Eco Tourism in The Philippines – Travel Tips.
Think Philippines and do visions of white sand beaches, turqoise waters, hidden lagoons and swaying palm trees come to mind?
I know they came to my mind before I travelled here in November 2016. The good news? That does exist. The bad news? Like in other South East Asian countries, some parts of the Philippines have also fallen prey to mass tourism and the problems that creates. From visitor restrictions being put into place in El Nido, Palawan, to widespread criticism of destructive tourism in Boracay, the Philippines has not escaped the double-edged sword of tourism.
To guide you away from some of the un-sustainable and mass-touristed options, I’ve put together these tips for eco tourism in the Philippines that contain some great options for sustainable travel in the Philippines. Here you’ll find my favourite eco resorts in the Philippines and advice on the responsible travel choices we can make when travelling there.
This guide covers responsible travel tips for Bohol, Palawan, Cebu, Kalanggaman (Leyte) and Manila. It also discusses safety and ethics of travel to the Philippines in the current political climate. Got questions or tips to add? Let me know in the comments section!
Which Island(s) to Visit… or Not?
In my four week trip around the Philippines, I visited Palawan, Cebu, Bohol, Leyte, (and of course Manila), and this is what I cover in this post.
First a little on where NOT to visit: I purposely chose to avoid Boracay, which has been suffering under the pressure of mass tourism in recent years – its turquoise waters are filled with trash and raw sewage that runs untreated from hastily constructed resorts that do not have treatment systems, and its locals have seen the darker side that tourism can bring. Boracay – in my book – looks to be as far from “paradise” as one can get.
Which Philippine Islands are best to visit of course depends on your interests, but also on time. Two Islands which are easily accessible from one to the other are Cebu and Bohol: Cebu has a good number of international flights, and Bohol is just a 3 hour fast ferry trip from Mactan.
Eco Tourism in Bohol, Philippines.
Bohol is possibly the perfect bite-sized island to explore. Small in size comparing to neighbouring Cebu, Bohol was one of my favourite places in the Philippines when I visited in 2016.
It’s a little – but not too much – off the beaten path, although that may soon change with the opening of a new airport on Panglao Island at the south of Bohol. Many travellers make a beeline straight to the beaches of Panglao, but there’s more to see in Bohol than that small part, so definitely factor in seeing something of the rest of Bohol.
Bohol Eco Tourism Highlights.
Staying at Bohol Eco Resort, Amorita. There aren’t many places in the Philippines taking sustainability as seriously as Amorita resort is. From installing their own waste treatment systems to training staff on recycling and holding competitions for new sustainability initiatives at the hotel, Amorita is committed to reducing its environmental impact in a big way. You wouldn’t necessarily see it while staying here, it’s all the small things which add up. Which makes that cocktail watching the sunset over Alona beach taste just a little bit better.
Exploring the Abatan River and Watching Fireflies, with RiverLife. My first experience of river trips in Bohol, unfortunately, was far from sustainable, and more an example of mass tourism (you can read about that here). So for that reason I highly recommend avoiding the Luboc River cruise that is offered by so many hotels & travel agents, in favour of a more small scale and much more sustainable option. I found out about River Life and their Abatan River project through Visit.org.
River Life run boat and Kayaking trips on the Abatan River, which is a sensitive mangrove forest and river basin, which River Life are going to lengths to conserve and protect against illegal dredging, littering and pollution by locals. Choose from going to watch the fireflies along the river in the evening, taking a boat trip in the day and stopping off at small local villages to learn crafts such as palm weaving, or take a Kayak trip. River Life train villagers to become Kayak guides to give them a direct economic incentive to look after the river, in a place where environmental awareness is low. You can support their great work by booking a trip with them!
Eco Tourism in Palawan, Philippines.
The pin-up for Philippines tourism of late, and winner of Conde Nast most beautiful Island in the world accolade is Palawan. Once a strong contender for eco tourism and more sustainable tourism development in the Philippines, parts of the Island are now creaking under the pressure of skyrocketing visitor numbers from both domestic and international tourists.
