The Best and Worst of Bohol Attractions.
It seems to me that it’s often after experiencing what we aren’t looking for that we then get what we want. I was reminded of this last month on the small and green island of Bohol, in the Philippines, where I spent several days. Within just a couple of days of each other, I experienced some of the best and worst things to do in Bohol (and examples of tourism) on two different rivers in the island.
To me, the contrast could not have been more clear.
Here is the story of my two experiences in Bohol, and what I learned about how to avoid mass tourism in the process.
The Loboc River & “The Bohol Tour”.
I think we’ve all been somewhere where we’ve been sold “the tour”. The standard package. When we don’t really know what we want to do, or have limited time, we just want to know what there is “to see” in a destination.
This is what happened in Bohol, and honestly… I should have known better. In this case it was the standard list of “Bohol attractions”.
My guesthouse organised a driver for the day who would take us to the Chocolate Hills, Tarsier Sanctuary, a river trip, a butterfly farm, and a couple of other random sights. We politely declined to go and see “the giant snakes”.
At first, all was fine. We headed to the chocolate hills. The hills were busy but expectedly so seeing as these are Bohol’s number 1 tourist attraction.
The Loboc river was our destination for a lunchtime river cruise. As we drove up to it there were a large number of signs for “eco-adventure parks” advertising zip lining and the like. We entered a car park jammed full of tour busses with hundreds of tourists pouring out. We took our seats along with the masses, were given a timed ticket, and had to wait an hour to get on the boat. There must have been about 20 boats in operation that day, ferrying passengers up and down the river, eating exactly the same mediocre buffet lunch and listening to the same karaoke renditions. Every boat stopped at one of several platforms along the river where locals & their children had been drafted in to dress and dance in traditional costumes to entertain the passengers.
I have seldom felt like I’ve been on a ‘conveyor belt’, but this was one such occasion. It wasn’t so much the number of people on the boats, as feeling like we were all just dollar signs being turned over as quickly as possible. As we hurried off the boat, the tables were being re-set, the buffet re-filled, and the next line of visitors waiting to get on.
It’s safe to say I left with the desire to avoid mass tourism of this kind in the future.
Visiting the Abatan River Community Project.
My second experience on a river in Bohol could not have been more different.
I arranged to visit the Abatan River via Visit.org, an online platform that specialises in working with local communities and travel agents around the world to offer responsible travel experiences that can be booked via their website.
Run by Process Bohol, a local not for profit organisation and NGO, The Abatan River is famous in Bohol for the possibilities to watch fireflies each evening amongst the mangroves. The purpose of Abatan River Life is to add an alternative sustainable source of income to local communities on the river.
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I went on a half day tour along the Abatan river, stopping at small village communities to see how villagers were making palm-thatch for the grooves of houses, fishing, and making small handicrafts. On the Abatan River there was little in the way of ‘traffic’, with the vast majority being fishing boats. The Abatan RiverLife tour boat was the only boat with any foreigners that I saw.
The world ‘Abatan’ means to meet or converge, and is apt as the Abatan river basin is seen as the place where the different local communities meet. The river basin and surrounding mangroves are home to a list of endangered species, many of which are endemic only to Bohol. The mangroves act as an important form of protection from typhoons and storms as they help prevent soil erosion and trap sand that has been washed downriver. Dredging of sand from the river is illegal, however enforcement remains a challenge. We spotted one boat carrying out illegal dredging for construction purposes during my trip.
After my journey along the river we drove a short distance to the Savima Mangrove Centre, which is home to a 500m boardwalk through some of the mangrove forests. Visitors here can take part in a tour, learn about shellfish and plant mangroves to play their part in the conservation of Bohol. I finished my time with the friendly Abatan River Life staff with a seafood lunch next to the estuary at the Savima Mangrove Centre.
Alongside river trips and visiting the Mangrove centre, kayaking or stand-up paddle along the Abatan river are very popular activities. These are one of the main ways that RiverLife gives back to the community. They use revenue gained through tourism to train local villagers to be Kayak and Stand-up Paddle guides, thereby providing them with the knowledge to gain a direct income stream from tourism and therefore protect the river environment from threats such as dynamite fishing, dredging and construction so that visitors continue to come. RiverLife also offers homestay on Bohol.
It’s really the Abatan river that deserves to be top of the list of Bohol attractions – in my book.
You can book a visit to the Abatan river and support the communities there, or explore options to support local communities around the world via visit.org. Select “Philippines” and look for the “Process Bohol” activity.
What I learned about How to Avoid Mass Tourism.
Personally, the biggest lesson I learned through these two very different experiences in river tourism in Bohol is to remember to do my research before hand.
What would I have done differently?
If I had read reviews about the Loboc River before hand I probably would have seen that it was a pretty touristy place. I would have seen that it would have been better to rent a car & driver for the day but say where I wanted to go, not see what is on the “standard” agenda. I would have requested the driver to take us for lunch at a small local restaurant instead of waiting with the crowds.
It’s also with the help of companies like Visit.org that working out how to avoid mass tourism becomes easier. If we don’t have time to do all the research ourselves, online global platforms that we trust to deliver travel experiences that will benefit local communities become invaluable. And let’s be honest, if we’re on holiday we don’t want to be researching the whole time, do we…?!
And we might wonder…why is mass tourism a problem in the first place? Here I’ll let the numbers do the talking. It’s estimated that 60% of all revenue spent by travellers on local tourism products stays within a local community. With mass tourism, that number falls to between 9-17%.
That’s a big difference that our choices can make.
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Have you experienced “mass tourism” or are you looking for ideas to get off the beaten-track? Have you visited Bohol? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!
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.