cherish. With a little investment and forward thinking, this might still prove possible, funded in part perhaps by those US$730 room rates. Read more at Post Magazine of SCMP

Contributing Author:

Andrew McKee is a global equity investor who has spent more than a decade covering Asia and Emerging Markets. Based in Hong Kong from 2015 to 2019, he continues to support corporates and non-governmental organisations in long-term value creation and sustainable development throughout the region. He currently sits as trustee and director of Kidasha, a UK registered charity working to improve education, healthcare and child protection in Nepal. 
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