Nowhere is feeling the strain of over tourism more than El Nido, Palawan. Once an ideal Tarzan hangout where one could enjoy one’s own private Island, the town of El Nido and surrounding area are now so saturated with tourists that the town is experiencing a food crisis.
Why? Due to the mass conversion of agricultural land into resorts and hotels. With non existent (or simply unenforced) planning, pretty much every spot of land is being developed into an establishment for tourism. For a town with a regular population of 36,000 and does not even have a sewage treatment system, the ~200,000 tourists that they now get per year is simply too many. Other problems experienced by El Nido following the tourism boom include deforestation, environmental degradation, water pollution due to excess sewage and pollution from the number of boats ploughing the waters to island and coral destruction.
While the local government have (successfully) enforced bans on construction on islands in El Nido’s archipelago of Islands, the same cannot be said of the main town and mainland.
Palawan Eco Tourism Highlights.
Avoid El Nido.
Given the damage already being done to El Nido, the town stands at high risk of becoming the next Boracay for the Philippines, and I would recommend to avoid El Nido if you can – at least until such a time as they are better able to deal with the tourism volume.
Sail between Islands with Tao Philippines.
One more sustainable way to cruise the Islands between Palawan and Coron, to the North, and part of the El Nido Archipelago is to go on a trip with Tao Philippines. A trip with Tao not only allows a full digital detox (there’s no wifi) but to sail between local islands and learn about local communities in a way that has little (negative) impact in this beautiful part of the Philippines.
Stay at a Palawan Eco Resort.
I was lucky enough to experience life as a real island cast-away, in another part of the Philippines near Tay-Tay (North East of the Island). In fact, I even had the beach to myself at Flower Island Eco Resort. This lovely eco resort in Palawan has done all it can to be impact-free, and also engages in supporting work done by local NGO’s to raise awareness of the damage done to ocean flora and fauna through activities such as dynamite and cyanide fishing – unfortunately still a common practice in some parts of the Philippines.
Eco Tourism in Cebu.
Cebu, one of the Philippines largest Islands, is also one of its most popular, with many travellers making a beeline for either Moalboal in the south or Malapascua in the north. I chose the latter, and am glad I did – Malapascua was one of my favourite Islands in the Philippines.
Malapascua is a bit of a journey from Cebu city – it requires a bus ride of around 5 hours, then a hop into a very low in the water dingy (best not to think about it too much!) to reach a larger boat that will take you across to Malapascua island itself (30 minutes). We got caught in a mini storm on our crossing over as the heavens opened and vertical rain started blowing in – but made it in one piece! This island being a little more difficult to get to has doubtless preserved it from some of the mass tourism afflicting other parts of the Philippines.
Discovering Eco Hotels in Malapascua, Cebu.
Malapascua is one of the top destinations in the Philippines for diving, and there are plenty of dive resorts. I’m not a diver myself and so came more for the ambience, but the first place I stayed at on Malapascua – Evolution Dive Resort – is a dive resort and is part of the Green Fins certification program – which looks to spread awareness amongst divers about protecting the marine environment.
The real highlight of my time in Malapascua for me, though was my stay at Tepanee Beach Resort.
Finding an Eco Resort in Malapascua, with loads of Soul.
Tepanee Beach Resort was one of those completely by chance but very serendipitous discoveries. Perched on the southern end of Malapascua with its own private beach and good wifi (a serious luxury in the Philippines). The owner of Tepanee – Andrea, an Italian, has gone to a lot of lengths to create a resort that respects the island environment. Not only is it the only place to stay on the island that composts and grows extra vegetables for the staff to take home themselves, but in his spare time Andrea (a former professional swimmer) is dedicated to teaching island village children to swim and enter national swimming competitions. This was one of my favourite places to stay on my one month Philippines trip.
PS the Italian food really tastes Italian and is highly recommended 😉 .
Eco Tourism in Leyte.
One of the lesser known parts of the Philippines, Leyte has been through more than its fair share of hardships. In November 2013, Typhoon Yolanda (also known as Typhoon Haiyan outside of the Philippines and one of the strongest tropical storms ever recorded) claimed as many as 22,000 lives and is one of the biggest recent natural disasters in the Philippines.
