Sustainable tourism has a high price tag, but, hey, it’s the only sensible way to go


WITH its breathtaking sunsets, clear azure waters, and stunning powdery white beaches, it’s no wonder Boracay Island has consistently made the list of best islands in Asia or top islands in the world. But there was a time it was described a “cesspool” by no less than the Philippines president — a victim of over-tourism.

This led to the island’s closure on April 26, 2018, paving the way for government’s rehabilitation program, which forced resorts to treat their wastewater before these were pumped into the surrounding waters. The rehab also widened roads, reclaimed watershed areas from informal settlers, and strictly implemented the easement rules on the main beach and freed it from encroaching resorts and beach furniture. This also halted the indiscriminate approvals of business permits to new resorts. A government study had found that the island’s ecosystem could only support 19,125 tourists a day, at any given time.

After Boracay reopened six months later, it ceased to be the hottest party island in the country, where the once popular Labor Day holiday in May was celebrated with alcohol- and drug-fueled dance and music jams dubbed Laboracay.  It was hailed as a model of  “sustainable tourism” and sparked comments from a number of its long-time visitors to exclaim that it was the Boracay they had fallen in love with 20 years earlier.

Philippine Hotel Owners Association Executive Director Benito C. Bengzon Jr.. Cebu Pacific President and Chief Commercial Officer Alexander Lao

“The tourism and hospitality industry play a critical role in achieving sustainable development goals around the globe. These goals may include pushing for responsible consumption and production, decent work and equitable economic growth and overall protection of the environment,” said Philippine Hotel Owners Association Executive Director Benito C. Bengzon Jr. “Against this background, tourism enterprises, service providers and the general traveling public are now more conscious of the importance of implementing sustainable practices in the entire customer journey. While it is true that various aspects of a traveler’s experience can potentially impact on the environment, stakeholders are now assuming greater responsibility in introducing programs designed to reduce carbon footprint and promote sustainability,” he said.

Traveler’s trend

HE cited El Nido Resorts in Palawan, operated by Ayala Land Inc. under its resorts arm Ten Knots Group, as a model of sustainable tourism even before the term became an industry buzz phrase. Since it opened in the 1980s, it has consistently invested in protecting the environment by implementing an efficient waste management system, a coral reef conservation program, and using renewable energy sources. Aside from being frequently named among the world’s best resorts, the island resorts (Miniloc, Pangalusian, Lagen, Apulit) have won awards in ecotourism, sustainability, green hotels, among others.

Mariglo Laririt, director of environment and sustainability of the Ten Knots, explained, “For tourism in protected areas, investing in ‘Sustainability’ is not a nice-to-have option. It is THE business model. High quality, low density. There is no room for cheap tourism in areas with fragile nature ecosystems. We see the consequences all over the world where the issue is forced. Measuring and managing ecological footprint is a cost that cannot be borne by less committed businesses and governments.”

It is not without its challenges, however. Sizeable capital is needed to install and maintain sustainable tourism systems in accommodation establishments. But Bengzon asserted:  “While these investments may entail higher costs initially, they have proven to be valuable and have paid off in terms of long-term environmental impact, community support, and enhanced brand value.” He added, more and more Filipinos are choosing hotels and resorts “that have adopted green practices. Our hotels also see a growing trend across different traveler segments looking for dining establishments that offer organic and fair-trade sourced ingredients.  Apart from providing healthier options to diners and guests, hotels are able to provide livelihood at local communities by steady sourcing of produce.”

Laririt also cited constantly evolving metrics among the challenges of maintaining sustainable tourism practices. “As the science progresses, we’re seeing that what was top-of-class last year is today’s business-as-usual. And it is a challenge because tourists become more and more discerning to claims that businesses make. It is a challenge that we at Ten Knots are equipped to take on because of our long history with employee training, managing impacts, and community engagement.”

‘Net zero’ by 2050

The aviation industry, considered among the major causes of global warming due to its carbon dioxide emissions, has now set its sights on attaining zero-carbon emissions by 2050. In the Philippines, Cebu Pacific (CEB) said it is striving to meet that commitment by using sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) — made from renewable biomass and waste resources — in its aircraft. On October 25, it became the first Philippine carrier to use SAF on a flight from Tokyo to Manila with an Airbus 321neo, powered by 40-percent blended SAF produced by Neste Corp. and supplied by Itochu Corp. This combination resulted in a 44-percent reduction in carbon emissions per passenger, setting a new record for CEB’s SAF-powered flights.

“As we await sufficient SAF supply to meet the demand of the entire aviation industry, this inaugural Narita to Manila SAF flight represents Cebu Pacific’s ongoing efforts toward making air travel more sustainable. Other decarbonization programs that we have put in place include investing in fuel-efficient NEOs, optimization of flight plans, and adoption of fuel efficiency best practices to minimize fuel consumption. All these are concrete sustainability initiatives that bolster our commitment and support for the aviation industry’s goal of flying net-zero by 2050,” said Alexander Lao, CEB President and Chief Commercial Officer. 

Due to its limited supply, SAF costs three to five times more than current jet fuel prices. “We are encouraging its greater development to bring down its cost and ultimately, airfares,” said Lao. CEB has a three-part roadmap until 2030 to “possibly integrate” SAF in its commercial operations. “First, we are incrementally testing and incorporating SAF in operations — we have used SAF in the delivery flights of new aircraft. Second, we are assessing the acceptance of the market and buy-in of SAF. In fact, this Tokyo-Manila SAF flight is already our second as we did a Singapore-Manila SAF flight last year. Lastly, we engage with various stakeholders to develop and secure CEB’s SAF supply,” he said.

Meanwhile, Bengzon said PHOA members have “recognized the importance of sustainability and have integrated it into their operations,” and are implementing sustainable tourism practices in varying degrees and scope. Proof of this, he said, was that  a number of its members have been awarded the Asean Green Hotel Standard, a certification process recognizing environment-friendly programs in the region’s accommodations industry. Recipients of the awards in 2023 include: Amarela Resort in Bohol, Bellevue Resort in Bohol, and Crimson Resort and Spa in Cebu. Other members have also received the awards in previous years.

For those accommodation establishments still planning to adopt sustainable practices, Laririt suggested designating a “‘sustainability champion,’ who will then make an inventory of [the resort’s] current practices. Initiate conversations with key individuals within management, staff, guests, host communities, and local government. Draft a sustainability policy that will address the concerns raised about your operations. Get  top management to approve the policy. Or if you are top management, approve it and task HR (human resources) to cascade the policy and create a training manual to graft this into the company DNA. Let the sustainability champion find allies within the company to create pockets of success. Start small, but don’t be afraid to think big.”

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