All packed up with nowhere new to go? Why not make this vacation your own “Visit the Philippines Summer”?
Just last March, Pres. Aquino officially declared 2015 as Visit the Philippines Year (VPY), with the goal of attracting 10 million international visitors. The country also hopes to hit its target of 56 million domestic tourists for 2016 after recording 44 million in 2014.
VPY, combined with the prolonged summer break, is the perfect time to discover the Philippines beyond the headlines and sample its offerings in the areas of history and culture, lifestyle and entertainment, music and arts, and sports, adventure and ecotourism.
Lose yourself in a total vacation experience that combines culture, crafts, skills and natural resources through the five unique destinations of G • Eco Tours.
ABS-CBN Lingkod Kapamilya Foundation Inc. (ALKFI) executive director Gina Lopez launched G • Eco Tours early this year as one of the social entrepreneur arms of the foundation.
“What makes G • Eco Tours different is that we are, first and foremost, into preserving the environment. More importantly, we are into community building and development,” says Mael Cabigao, G • Eco Tours manager.
Thus, for the traveler who doesn’t want to settle for “the usual,” there is the road less traveled—but no less gorgeous—to such gems as Sarangani, Palawan, Sorsogon, Romblon and Guimaras. G • Eco Tours also aims to open up a slew of other sites, including Samar; Concepcion and Carles in Northern Iloilo; and Iba in Zambales.
But which ecotourism destination is for you? Cabigao breaks it down for prospective visitors:
“If you’re into culture, Sarangani at the tip of Mindanao is the place to go. If you want a little bit more variety, you could go to Palawan where you’ve got the beach, Ugong Rock for caving and zip lining, and the underground river, so it’s a mix of different activities. If you want beaches, Sorsogon has everything from a surfing beach to a swimming beach to a beach where you could swim with the marine life and harvest sea urchins or seaweed for your lunch.”
At the living museum of Lamilifew in Sarangani, visitors will get to see the “dream weavers of the South” at work, so called because the women weave designs that must come to them in a dream, says Cabigao, a longtime New Yorker who joined G • Eco Tours at its inception four months ago.
Norie Garcia, Bantay Kalikasan program manager, adds: “Instead of bringing them to the city to show their traditions, we encourage tourists to go to the community and see how, they, for example, grow 20 varieties of camote and several varieties of upland rice, weave their cloths and continue to do their traditional dances.”
Bantay Kalikasan works closely with the G • Eco Tours team in selecting and developing the different sites. Pre- G • Eco Tours, the environmental arm of ALKFI launched the Ugong Rock ecotourism project in Palawan in 2008. The site made P31 million last year, a 35% increase over 2013’s P23 million. It is now being run independently by the residents, who have expanded the livelihood activities to include restaurant and photography ventures and, soon, organic farming.
“We try to bring forward the insights we get from our communities, like stakeholder engagement,” Garcia says of their takeaway from the highly successful Ugong Rock project.
Since they don’t remain in the area yet want the project to be sustainable, the group shares its strategies and collaborates with the local government, barangay leaders and other stakeholders who understand the values they want to impart.
Adds Cabigao: “In terms of private partners, we are very selective. We have to be aligned with businesses that have the same vision as we do—that of a Philippines with eco-friendly tourism practices that support sustainable community building efforts and responsible care for the environment. We cannot partner with a hotel that disregards the environment, for example, or treats their workers unfairly.”
The ALKFI chair’s penchant for getting things done fast is also a great catalyst for change because her sense of urgency drives the team forward to achieve its targets.
“It’s exciting because we are able to leverage the strength of the foundation, our networking capacity and various resources and sectors,” Garcia points out.
Today, while Bantay Kalikasan focuses on delivering its goal targets under environment conservation, livelihood and community participation, G • Eco Tours takes care of marketing the sites—or, as Cabigao calls it, “the fun part.”
“We show the sites to our area managers so they can think of ways to package them as tourist destinations. We look for things that need to be done, how we can beef up the souvenir items, what’s the wow factor, how to differentiate it from the other sites,” Cabigao says.
The G • Eco Tours manager, who works with a team of four in Manila aside from the area managers, describes a G • Eco Tours package as a “vacation with a conscience.”
“After a while you can only do so much sunbathing, getting drunk on the beach and all of that. You see the beauty of nature and say, ‘Wait a minute, will my kids see that? Will my apo see this?’ When you go to a G • Eco Tours destination, you’re helping a community that also has that purpose in mind—to retain what you see now for generations to come.”
At the same time, Cabigao adds, the communities need to be the ones lifted out of poverty.
“As GL [Gina Lopez] would say, ‘I don’t mind entrepreneurs getting rich, but the communities should also get rich with them.’ And rightfully so because the people in the communities are the ones that take care of the environment, so you also want them to be responsible for their own backyard.”
But, in the end, what G • Eco Tours and Bantay Kalikasan really want is for visitors to go to the sites themselves.
“The key thing is to see and experience the sites—being in the world’s densest forest in Sibuyan, seeing untouched islands and rivers, eating local food, island hopping,” Garcia says.
“If you’re surrounded by beauty, your outlook towards life changes. And the Filipinos are the best in terms of being friendly and hospitable. Beautiful views and the care and attention of the Filipinos—that’s the best combination in any vacation,” Cabigao asserts. (Story/photos by Norma Sison)