That means that people here have gone through many hardships and the economic benefits that tourism brings are extra valuable. Take time to visit Leyte, and you’ll see a completely different part to the Philippines: one where people really appreciate you coming.
Visiting Kalanggaman Island, Leyte.
Visiting the Island Paradise of Kalanggaman Island, Leyte, was one of the highlights of my trip. This small sandbar or slice of paradise has shot to fame in recent years, but authorities are doing what they can to manage numbers of visitors more sustainably than in neighbouring countries.
You can read about my experience visiting Kalanggaman Island, Leyte, how to get there, and how it is an example for more sustainable tourism here.
The Philippines’ buzzing Metropolis: Responsible Travel in Manila.
Manila is hardly the main attraction for many holiday-makers travelling to the Philippines. It’s decidedly un-beachy, has plenty of confronting policy, and doesn’t have the reputation as being the safest place in the world. Most travellers arrive in Manila and head onwards as quickly as possible. So why should you consider exploring?
During my time in the Philippines I spent as much as a week in Manila. I found the area of Makati (the modern business district) to be a safe, convenient and pleasant area to stay with plenty of hotels to choose from and restaurants to enjoy. I also fell in love with the faded and crumbling colonial glory of Escolta in downtown Manila, which was becoming a hub for artists and social entrepreneurs.
One of the highlights of my time in Manila was getting to see more of the city’s local culture and vibrance through I-like local on a market tour. They partner with an NGO who raise revenue through city tours to invest in the slums of Manila. The markets of older parts of Manila are a side to life that few tourists see, and what better reason to go on one that the revenue goes to a good cause!
One of the famous Manila bay sunsets.
Safety and Ethics of Travel in the Philippines.
It’s hard to talk about travel to the Philippines without the topics of safety and ethics of travelling there coming up. Before choosing to book a trip to the Philippines I recommend reviewing your government’s travel advice for the Philippines, as the situation is subject to change. Of course, always take out reliable and comprehensive travel insurance.
You can find the UK travel advisory for the Philippines here and the US advisory here. At time of visiting (2016) and time of writing (2017) the main area of the Philippines that travellers should avoid is the Island of Mindanao and the southern area of the Philippines, where there is ongoing unrest. There have also been incidents in Manila, robbery can be a problem, and it is generally better to avoid travelling around Manila at night. When in Manila, I travelled by Uber which I found safe and reliable – unfortunately the traffic means it takes a lot of time to get across the city.
Since 2016, President Duterte has been leading a crackdown – many say a witchhunt – against drug dealers, pushers and addicts. Estimates are that since mid 2016 10,000+ people have been killed. While there are undoubtedly problems with crime and addiction in the Philippines – especially in Manila – most are killed without trial and many innocent people have suffered at the hands of so called vigilantes. Internationally the crackdown has been labelled as a mass human rights violation. You can read more about the situation here.
Tourists have less risk of being caught up in the political situation, but when travelling in the Philippines, keep your political views about the Philippines to yourself, and it goes without saying – do not get involved in drugs. Many people in the Philippines live in real fear of being labelled as an addict by anyone that they have had a disagreement with, do not put anyone at risk by asking difficult questions.
Should you go? It depends on if you see your visit to be supporting the Filipino government or supporting the Filipino people. If travelling responsibly (eg supporting similar organisations to the ones mentioned in this post) tourism can be of great benefit to everyday people working hard in the Philippines, looking to earn a decent and good living. Choose locally owned, family run hotels and restaurants in order to support locals and not the government.
I found Filipinos to be warm, friendly and welcoming, and do not regret my decision to visit.
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A Londoner by birth Ellie has lived in the UK, Netherlands, India and now Canada. Prior to blogging, she worked for 12 years in hospitality and online travel. Ellie started this blog during a sabbatical trip in 2015 around South Asia, to help conscious travellers find the best inspiration for their next sustainable trip. When not travelling, she is happiest with wine, pasta and a good (travel) book. Ellie is also Founder of Soul Travel Consulting which helps travel brands communicate their sustainability initiatives.