Care for the Coasts - Winner of the Coral Triangle Youth Essay Writing Competition on Blue Economy
It’s mid-afternoon and the sun is set high in the sky. Tropical heat waves assault the coast line and the multitudes of tourist are abuzz with new-found energy. Everybody carries their own jubilation – away from the freezing winter of their local climate, or their hectic job in the urban cities, or for finally grabbing the vacation that they’ve yearned and saved for months beforehand. Welcome to the Coral Triangle – the Asia-Pacific region that boasts of picturesque coasts and soulful ambiance. Where nature becomes a driving force of economic growth, tourists are of the millions in annual reports, and the locals are converted into agents of an ever-booming tourism industry.
I know this, not just because I came from the Philippine archipelago, but because I also live in Panay Island in the Western Visayas Region. And it so happens that on its northern-most tip, the said island is also the home of one of the world’s most famous beach – Boracay.
Condé Nast, along with thousands of other tourist getaway catalogues, praises Boracay for its crystal-clear blue waters, powdery-fine white sands, and dream-like sunrise and sunsets. From the German photographer who first discovered and divulged its beauty to the world, it comes as an understatement to say that much has changed within its coastal periphery. From a mere home to indigenous people, Boracay underwent a massive transformation to generate a Blue Economy that keeps churning out billions in annual revenue along with the continuous high investments in tourism infrastructure and human capital outlay.
So now the question becomes, how did this happen? In line with this development, one should ask if the Blue Economy transformation in Boracay and in other beaches in the Coral Triangle is geared in the right direction. And if so, how do we, with the help of businesses, achieve these goals?
I can still recall the old photo of Boracay taken by my father back in the 80s. The only thing tall and wide to be seen along its white-sand coast was the line of coconut trees that the Atis (the indigenous people in the island) harvested as a source of copra, which they traded for other goods in the main island town center. A decade later, I was born in the 90s and the initial wave of backpackers from Europe arrived, catapulting Boracay into a beach hotspot through what is known in marketing terms as word-of-mouth promotion. Another decade later, we hit the new millennium and I can recall every summer of my childhood spent on the island. My uncle and aunt, both locals, started a laundry business to cater to the fast explosion of hotels. Business, truly, was doing more than good. Yet another decade later, at the present time, Boracay has secured itself as a world-class beach hotspot to rival Malibu or even Hawaii. Along with it, the Coral Triangle region, has earned its nickname as the “honeymooner’s region” because its beaches would always be a prime destination for newly-weds wanting to spend the first days of their marriage in a place resembling paradise.
But the picture isn’t always as perfect as it seems. Because the Coral Triangle is a region of promise, everybody suddenly wants to hop onto the gold rush. Businesses have been rapidly put-up to provide the demand for accommodation, travel, and other forms of tourism goods and services. Even locals have been eager for this all-too-sudden boost in foreign currencies. Most of these businesses have eventually succeeded and are still in continuous operation because of high demand. But because the industry comes with the trade-off of stretching nature to its environmental limits, the question of a sustainable, environmental-friendly business model for coastal regions is now beckoning urgency.
Clearly, there is simply no other way to go than developing the new Blue Economy model.
The main crux of the Blue Economy model is relatively straightforward – to preserve the coastal environment while promoting and safeguarding businesses to support the local tourism industry as well as the livelihoods that depend on it. Of course, businesses aren’t the only stakeholders in this debate, there are also government units and the local community that should enrich the tourism industry as well as lobby for environmental preservation. The reason for focusing on businesses therefore should be addressed. There would be two reasons for this: first, in the rule of profit-maximization, businesses should always ensure that the source of their trade continues to exist, in this case, it is the coastal environment that attracts tourism; second, business motives and actions have a direct, tangible environmental impact, be it in construction or waste management, which earns them the responsibility of being at the forefront of forwarding the Blue Economy.
Given those reasons, how then should businesses proceed with the Blue Economy movement?
The first step towards a progressive Blue Economy is centralization and collective action from the business sector. To put it simply, one business cannot do it alone. In the rule of ecology, one change in the system can create a disruption in the chain reaction. For the system to remain stable, every link in the chain must cooperate in attaining the balance. It defeats the purpose, for example, if one hotel inland abides by sustainable, green practices and another hotel near the coast has leaking pipes in its drainage system that ends up seeping black, foul liquid to the shore. One wrong move from an irresponsible establishment can end up tarnishing the reputation of an entire island. And if there’s one thing about tourism, it’s an industry that’s mainly based on the power of recommendation. Especially in this age of high level social media usage, tourism can gain a rapid boom or bust just by social perception.
For a Blue Economy to work, it is therefore important for businesses within a coastal district or island to create a centralized organization. Developed urban cities, for example, form their own business clubs to promote growth and stability within their industry as well as to protect their own profits and business interests. More than that, a coalition, in political terms, leads to stronger policy formation as well as lobbying power to the government when it comes to tourism legislation. Certainly, a lot of things can be achieved more easily and efficiently by means of consolidation.
Business centralization is also important because it can pave the way for improved coastal environmental planning. The state of the environment within these areas has greatly suffered not mainly because of the occurrence of businesses, but because of the occurrence of mushroom businesses. Akin to the sprouting of mushrooms, the boom of tourism has seen the rapid creation of unregulated and uncoordinated businesses haphazardly created everywhere. Once all the coast lots were bought, businessmen who came late into the picture sought mountainsides, hills, forests, cliffs and all kinds of areas that can be accessed by engineering equipment. It doesn’t come as a surprise to say that the ecology has degraded. Not only has the green areas thinned, the rare animal species in these rich tropical regions have also declined in population, which has even led to slower forest regeneration.
