Siargao: An Exercise in Repeating Past Mistakes?
With the announcement, late evening on the 4th April 2018 that Boracay would be closed from the 26th April, the Department of Tourism’s (DOT) ‘plan’ to just redirect guests to other Philippine destinations, such as Siargao, was immediately enacted.
But are these destinations ready for a potential 100-200% increase in Tourists?
Are we set to see a repetition of Boracay’s issues, but with an instant more devastating impact on destinations that are just not ready for Boracay’s mass tourism?
Siargao has had a lot of promotion as the next tourist spot, by the Department of Tourism (DOT) and local government. But perhaps residents were quite happy with the island being a sleepy little destination, visited mostly by world travelling surfers.
Paolo Manuel Soler (President, Philippine Surfing Academy) told us: “When I first arrived in Siargao in 1999, I described it as Sagada but on a beach. This place is sacred in its beauty and for that reason the world wishes to experience it. Like Sagada, we should keep it this way. The island must do away with the rave parties and should maintain its elegance. Do we have to wait for the government to close it down, like they plan to do with Boracay?”
Trudy Allen, who writes for RANGGO suggests: “Generally Surfers have a particular ethos and integrity when surfing, and towards the breaks that they visit. Surfers respect and love the Ocean and its surrounding environments. They make sure that they clean up after themselves and integrate with the local surfing community, who share the same attitudes. It is this island ethos, attitude, and feel that locals fear will be lost to mass tourism”
Siargao Holy Week 2018:
During Holy Week 2018, Facebook was filled with island netizen’s commenting about an unprecedented influx of Tourists, and their concerns about the islands ability to cope with such numbers.
Photos were posted of traffic-jammed roads. Images of discarded trash left on beaches and roads. The Cloud 9 Boardwalk and Viewing Deck were so crammed with people there were fears it would collapse. Both were built in late 2014 and were closed to the public, on the 30th March 2018 by Order of the Governor.
Among these posts and comments was the much-shared post from Karen Davila, (https://www.facebook.com/KarenDavilaOfficial/ ) Journalist and Broadcaster for ANC’s Headstart. Davila shared graphic images of the injuries her son experienced whilst learning to surf at Siargao’s Jacking Horse/Cloud 9 Break. She wrote of her shock that the nearest hospital was 45 minutes away.
Davila had included her conversation with Jaime Rusillon, Mayor of General Luna town in Siargao: “Karen, we’re a fifth class municipality and we lack doctors, and we are not ready for the influx of tourists. We were shocked”
Some netizen’s accused Davila of not doing proper research or checks first. Others made this point: How many of us have arrived at a destination, famed for a particular sporting activity, and assumed that regulations were already in place. That instructors were qualified and accredited?
Elaine Abonal, Surfista Travels commented in her blog: “First of all, a lot of people who live on the island and the locals are thankful that FINALLY someone has shed light on the issue of safety and health in Siargao Island. It is unfortunate that Karen Davila’s son David had an accident and had to go through having poor access to a good hospital and immediate and proper care. But see – this is our REALITY”.
Cloud 9 is a World renowned Reef Break. It has been featured in International Surfing Magazines and Competition Circuits for decades.
I’ve been surfing on and off since 1999, mostly at Beach Breaks” Trudy has told us. “I surfed at Jacking Horse, on a quiet day. Not even 10 other surfers were on either break as it was still out of season. After an hour at Jacking Horse, I paddled across to Cloud 9. I took only 2 waves before deciding this was enough for my level of experience. I returned to my hotel with cuts and grazes from reef encounters. I still have one visible today on my knee”.
When you take surfing lessons, with accredited Instructors or Schools, you will be taught surf etiquette, wave right of way, how to read the ocean, to judge the competency of other surfers around you. You will develop a very healthy sense of your own ability – or inability.
Cloud 9 was too much for Trudy and, she admits that she hadn’t been totally relaxed on Jacking Horse either. “Would I recommend Cloud 9 to novice surfers? NO! Cloud 9 is a break that should only be approached by experienced surfers. Even Jacking Horse, is not ideal unless waves are small, you’re with a qualified instructor and it’s not crowded with other surfers.”
Kat de Castro, Tourism Undersecretary, advised that more Rescue Teams were immediately dispatched to the surf Breaks on Siargao on Saturday 30th March.
