The lockdowns spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of people to stay home. The world’s protected areas (PAs), which have been trying to manage the ever-growing throngs of tourists, were certainly granted a reprieve – but after two years, the lack of visitors is having a telling effect.

The United Nations Development Fund’s Biodiversity Finance (BIOFIN) Project, the Department of Tourism (DOT), the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), and the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) recently staged a three-part webinar series, entitled Ecotourism in Protected Areas: Towards Green Recovery, on September 17, 24 and October 1, 2021.

Hosted by Alpabeto Ng Kalikasan author Anya Santos-Uy, the first session tackled the impacts of the global pandemic on ecotourism, particularly for protected areas (PAs). Speakers included DENR Undersecretary for Protected Areas and Special Concerns Edilberto Leonardo, International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Dr. Anna Spenceley, Mt. Pulag National Park Superintendent (PASu) Emerita Albas and Apo Reef Natural Park PASu Krystal Dayne Villanada.

“Ecotourism, one of the lifelines of biodiversity conservation, is struggling to recover,” shared DENR Undersecretary Edilberto Leonardo during a digital session on PAs. “PAs have been closed to visitors for over a year. A few reopened, but only for a limited number of visitors in consideration of safety protocols. The flow of income to our PAs dipped. Even more disheartening is the impact on the livelihoods of local communities, especially our rangers and patrollers who are largely dependent on the very PAs they protect.”

PASu Emerita Albas agreed. “Though vegetation regenerated because of fewer hikers, we have less funds for operations.” One of the most popular trekking destinations in the country, Mt. Pulag National Park hosts the tallest peak in Luzon. In 2019, around 43,229 hikers entered the park, contributing PHP8,974,760 to its coffers. The lockdowns cut visits by 98%. From January to August 2021, just 778 people visited, contributing a paltry PHP28,935.

The second session discussed post-pandemic ecotourism recovery strategies. Speakers included Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife Center PASu Melody Ann Malano, Balinsasayao Twin Lakes PASu Moreno Tagra, the Department of Tourism’s Ramon Tiongco, Jr., DENR National Parks Division’s Gabriel Anthony Ferrer, plus the IUCN’s Dr. Anna Spenceley.

biofin pa surviving covid 19 600pxSource: DENR-BMB website

“We’re developing and refining tomorrow’s best practices to help our PAs recover faster. We’re embracing technology to facilitate everything from no-contact, cashless payments to offering the public unique digital experiences via social media, which can be offered even after the pandemic is over,” shared PASu Melody Ann Malano.

The third session encouraged the audience to be responsible travelers. Speakers included DENR-BMB Assistant Director Amelita DJ Ortiz, DOT Promotions Board’s Cesar Villanueva, DENR-BMB’s Pola Geneva Bumanglag, Mt. Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary Assistant PASu Clint Michael Cleofe and Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park PASu Angelique Songco.

Known as ‘Mama Ranger’ of the Tubbataha Reefs, PASu Angelique Songco said the renowned offshore park modified existing policies to curb negative tourism impacts during and after the pandemic. “We’ve banned single-use plastics within the park and mandated divers to turn each dive into a cleanup dive. We’ve disallowed drones which can disturb the rookeries or breeding colonies of both seabirds and marine turtles. We want our visitors to set a good example for other travelers.”

With the global pandemic’s second year ending, the world’s national parks and PAs are hoping to welcome the public with better experiences.

During the webinar on responsible traveling to PAs, several topics were touched on, including ethics and behavior in PAs with regard to policies and laws governing wildlife in PAs; noise, waste, and light pollution; the proper use of technology and ‘Leave No Trace’ or LNT principles. BIOFIN and its allies encourage travelers to educate themselves on these when visiting PAs.

“For those who are at home, you can devote your extra time to learn better ways to become responsible travelers,” said DOT’s Cesar Villanueva. “Share what you learn through social media and don’t forget to engage people and organizations which help protect our environment.”

DENR-BMB, BIOFIN, DOT and DILG is pushing for a proposed Presidential Proclamation to herald 2022 as the Year of the Protected Areas (YoPA) and June of each year as the Month of Protected Areas. YoPA aims to increase awareness of the value of PAs, promote visits and in turn, increase park revenues from visitors.

In addition, DENR and BIOFIN staged the Virtual Travels to Protected Areas video contest, which offered all-expense paid trips to selected PAs in the country.

With the imposed travel restrictions, much of the world is contending itself with virtual ‘Sofa Safaris’ enjoyed by tourists from the comfort of their own homes. Soon, however, PAs like Mt. Pulag, the Tubbataha Reefs and other top hiking and diving destinations might be ready to take in more visitors.

“We hope to welcome many good tourists when the lockdowns are lifted,” concludes Songco. “For now and until our PAs get through COVID-19, we must learn to be physically distanced but socially engaged.” (BIOFIN Philippines/ Ms. Angelique Ogena)


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