Surfers coming back to the beach in Siargao after an afternoon in the water
There is no doubt that tourism is a double-edged sword. On one hand it brings the awareness of a beautiful place, economic development and growth for the local population, on the other, the exposure often leads to over pollution, damage of the ecosystem and ultimately, the ruin of the community. I was overwhelmed with a sense of both excitement and dread during a recent visit to Siargao (pronounced shar-GOW), a teardrop-shaped island, one of the 7,000-plus islands making up the Philippine archipelago, which is presently standing at the floodgates of a massive tourism boom.
The island is known as the surfing capital of the Philippines with its famous break called Cloud 9, a fast and powerful fiend with monumental tubes that sweep in from the Pacific Ocean. Local legend has it that a foreign surfer, called Max Walker, put Cloud 9 on the map — and in the decades since, it has drawn world pros for international tournaments, including the Siargao International Women's Surfing Cup, sanctioned by the World Surf League for the very first time, this May 2017.
Located 800 kilometres South East of the Philippine capital, Manila, in the province of Surigao del Norte, the island was not even well known to Filipinos until a few years ago. Before the airport opened in 2011, getting to the island meant an overnight ferry ride from Cebu. Today there are six direct flights, which operate daily, two from Manila and four from Cebu, and according to local travel agents, starting 2018, these flights will continue to increase, with an international airport rumoured to be in the pipeline for 2019.
As I write this, it seems as if everyone on the island has turned into a real estate broker. Locals and foreign developers alike are snatching up beachfront property. Big hotel and resort chains have staked their claim on prime, ocean-facing acreages. Foreign chefs and entrepreneurs are moving to Siargao, setting up boutique hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, lounge bars, retails shops and a casino is even in the works.
A Stand Up Paddle Boarder Enjoying Sugba Lagoon in Siargao
Indeed, the island is at a pivotal time in its development, quickly getting a reputation as Asia’s newest heartthrob resort destination. It has so much on offer: perfect white sand, enchanting lagoons, 48 islets, coral reefs, unusual rock formations, exotic wildlife - including crocodiles. It boasts endless rice fields, waterfalls, large mangrove forests and of course, world-class surfing - but likewise, it has so much at stake. One can’t help but wonder, if Siargao will be able to escape the fate of islands such as Boracay, Phuket or Bali , which have undoubtedly turned into overdeveloped, overcrowded and overpolluted resort meccas.
A local NGO called the Siargao Environmental Awareness (SEA) Movement, which focuses on marine conservation, believes this is achievable if we act now. Made up of surfers, artists, writers, entrepreneurs, journalists and policy-makers, SEA Movement wants to preserve the natural resources and beauty of the island of Siargao, while developing it in a sustainable way to provide jobs and opportunities for the local community.
Pia de Lima, who runs SEA Movement says, “It is crucial that all sectors - government, businesses and NGOs like us - work together to tackle the risk of environmental degradation. As the influx of tourism keeps intensifying, empowering the local community is vital so that it doesn’t remain passive to the changes taking place. For starters, we need a proper waste management system, both solid and sewage. This is by far the biggest challenge facing the island. We also require access to good medical facilities, affordable quality education, typhoon-proof housing, clean water, a sustainable tourism plan and real jobs with salaries. These things should be prioritized over international airports and massive bridges.”
Moreover, SEA Movement says it can count on supporters beyond the Philippine shores. Recently an all female Surf & Stand Up Paddle Board team from Singapore visited Siargao to help SEA Movement kick-start an ocean-conservation, bag-making livelihood programme.
The project aims to benefit 120 underprivileged Filipino women living on the island. The team, under the banner of HER Planet Earth - a women's advocacy group headquartered in Singapore that promotes gender equality and the integrity of the environment - wants to highlight the importance of ocean conservation and the urgency of supporting women affected by climate change. The programme focuses on recycling plastic from the sea to create fashionable items and accessories for sale and the expectation is that it will provide the local community with a livelihood opportunity, while simultaneously reducing plastic waste from the ocean.
Filipino women in Siagao taking part in the SEA Movement Grassroots Programme supported by HER Planet Earth
Thankfully Siargao is classified as a conservation area and in October 2017, the Philippine government’s Department of Science and Technology announced that it would bring Eco-Sep to Siargao. Eco-Sep is a septic water management system technology, which will stop contamination of wastewater in sewage systems. It’s a start, and all these programmes can certainly impact the development of Siargao in a positive way, but so much more needs to take place. It’s increasingly clear that if the government continues to invest in the right infrastructure, if the local community and developers make environmental conservation a top priority and if organisations such as SEA Movement get a say in the island’s development plans, then Siagao will have a fighting chance of growing in a sustainable way.