MANILA, February 28, 2006 (STAR) PENMAN By Butch Dalisay - The last time I was down in Puerto Princesa, on Valentine’s Day, a huge moon hovered above the ocean, the same swollen disk that may have lit up the sky over Pasig or Penang, driving poets to flights of fancy and lovers to seek the shadows. (I was, alas, alone.)

But whether the gibbous moon at night or the sun silvering the water at break of dawn, every gesture or element of nature in Puerto Princesa seems invested with majesty or preciousness. I joined thousands of young students planting trees in a mangrove forest that morning, and came to understand that to visit Puerto Princesa is to set foot on a long green carpet that leads, one way or another, to an encounter with nature. And we mean "nature" not just in terms of lush forests, speckless waters, and brilliant skies – which the city and the province do have in abundance – but also nature in terms of one’s innermost self, one’s long-lost connections to the bare essentials of body, mind, and spirit.

In Puerto, to live is not simply to survive no matter what; it is to survive and to help others survive as well. Whether we are speaking here of Puerto’s residents, of bearcats and peacocks, of tribespeople in the mountains, of sandaled tourists and expats, of crocodiles and cave-dwelling bats, or of Vietnamese refugees – in Puerto, they all live and thrive together. There is space for all who know how to use and to respect that space, and the other person’s or creature’s space.

It is a large city – indeed, the country’s largest in terms of sheer land area, at 2,539 square kilometers – with a small-town heart. Not too many people actually live in Puerto Princesa – some 160,000 as of the 2000 census, accounting for the lowest population density in the country – but those who do go there tend to stay there, or at least to return, over and over again.

Like any other Philippine city, Puerto Princesa is modernizing, and will continue to adapt itself to the demands and realities of the 21st century. New buildings are sprouting along the stretch of its main street, Rizal Ave.; tricycles and SUVs – with the pickup seeming to be the carriage of choice – hog the highway. Development can’t and won’t be held back. As with nearly any other place on the planet, people and their needs take primacy in planning. But the difference lies in the pervasive awareness among Puerto’s leaders and citizens that balancing their needs with nature’s is the city’s best path to the future. While Puerto Princesa can never be returned to its pure, primeval past, it can choose – as it has chosen – to embrace nature as its lifelong partner and equal on the journey to growth.

Because of these attractions, Puerto Princesa receives a constant stream of visitors: government and international officials eager to learn from Puerto’s experience, backpacking Europeans and Americans, NGO coordinators and workers, journalists, and fortuneseekers. "We don’t have volcanoes or calamities here," says Edward S. Hagedorn, the irrepressible mayor of Puerto Princesa. "Knock on wood!" he adds quickly. There’s lots of wood in Puerto Princesa to knock on, but you come to understand that this happy situation, ironically enough, is as much man-made as it is nature’s gift.

Environmentalism has been good business, and business has been getting better with the rise in tourist traffic. Tourist arrivals – mostly domestic – have picked up significantly over the past 15 years, with less than 8,000 visitors recorded in 1991 and nearly 135,000 in 2005 (almost 14,000 of this latter figure came from abroad). The mayor values visitors, both for economic reasons and for the chance to show them how tourism can be welcomed without damaging the environment and the local culture.

But Hagedorn won’t be unnecessarily rushed by the advantages of tourism if it means cutting corners or compromising the very rules and principles that made the city a tourist attraction in the first place. He wants the city to put its best foot forward, to leave the visitor with the firm impression of a city that knows what it’s doing and what it wants. "It got to the point," Hagedorn says, "that I had to issue a press release discouraging more tourists from coming in before we were adequately prepared."

The tourists come for such special reasons as the Feast of the Forest in June, and the Fluvial Parade for the Virgin on Dec. 8; or they can come for a day’s business, or a weekend’s break from the urban routine. They come by plane – Puerto Princesa is served by Philippine Airlines (which also flies in planes straight from Seoul, to serve the growing number of Korean tourists), Cebu Pacific, Air Philippines, and SEA Air – and by boat, with three ships arriving weekly, including the Superferry, which disgorges 1,200 passengers a week following a 24-hour voyage from Manila, 580 kilometers to the northeast. Chartered flights also leave Manila daily for El Nido, Taytay, and Busuanga in Northern Palawan.

