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DONSOL, Sorsogon (April 19, 2007) – Once a sleepy coastal village located at the northwestern tip of Sorsogon province, this town now eyes to be a first-class municipality, thanks to giant sea creatures that are now attracting hordes of foreign and local tourists who infuse millions of pesos into the local economy.
"Donsol was elevated to a third-class municipality in 2006 from a fourth-class status in 2003 and fifth-class in 1998, because of the butanding," Mayor Salve Ocaya said, while giving tribute to the whale sharks, considered as the world's largest fish that have found a home in the plankton-rich municipal waters of Donsol.
Tourism Secretary Joseph Ace Durano, who attended the opening of the four-day Butanding Festival along with Undersecretary Eduardo Jarque Jr. on April 18, said Donsol, a town of about 40,000 people, now has the chance to become a first-class municipality through sustainable eco-tourism.
"It was really amazing to see them in water," said Durano, who dived three times to personally witness the gentle whale sharks, some of which grow as long as 18 meters and weigh up to 34 tons.
During the past Holy Week, hundreds of whale sharks visited the municipal waters of Donsol, attracting more than 300 tourists, many of whom checked in at hotels as far as Legaspi City, because of full occupancy at Donsol's four resorts and 15 houses that have been accredited for the home stay program.
"We used to treat butanding as enemies, because they were eating our fish. Now, they are giving us our income," said Joel Briones, a former fisherman who now works as a butanding interaction officer, with much higher earnings.
Allan Amanse, a part of the first batch of butanding interaction officers who quit his job as tricycle driver eight years ago, said that at a good season, he could earn up to ten times his previous income.
Amanse said he was earning P650 per three-hour boat trip, and during a good season, he could have up to three trips a day. The butanding season starts from December and lasts until May. During off-season, Amanse works as a dive master, guiding tourists at fascinating dive spots in Sorsogon and Masbate.
There are about 40 accredited butanding interaction officers in Donsol, who accompany 60 registered boats, each of which has three or four crew members. The boats can be hired for a three-hour butanding interaction trip for P3,500.
Maria Ong Ravanilla, the tourism regional director for Bicol, said the boat fare was raised to P3,500 from P2,500 to prevent them from overcrowding the butanding habitat. Last month, she also issued a directive, limiting to 25 the maximum number of boats allowed to cruise the butanding area at a time.
Aside from the boat crews and butanding interaction officers, the extraordinary growth of tourism in Donsol has created job opportunities for thousand of others, including resort and restaurant employees, home owners, service workers such as spa therapists, souvenir producers, vendors, fruit retailers, and transport drivers. It has also given fishers an expanded market for their catch, as tourists prefer fresh seafood.
Erna Jimenes, a 61-year-old resident who opened her house to tourists under the home stay program, earns P700 a night for each of the four rooms she made available for rent by the tourists. At the town center, the ancestral home of the Ravolan family was also opened to tourists. Air-conditioned rooms are available for P1,200 a night.
A study by the environmental group World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimated the contribution of tourism to Donsol economy at P50 million in 2006 alone when about 11,000 tourists visited the town, about 65 percent of whom were foreigners. Arrivals were up from 7,000 in 2005.
Last year, Donsol received an internal revenue allotment of P41 million. Durano said President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo also ordered the release of P60 million for the expansion of the Donsol bridge to enhance access to Barangay Dancayan, the jump-off point for whale shark interaction.
The municipal government generated taxes of P1.9 million from tourist registration alone, up from P1.5 million in 2005. Foreign tourists are charged P300 and domestic tourists, P100 to interact with the whale sharks.
On top of butanding interaction, Donsol introduced another natural wonder as an attraction – the firefly watching at the Ogod River, where mangrove trees glow like Christmas trees at night as thousands of fireflies inhabit the area. The river also has the widest and clearest view of galaxies of stars.
Durano stressed the need to sustain eco-tourism in Donsol in order to keep the whale sharks in its waters. The tourism department, he noted, has partnered with the World Wildlife Fund in order to study how to sustain tourism while protecting the habitat of the whale sharks.
"As long as we protect their habitat, they will continue to be here," Durano said, while citing an initial finding of the WWF that whale sharks do not actually leave Donsol as they stay here all year-round. "They just go deeper during some months of the year," he added.
The Philippine government now appreciates tourism for its job generation capability. Economic Planning Secretary Romulo Neri said that if the country can only attract more than 10 million foreign tourists like Thailand does, it can eliminate the problem of unemployment. In 2006, the country drew 2.84 million foreign visitors.
Durano, however, said there is a limit to tourism growth particularly in eco-tourism destinations such as Donsol. "The limit should be if it starts destroying the habitat," he said.
Julia Campbell, the late New York Times journalist and member of the US Peace Corps, started an eco-tourism center in Donsol to help increase public awareness on protecting the whale sharks. She was supposed to return to Donsol to finish the project, until she was reported dead in the bosom of the Moutain Terraces in the tourist province of Ifugao on April 18.
Local officials in Donsol, who knew Campbell personally, vowed to continue her project. Tourism officials also agreed to control tourism movement for its sustainability.
The right formula, Durano said, should be "striking a balance between mass tourism and preserving the natural habitat."
Durano also said that more people should feel the benefits of tourism growth. "The more we spread the benefits of tourism throughout the country, the better it will be for the sustainable development of the Philippines," he said. Roderick T. dela Cruz