But that’s not the greatest problem; such unsustainable development has also burdened the island capacity and contributed to its slow decline in sea levels. Why is this inherently important? A lot of islands in the Coral Triangle have risen above water thousands of years ago because of atoll formation–landmass comprised of accumulated coral and sea debris. Especially for small islands, the capacity of their landmass isn’t infinite. The answer isn’t over-building or land reclamation (because again, this disrupts the island ecology); it simply is the respect for the island capacity lest the environmental structure goes past its limits and eventually collapses. Think of having numerous gadgets and only having two sockets in your room. Sure, you can extend the number of plugged-in gadgets by using extension cords, but keep adding more extension cords in the two-socket system and eventually the socket voltage capacity reaches its maximum and explodes, leaving all your fine gadgets burnt and useless. The analogy extends to why environmental island limits should be respected, so that return of investment and profit-maximization can be attained for a longer period of time.
A strong cooperation with the local government should also be attained in order to create a sound geographic plan within the coastal region. A whole island system isn’t a business district alone. People don’t travel across the globe to a tropical region just to stay in a hotel. Of course they want to see nature in all its many forms. Given that premise, this coastal system from business hubs, to transportation, as well as infrastructure planning, should be accessible and attractive for tourists as well. Nothing turns off tourists more than a hassle and an inconvenient stay. Simply put, they’re paying for peace and relaxation, not for additional stress! In Boracay for example, ferry boats transporting tourists from Caticlan to Boracay used to dock at the beach front because that’s where most hotels are. It may be good for people who want to directly access their hotels, but you can just imagine how it annoyed regular tourists swimming in the beach front who suddenly have to evade an approaching ferry boat. The solution was to create a jetty port that centralized the boat transportation in and out the island. In turn, this also improved the inland transportation system creating jobs for many locals who would drive cars or other tourist vehicles to and from hotels. On top of that, we now have a beach front that is ferry-boat-free and can be enjoyed fully for swimming and other water activities. In short, centralization creates a win-win situation for businesses, tourist, and locals, and improves efficiency.
Beyond business centralization, internal responsibility should be enforced and followed by independent businesses. At the forefront of this is proper waste management. The influx of thousands, even millions of tourists yearly contributes to a burgeoning waste problem that should be treated carefully. The local government may be responsible for waste collection and dumping or recycling, but the frontline of proper waste management falls in the hands of businesses that bear the biggest waste percentage in contrast to that of local residents. Segregation and a ban on plastic burning is already a protocol in the modern century. But there are other things that should be called too, such as reduction of food waste by careful planning of food servicing as well as reduction in the use of plastics by switching to eco-friendly paper bags. The drainage and liquid waste management should also be given attention. Especially in establishments near the shoreline, a damaged pipe or an irresponsible dumping of liquid waste (in the form of soap or other chemicals) can and will easily seep through the shore and into the water especially during high tide. Polluted water isn’t only unattractive, it’s also unhealthy and bad for tourism. Algae bloom reaches high levels along the coast Boracay during peak seasons because of the amount of organically-rich liquid that seeps through the shore, which eventually feeds the algae bloom along the coastline. Locals and Boracay fanatics would find the algae bloom commonplace. But for some first-time and peevish tourists, they find swimming in the slimy, greenish, floating stuff unappealing. Clearly, having a secure drainage system as well as being responsible in liquid waste can benefit everyone in achieving coastal cleanliness.
Next is to promote environmentally-friendly practices among tourists. While businesses practice responsible methods in line with the Blue Economy, there should also be a movement that motivates tourists to hold their end of the environmental bargain. Littering can be easily solved if every establishment had a trash disposal can within their vicinity. Establishment systems that conserve electricity while not in use (e.g., light, air conditioning, etc.) can also be enforced. Beyond waste and energy policies, it’s also important to promote government-endorsed policies that help preserve the environment. Tourists in Boracay for example are fond of bottling white sand as a take-home souvenir, or collecting rare seashells and other sea-creatures that are environmentally protected. Businesses should enforce a ban against these as a means of promoting responsible tourism that celebrates the beauty of nature without tampering or stealing from it.
One way to do environmental promotion in a positive light is by actively supporting and even funding Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) or other local environment-friendly organizations. Coastal clean-ups can be easily done by organizing a group of tourist and local volunteers. Same goes for underwater clean-ups among diving enthusiasts. I’ve seen a lot of these in action and not only does this achieve a direct environmental gain, it also promotes awareness as well as create a good reputation and impression for businesses that are environmentally-friendly.
Last but not the least, it is also crucial for a Blue Economy to practice what is known as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) where businesses are working alongside the local community. No man is an island; businesses cannot operate an island or a coastal region alone. It also has to share the right as well as the responsibility to the government and most especially to the local community, to strengthen and unify its efforts to preserve the environment and secure the continuity of the tourism industry. Local communities, especially those indigenous to the island, should be maintained. They are the first eco-guardians of the island, and with their cooperation, businesses can ensure that there will always be people who will look out for the environment because it is their primary stake to conserve their only remaining habitat during their lifetime and for the next generations to come.
The Blue Economy model therefore, isn’t just plain economics of profit-maximization and working with the forces of supply and demand. It’s an economy with an environmental heart that can healthily pump life to a coastal system if it’s maintained and monitored carefully. Pollution should be minimized, island changes should be centralized for better planning, and all stakeholders especially the local community should be taken into account. Such is the challenge that is faced by businesses in the Blue Economy. With the right initiative, it could and should be done. The future of the Coral Triangle is counting on it.