Chocolate Hills, Philippines: New resort in protected Bohol area stirs debate on conservation

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CNN —
Nestled among the lush rolling terrain of the Philippines’ famed Chocolate Hills, the Captain’s Peak Garden and Resort offered travelers scenery that few hotels could compete with.
But now the resort has been temporarily shuttered after public outcry over what one legislator has called a “blatant abuse of our natural resources,” with the national senate debating whether to investigate how it came to be built in the protected beauty spot.
And it has become a lightning rod for anger as the country once again grapples with how to balance a booming tourism industry with safeguarding its ecological wonders.
Near the middle of the central island province, the Chocolate Hills are more than 1,700 conical limestone peaks that stretch as far as the eye can see, the grass-covered karst mounds turning brown in the dry season to resemble pieces of chocolate.
Only one similar hill configuration – in Indonesia’s Java – is known of in the world, according to UNESCO, which has placed the Chocolate Hills on its tentative list for world heritage status.
The hills were declared a protected area by then Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos in 1997, meaning authorities are bound by law “to protect and maintain its natural beauty and to provide restraining mechanisms for inappropriate exploitation.”
But images of the new resort among the hills have stirred anger and ignited debate over whether the Southeast Asian country is doing enough to safeguard the environment.
The backlash began earlier this month when a local travel influencer posted a promotional video on social media for the Captain’s Peak Garden and Resort.
A pool and several waterslides seen at the hotly debated resort. The Captain’s Peak Garden and Resort Bohol/Facebook
Aerial views of the resort’s glistening pool and bright cottages set against the idyllic backdrop left social media users questioning why its owners were allowed to build at the national geological monument.
On March 13, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) stepped in, ordering the resort’s temporary closure.
Lawmakers in Manila are now demanding answers about how the resort came to be built.
“This is a blatant abuse of our natural resources. The question is how it was built and who approved it in an area that we should be protecting,” House deputy majority leader Erwin Tulfo said Monday, as he tabled a resolution calling for a probe into the resort.
“The construction of the Captain’s Peak Garden and Resort raises serious concerns on possible avenues for the circumvention of laws and issuances on building, business and environmental permits, certification, or licenses in the guise of tourism economic development,” according to the resolution.
Captain’s Peak Garden and Resort shared on Facebook a redacted version of its business permit, which it claimed was “a testament to our commitment to operating responsibly and in compliance with local regulations.”
“Our resort’s construction plans underwent rigorous scrutiny and received the necessary approvals from relevant authorities,” it said in a separate statement. “We have complied with all environmental regulations and have taken measures to minimize the ecological footprint throughout the development process.”
CNN has reached out to the resort’s owner and its administrator for comment, as well as the DENR, the Bohol governor and mayor of Sagbayan.
Balancing act
The Philippines is home to more than 7,000 islands that span a wide range of natural topography from coral reefs to pristine beaches, ancestral rice terraces to mountains and volcanos – many of them firmly on the tourist map.
The archipelago’s beauty spots feature heavily in promotional campaigns aimed at attracting more overseas visitors.
Tourism accounted for 6.2% of the Philippines’ GDP in 2022, according to official data, and the government sees huge potential for the sector to grow. As pandemic restrictions have eased, arrivals to the country have jumped from 2.6 million in 2022 to 5.4 million in 2023.
But the country faces a difficult balancing act between tourism development and conservation, especially in the remote areas where many of its natural wonders are located and residents stand to benefit from an influx of tourist dollars and increased job opportunities.
“We understand the importance of development, but there should be boundaries,” said Senator Nancy Binay, who chairs the legislature’s tourism committee, in a statement last week.
“If the DENR continues to issue ECCs [Environmental Compliance Certificates] in the guise of ‘tourism development,’ then I believe they have misunderstood what ecotourism is all about, and they have become complicit to defacing a natural monument (which) they’re supposed to oppose.”
The Philippines has previously made attempts to reverse the effects of overtourism, notably in the tropical paradise of Boracay, which former President Rodrigo Duterte called a “cesspool.”
The resort island, famous for its white-sand beaches, fully reopened in 2022 after undergoing a prolonged clean-up operation.

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