Your Hospitality Hub commends the prompt actions taken by the LGU. In addition to the extra Lifeguards and First Aiders, Garbage Bins were delivered and installed. Locals continued to play their part, with a beach and ocean clean up undertaken by SEA Patrol (local children and adults).
Surigao del Norte Governor Sol Matugas, has been reported as stating (Good News Network) that all nine municipalities had been previously advised to observe solid waste management and ensure adequate rescue teams were in place. The blame was placed at the door of the Mayor of General Luna for not implementing it.
This may sound very similar to the ongoing blame and deflection game currently playing out on Boracay. But Matugas said “I will make sure that the budget is released for these projects” and there was an immediate implementation of this promise.
Was Siargao caught out by this sudden mass redirection of tourists from the usual Holy Week destinations, such as Boracay?
Governor Matugas admitted they were unprepared for the influx of tourists “We never thought that everybody will go to Siargao, as if all roads lead to Siargao” http://cnnphilippines.com/news/2018/03/31/Siargao-Jacking-Horse-ordered-temporarily-closed.html#.WsAozGIOjL0.facebook
When an extension to the Siargao Airport was first announced locals raised their concerns. They felt the island did not have the resources or infrastructure to support the current volume of visitors and locals. They feared what an extended Airport would bring to the island.
On a personal level many feared for the loss of Siargao’s surfing soul and integrity.
On a practical level many talked about poor road infrastructure, the lack of emergency medical provision, insufficient sewage pipes or treatment plants. That there is no facility for collecting, segregating and removing the trash produced by lazy visitors dropping it on the beach. Or even for collecting an increase in rubbish from hotels and resorts serving more tourists.
Paolo Manuel Soler (PSA) suggested “There should also be strict regulations on building structures. We can do away with high rises because anything higher than the coconut trees, and too close to the shoreline, is an eyesore. And a ban on billboard advertising on major roads and highways, with exception for those promoting Surfing Competitions; we should protect the sacred beauty of Siargao”
Manuel Melindo, a well-respected Siargao Surfer and Advocate, agreed with Paolo and added: “I think we also need other projects to help the locals knows about farming, organic style, so we can produce our own food needs locally and not ship, or fly it in”.
Talking to locals, and reading updates from Davila and Kat de Castro, there is all the indication that the Governor and LGU for Siargao have been prepping for the island to become the latest destination.
Unfortunately, the crowds arrived a lot earlier than expected. A combination of factors; the DOT promotion of Siargao, the “Boracay Closure Effect”, an abundance of Instagram photos, and the 2017 film Siargao
Knee-jerk Reactions: Closing the Beaches to beginners
CNN Reported at 11.57 PM on 31st March 2018, that Jacking Horse was to be temporarily closed to beginners, on the Order of Gov. Sol F. Matugas, until checks could be undertaken that ‘Instructors’ were qualified to teach beginners.
Elaine Abonal, posted on her Facebook profile (1st April 2018)
“Learning how to SURF isn’t like learning on a soccer field or a basketball court or a golf course.
We are exposed to a constantly changing element – WATER / THE OCEAN – where the tides, swell, currents, weather and conditions can change in a second. There are a lot of things out of our control…..
Trained surfers spend more time in the water than on land. And we still get injured, still get scratches, and still make a hundred mistakes.
It ASTOUNDS me when people take ONE surf lesson or two and think that they can rent a surfboard on their own and think they can brave foreign and unknown waters on a BIG DAY with hundreds of other people who don’t know what they are doing.
I’m not here to plug Surfista Travels Siargao… I’m here to hopefully ask you, if you are truly interested in learning how to SURF – to know what you are getting into, know what it’s all about and know why you are doing it in the first place” Read more from Elaine, and her thoughts about this Holy Week experience
Trudy, who visited in 2014 said “On my last morning, I saw 2 accidents in the space of 10 minutes. They were experienced, local surfers; both were surfing Jacking Horse. One suffered a nasty broken leg. He had to be placed on a surfboard and carefully carried across the reef to the shore, by 10 surfers. The other had a broken nose, lost teeth and had gashes to his face”
The reality is that some very experienced Surfers have had serious accidents whilst surfing both breaks. Neither Cloud 9 nor Jacking Horse are an ideal wave to learn on.
Some people, however, felt the closure of Jacking Horse to beginners, was a knee-jerk reaction to Karen Davila’s facebook post.
