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Doing tourism right

May 17, 2021

By Ferdie Marcelo

Tourism can be both a blessing and a curse for island environments. Beachgoers frequently leave more than just footprints, and what is left behind is far too often passed on for the local islanders to deal with. A recent Seacology project in the Philippines is helping to make such tourism more sustainable, and supports the local community’s efforts to combat pollution.

Tingloy Municipality on Maricaban Island, 2 1/2 hours by car and another 45 minutes or so by boat from Metro Manila, is fairly accessible for local tourists coming from the capital city. In the early ’90s, as word got out about Tingloy’s beautiful beaches and wondrous coral reefs, tourists started trickling in. By the time the pandemic hit, they were coming in droves.

A photo of Tingloy’s Masasa Beach during Holy Week in 2018 went viral, not for the white sandy beaches or panoramic scenery, but for the huge shoulder-to-shoulder crowd they attracted. With the crowd came piles of garbage, which posed a huge challenge for the island municipality. There is no landfill site on Maricaban, and the mainland municipality of Mabini will not accept their trash. Being a tourist destination too, Mabini is barely coping with its own waste.

There are other environmental impacts as well. Much of the damage to the island’s corals is done by the careless snorkeler or the novice scuba diver. Corals have been stood on, sat on, and snapped off to take home as souvenirs.

Despite these impacts, tourism has been a net positive for Tingloy, and through responsible development, it could be a key factor in protecting the local environment long-term.

Tourism has already played a positive role in reducing hugely destructive dynamite fishing, which was once rampant in the area. In the ‘70s and ‘80s huge outrigger commercial fishing boats with lift nets called basnig or basnigan took the lion’s share of fish from the reefs. To compete, the  local fisherfolk felt forced to use destructive fishing methods. Then the tourists started to come. Initially they hired boats for diving and snorkeling, then they rented rooms, then more of them came. It was much easier to make money this way than by going farther and farther out to sea for a dwindling catch.

In time, the proverbial lightbulb switched on: What the paying customers have come to see must be protected.

The waterfront at Tingloy Municipality, where visitors arrive on Maricaban Island.

Tourists crowd the beach at Tingloy. © TigaSouth Ka Ba

On November 26, 2018, Tingloy’s Municipal Council passed an ordinance declaring the 22-hectare (54-acre) reef in front of Masasa Beach in Barangay San Juan as the Parasan Marine Protected Area. This let them do two things: set aside a core zone where no marine resource extraction, including fishing, is allowed; and, provide the legal basis to punish violators.

Community members have been mobilized to ensure the long-term monitoring of the reefs and its environs. Some have been trained in freediving, not just to compile data but also to orient and guide visitors on how to best appreciate the reefs without causing damage.

With commitments in place, Tingloy was able to secure a grant to build a Nature Conservation Center from Seacology, which was completed in April. This facility will serve several purposes, including to welcome all visitors with a briefing on what they may and may not do while on the island.

Independent of our project, the island’s people are taking steps to get the waste situation under control. Working with the local government, they built a center in the neighboring community of Barangay San Juan. This will help the islanders collect, sort, and recycle plastic and other materials more effectively.

Tourism will make a comeback when the health crisis starts to wane, and Tingloy will be ready. The rest will be up to the visitors themselves, who must learn to take care to protect what they have come to see.


Ferdie Marcelo has led Seacology’s projects in the Philippines since 2006.

Maricaban Island sits in the Verde Island Passage, a world biodiversity hotspot.

The waters surrounding the island are home to thriving, but threatened coral reefs.

The visitors' center under construction in 2019.

The completed visitors' center will welcome tourists and familiarize them with the rules of Maricaban's protected areas.