MANILA, March 18, 2004 (STAR) There is a great potential for the Philippines to become a major ecotourism destination.

The country is endowed with so much environmental and cultural wealth that ranges from the wide expanse of tropical rainforests and marine resources to numerous indigenous groups whose cultures have been preserved for hundreds, even thousands of years.

This was highlighted in "Ocho-ocho: A briefing on 8 ecotours, 8 destinations in Iloilo, Aklan and Antique," which was recently presented by Smart Communications Inc. in cooperation with the Philippine-Canada Local Government Support Program (LGSP) at the Ilustrado Restaurant in Intramuros, Manila.

"The ecotours that were developed in the towns of San Joaquin, Ajuy and Concepcion in Iloilo; Kalibo, Tangalan, Malay and Nabas in Aklan, and Pandan, Antique were all designed to improve the quality of life of the people, provide a high quality of natural and cultural experience for the visitors and maintain the integrity of the environment," said Maria Monina Flores, ecotourism development consultant.

The LGSP tapped Flores to design the ecotours and to develop the capacity of the communities and local government units to implement them within a period of seven months.

Thus, the experience of the ecotourist varies according to the natural, historical and cultural attraction of the area.

In San Joaquin, Iloilo, for example, a tourist can ride a carabao-drawn sled, experience local fruit basket-weaving, sample local delicacies, visit a coral garden and view the only bas relief carved from coral stones on the façade of the 150-year-old town church. The experience is educational, with the visitor reliving the historical landing of the 10 Bornean datus and the Barter of Aninipay and how Panay was given to the 10 Bornean datus in exchange for a golden sandok and a gold necklace.

The more active tourist might prefer Ajuy, Iloilo where a visit to the protected Marbuena and Calabazas islands gives him or her a chance to learn about wildlife at the natural trail. The tour takes a more relaxing turn, however, as the visitor is treated to the traditional way of welcome, local music, a sumptuous and fresh fisherman’s lunch, a fishing demonstration using various local fishing gear and a relaxing massage in the ruins of an old Spanish lighthouse overlooking the sea.

Island-hopping exposes the ecotourist to the unique formations of Concepcion Islands and the shifting sandbars and pristine blue waters of Bulubadiagan Island. The ecotour in Concepcion, Iloilo also includes a visit to the marine sanctuary and the rock formations of Pan de Azucar, the fabled limestone sugar loaf mountain, where one can swim, snorkel, fish, go boating or simply bask on the white sand beach.

The experience is more personal in Kalibo, Aklan where one learns the songs and rhythm and gets to don the costume of his or her adopted Ati-Atihan tribe, and visits a piña-weaving village to see how the delicate fabric is processed from piña leaf to expensive cloth. The tour also includes a visit to a transformed coastal area where one learns how mangrove reforestation restores local wildlife.

In Tangalan, Aklan, the tourist can soak in one of the layered basins of the cascading waters of Jawili Falls, visit the wave-rock formations of Afga, watch piña, abaca and nito weavers demonstrate their craft, learn about copra-making and enjoy lunch on a bamboo raft and a relaxing massage at the end of the day.

The adventurous can go sailing on a paraw or racing sailboat in Malay, Aklan, visit the enchanted Pangihan cave, enjoy lunch at Bonbongan Beach, take a refreshing snack on Tuhaw Hills and interact with the community at the lighthouse.

The nature lover will enjoy Nabas, Aklan, where the last remaining intact lowland rainforest is found and where the highlands yield unique wildlife.

The Pandan, Antique ecotour includes bamboo river rafting, listening to local ngut-ngut music, a walk in Malumpati Forest along a riverbank trail and story-telling of local legends at the Malonggong Story Center.

The eight ecotours in eight destinations in Iloilo, Aklan and Antique are all community-based sustainable tourism projects that were developed in line with the government’s objective of promoting ecotourism in the country

Although ecotourism in the Philippines is still in the developing stage, market interest has grown in this type of tourism that preserves the very resources which attract tourists – beaches, islands, corals, forests and other natural attractions.

The Philippines is a natural setting for ecotourism. With over 7,000 islands, the "Pearl of the Orient Seas" is the world’s second largest archipelago after Indonesia’s 17,000 islands. Along with Malaysia, Indonesia, Borneo and Papua New Guinea, the Philippines forms the Coral Triangle, the most diverse marine habitat in the tropics.

The country also ranks fifth in the world and second in Asia, next to Indonesia, in terms of its number of endemic animals. Among plant-rich countries, the Philippines ranks 25th in the world and eighth in Asia.

Wireless communications plays an integral role in the development of ecotourism destinations since it enables community groups to accept and confirm bookings, respond to inquiries, coordinate with suppliers and other business partners, and meet other communication needs.

As one of the leading wireless service providers in the country, with a coverage that virtually extends from one end of the archipelago to the other end, Smart is in a unique position of being "everywhere," even in the most remote, pristine spots.

"The promotion of ecotourism and responsible travel is one of Smart’s key advocacies under its corporate social responsibility program," said Ramon Isberto, public affairs head of Smart.

"Aside from promoting selected ecotourism destinations like ‘Ocho-ocho,’ Smart is also providing wireless communications support to selected community groups engaged in ecotourism projects. It also seeks to encourage responsible travel practices among local tourists, starting with Smart employees," he added.

This year, employees have been asked to patronize selected ecotourism destinations in Iloilo, Aklan, Antique, northern Palawan, Bohol, Cebu and Donsol for the two-day, company-sponsored Team Celebration Program.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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