Paolo Manuel Soler (President, PSA) is the first Filipino Surfing Instructor to be accredited as an ASI Certified Level-1 Instructor. He is one of only four Filipino Level-2 Instructors in the Philippines.
Paolo was contracted in April 2015, by the LGU to train& accredit, local Siargao Surfers.
30 Surfers attended the ASI Certified Level-1 Instructor course but only 7 completed in full. 23 failed to attend the required Red Cross Training element. Paolo was disappointed that so many people failed to complete their training course in full, particularly as everything had been paid for by the LGU.
Paolo stated in response to comments on his facebook post: “Siargao has a safe spot called Jacking Horse but there are still hazards such as sharp reef and dead coral…… ASI makes sure that instructors know how to assess and choose a safe venue with suitable surf conditions for their students”.
There are certainly other locations in the Philippines, which are better suited to beginners: Baler, La Union, Real Quezon.
You’re never going to be able to stop fashion surfers, or over confident people, entering a Break, but by removing the beginners to safe learning zones, you can reduce the number of accidents that will occur.
What Can be done to reduce beginner risk on Siargao?
• Ensure there are more Qualified Instructors and Accredited Surf Schools in Siargao
• Identify breaks that are suitable for beginners.
• Set a cap on the number of beginners being taught at any one time, at the Beginner Breaks.
• Encourage Tourists to pre-book their lessons, with the risk of missing out if they don’t.
Both Paolo and Elaine recommend researching for local accredited surf schools or instructors and pre-booking lessons or a surf camp. For those land-locked in Manila, there’s even a wave pool at Club Manila East, where you can take surf lessons
What do Local Surfers and Instructors have to say about the Island, and incidences that have occurred in the last 10 days?
Paolo Manuel Soler (PSA) said “I wasn’t there but it seems that it was an ecological disaster. It’s showed the lapses in infrastructure. The local government had to close the boardwalk to the main tower of Cloud 9 because of too many people which might have caused it to collapse. Motor vehicle traffic was also another first for the island, which is something that should never have happened to such a paradise. [It] should serve as the first warning of the potential destruction of the ecology and beauty of the place”.
A centralized sewage system with proper water treatment is needed, a hospital with complete facilities, trash management, recycling plant, ban on disposable plastics, ban on sachet products, enforced no littering and no smoking laws, an 11pm curfew, no loud outdoor music from 10pm until 10am.
“I think it’s time for the public to stop blaming everything on the government. We’re the ones developing the island. We’re the ones speeding up the process. We’re the ones with the big money that’s paying them off. There wouldn’t be corruption if there weren’t anyone buying into it. Perhaps fingers should also be pointed [in] another direction; Change begins with us”.
Elaine Abonal said, in response to the targeted marketing exercise of a major Telecommunications company on the island during Holy week): “I can’t help but feel helpless because, at the end of the day, it is the BIG (Political/Celebrity/Movie) NAMES, BIG CORPORATIONS, BIG COMPANIES, that will have the biggest influence and IMPACT on the island – whether they are here to SEE IT, feel it and live it OR NOT. Are we contributing to the betterment of local lives, of the state of plastic in the oceans, of health and safety of simpler communities OR is it all for the BIG POCKETS??’
It certainly sounds like Siargao is preparing itself as THE next Philippine destination.
But there should be greater consultation with the experts; island residents and surfers.
They are desperate to preserve the natural beauty and feel of Siargao, and of its surf spots.
Decisions could be made, without consultation, which could physically destroy a Break or area.
“Siargao will be the number one tourist island of the Philippines. It’s inevitable. I think it’s a great opportunity for the Philippines to prove they can develop a self-sustaining eco responsible tourism destination. With all the right systems and planning, Siargao could be a well-balanced eco-tourism community, that practices effective and efficient waste and sewage treatment and management” said Paolo Manuel Soler.
The abiding lesson is this: Siargao was just not ready or prepared for the sheer numbers of people descending on them, instead of Boracay, this Holy Week.
Is this also the case for the other alternative destinations suggested?
Your Hospitality Hub would like to thank the following people for their comments, and permission to include Facebook Posts
Paolo Manuel Soler President of the Philippine Surfing Academy (https://www.facebook.com/philippinesurfingacademy/)
Elaine Abonal – Owner of Surfista Travels, and qualified Surf Instructor (https://surfistatravels.com/)
Manuel Melinda – Local Resident, Surfer and Environmental Advocate
Sea Movment https://www.facebook.com/seamovementph/