Given the surge in tourist traffic, the city has been putting up more hotels and inns, catering to a wide range of budgets. At the upper end would be Dos Palmas Resort in Arreceffi Island, featuring 50 rooms, 10 of them on houses built right above the water. The object of an unusual assault by Abu Sayyaf terrorists in 2002, the resort has largely recovered, thanks to a Marine detachment now permanently posted on the island, and to the place’s own irresistible charm, which brings in regular boatloads of Korean, Filipino, and other tourists. Also upscale but located in the city are Legend Hotel on Malvar St. with its 103 rooms, and the Asturias Hotel on South National Highway with 58 rooms. But rooms in smaller one-story structures such as Casalinda – apparently the lodging of choice of artists, writers, and movie stars because of its homey friendliness – are a steal at around P500 a night, when available.

Big hotel chains have coveted the beachfront along Honda Bay, but Mayor Hagedorn – exercising prudence on behalf of the general scenery – has enforced a policy limiting all such new structures to no more than three stories. (Similarly, Hagedorn has wisely restricted access to the Underground River – a Unesco World Heritage Site which the city now manages – to 100 visitors a day.)

They’ll keep coming, but Mayor Hagedorn knows that Puerto Princesa’s growth has to be carefully planned and properly paced to avoid the usual traps into which many other presumptive Edens – Bali’s Denpasar, for example, and even Boracay, with its unrestricted sprawl of commercial establishments almost right up to the waterline – have fallen. It’s refreshing even for the incorrigible libertine to discover that Puerto has no red-light district. Seriously. There are, however, first-rate hangouts such as the Hangar for live bands, the Backyard for acoustic music, and Kinabuchs right on the main road, where Puerto’s young set relaxes over billiards and beer.

There’s no doubt that much of Puerto Princesa’s resurgence can be credited to the vision and the energy of Edward S. Hagedorn, the city’s gung-ho mayor and unlikely savior.

With his well-combed pompadour, mestizo looks, and neat moustache, Hagedorn looks like a cross between Erap Estrada and Gringo Honasan. The resemblance goes beyond the physical, and the key lies in the movement of these men from the fringe to the center, in their mutation from outcast to power player.

For a man once feared as a teenage toughie, gambling lord, logger, and survivor of at least two assassination attempts, the two-time mayor of Puerto Princesa, Palawan, can be surprisingly gentle and charming. He speaks with an easy smile and a quiet, slightly raspy voice, the golden pin of a Christian dove bright on the collar of his gray bush jacket. He knows that the past hangs on his shoulders – it is something he has the honesty and the good PR sense not to deny – but he speaks much more enthusiastically about Puerto Princesa’s future, and its own transformation from sleepy island town to a global model for ecotourism, as acknowledged by no less than the United Nations.

Hagedorn appreciates the irony of his situation, and attributes his conversion to a religious faith that he now applies with a fanatic’s fervor to his job. Mayor since 1988, Hagedorn drove his former partners in crime out of the city, set down clear and strict environmentalist policies, especially those having to do with illegal logging, illegal fishing, and waste disposal. Today most of the land within Puerto has been reforested; a "Baywatch" program patrols the water; and a cigarette butt on the open street is about as common as hen’s teeth.

Things haven’t gone Hagedorn’s way all the time, however. When his third term as mayor expired in 2001, he ran for the governorship, but lost. A successful recall petition against the incumbent mayor of Puerto Princesa reopened the door to Hagedorn, who ran for his old job and won it; the Supreme Court declared his victory valid, and he plunged back to work with gusto. But even his brief fall from power resulted in his worst nightmare – the loss of thousands of trees, and the resurgence of dynamite fishing, squatting, and illegal logging. It was a sobering reminder to Hagedorn about the need for reforms to take root more deeply in people’s minds and hearts – and to keep politics and the politicians off the environment. If there’s anyone who can do it, he can – but only with the help of the people he’ll be leaving behind.

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E-mail me at penmanila@yahoo.com and visit my blog at http://homepage.mac.com/jdalisay/blog/MyBlog.html.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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