Two months before the island’s borders started closing in March, Diggy Alvarez already felt that something wasn’t right.
If he weren’t a businessman, he probably wouldn’t have caught it; the number of guests staying at his beach resort in El Nido, Palawan, had dipped, despite the fact that it should have been peak season. In Maremegmeg beach, where his resort stands, tourists from East Asia were scarcer than usual.
Now, as he looks back—eight months, zero guests, and one pandemic later—he realizes that people had already started to become wary of travel then, especially as countries in Asia imposed travel restrictions early into 2020.
As the Managing Director of Maremegmeg Beach Club, Diggy is trained to project numbers into the future. But even then, the numbers could never have revealed what would come next.
“We had no idea what was in store for us. Until now, we still don’t,” he says. Over an hour-long Zoom call, Diggy tells me how El Nido transformed into a ghost town in those first few months, as tourists and laid-off workers gradually emptied out the island. Those who remained weren’t allowed to wander outside, not even to go to the beach, unless it was for essential trips.
“We had some bartering going on, people started farming and fishing. Some things kept us busy but it was still sad, in a way,” he says.
As the months dragged on, many people like Diggy grew worried. What would a prolonged lockdown mean for their livelihoods? The locals I spoke to all agreed that the worst part was the not knowing—not knowing when it would end, not knowing when tourism would return to normal.
Once lockdown measures eased in June, the local chamber of commerce and the local government wasted no time working on a recovery plan. As with all important discussions, however, it took months of back and forth; the authorities adamant to take a slow but sure approach. One step at a time, they said: first, reopen to tourists from Palawan, then from around the country, then, god-willing, from around the world.
When Mica Mitra flips her screen to show me the limestone cliffs in Bacuit Bay, I can’t help but feel wistful. She’s speaking to me from the balcony of her home in El Nido, where she lives with her partner Xav. Mica has been living in El Nido for the past three years and helps her partner run a small boutique hotel called Sanse in Buena Suerte.
“So Denise, when are you going to visit El Nido again?” she asks me in the middle of our interview.
This is a question that’s been at the back of my mind since.
Five years ago, I saw El Nido just before its tourism boom. I had a friend who grew up spending her summers there, and in the summer of our sophomore year in college, she invited me to come visit her family. We flew into Puerto Princesa; spent two days at her cousin’s house in the city before we took a six-hour van ride up north. It was pitch-black by the time we arrived in El Nido, but I could hear the distant murmur of the waves. The next morning, I woke up to the sun gilding the gray peaks of its famed limestone cliffs, cerulean waters still and unmoving. It felt like stepping into another world.
Under normal circumstances, El Nido attracts over a hundred thousand tourists per year who either bunk in low- to middle-end accommodations within the town, or in high-end resorts a boat ride away, deep within Bacuit Bay. Before becoming one of the world’s best travel destinations, El Nido was but a humble fishing and agricultural municipality, with only a few travelers (mostly backpackers from Palawan and affluent foreigners) coming to stay here and there.
It was in 2013, when Ayala Land Inc. entered the market by buying off the plush El Nido Resorts, that tourism picked up, with plans to develop a large estate and an airport to encourage more visitors to come. That airport opened four years later, accelerating tourism in El Nido, for better or worse.
Right off the bat, El Nido Resorts knew it had a pivotal role to play in restarting tourism in 2020. As the biggest market player on the island, it had resources that many others did not, including access to the only airline flying to El Nido–a direct link to tourists that everyone desperately needed.
By then, point-to-point travel was quickly becoming the norm around the world. Having sole control of El Nido’s air travel gave the resort the chance to create a safe travel ecosystem, one that could cast a wider net for potential tourists. Without waiting for an official directive, they began to plan for what they believed was going to be the new normal.
“We knew we were in for a long haul, so we had to [plan], not just for the sake of the business, but for the sake of those who were furloughed,” says Marigs Laririt, Sustainability Director of El Nido Resorts.
If they did this right, it wouldn’t just spell out what the next months would be like for El Nido. It would spell out the foreseeable future of tourism for the Philippines.
“The whole experience, from getting on the plane and going back… there’s a whole host of things that could happen, and you have to be accountable for all that,” says Marigs. “It’s a huge responsibility.”
As the biggest market player on the island, El Nido Resorts had resources that many others did not, including access to the only airline flying to El Nido–a direct link to tourists that everyone desperately needed.
Eventually, the Department of Tourism (DOT) allowed El Nido Resorts to open up the very first travel bubble in the country, a controlled ecosystem where tourists can safely move from one destination to another with minimal to zero interaction with people outside their circle. The resort ran a pilot bubble in Miniloc Island in July, followed by Pangulasian in August.
It looks like the system is working, if their increasing sales are anything to go by. As of November, all travel bubble dates have been sold out until December.
To their credit, El Nido Resorts has managed to strike a balance between safety and recreation, creating an environment where visitors could enjoy their freedom without compromising anyone’s health. As long as they follow the required health and safety protocols, guests are permitted to freely wander around the island, occasionally stumbling across monitor lizards lounging lazily under the sun. They can go on island hopping adventures with boats specifically catered to their families, even partake of full course meals from the safety of their rooms.
In other words, they can have a real vacation, with less people to share it with.
Adapting to this model wasn’t all that difficult: as early as 2019, El Nido Resorts was already looking to streamline their customer experience, so setting up QR codes and online transactions came easily. And their accommodations had always been designed to occupy only 5 percent of the land on each island, allowing more room for social distancing.
“We’ve had guests visit more than twice, some every month,” says Joey Bernardino, Marketing Director of El Nido Resorts. “People are getting to know that our travel bubble is running and that it is safe."
Soon enough, other places around the country started opening up point-to-point travel, including El Nido town. But on this side of paradise, things aren’t going as smoothly.
With the way things are going, many of the locals don’t expect business to miraculously pick up by December.
Two weeks after the DOT announced El Nido’s reopening, I ask Mica how the town has been. She shakes her head. “We’re still there, we’re not yet 100 percent open,” she says.
While some establishments in El Nido have managed to reopen since October 30, the reality is that a majority—including Sanse—still haven't.
There are a number of reasons for this. Businesses in El Nido need to secure two important documents to reopen: for shops and restaurants, a local seal of compliance from the Mayor’s office; for accommodation establishments, a certificate of authority to operate (CAO) from the DOT. An accommodation can only acquire their CAO once they’ve gone through and passed the official DOT inspection.
For accommodations, the CAO is the holy grail—the official stamp of approval. It signifies that their establishment is safe, trustworthy, and practices the required health and safety protocols. Owning this certificate unlocks privileges, the greatest of which is access to visitors from outside Palawan, where a majority of their market lies. To date, the rule is that all non-Palawan-based tourists can only enter El Nido through the privately-owned Lio Airport, which, for safety reasons, refuses to fly guests in unless they are staying at an establishment that’s been certified by the DOT.
By mid-November, only nine establishments had been given their official CAO.
“At this point, I’m just trying to be realistic and practical,” says Mica. As of writing, they’re still waiting for their own inspection schedule. “It’s going a lot slower than expected, but eventually, we will get there.”
With the way things are going, many of the locals don’t expect business to miraculously pick up by December. Since the town reopened to Palawan-based tourists in October, a grand total of 60 tourists have arrived on the island, barely one percent of the people they used to receive every month.
Some of the smaller accommodations have given up reopening entirely, unable to find the time, energy, or the funds to invest in the process–resources that, for many, have been running low since March.
“I’d rather be safe,” says Jimmy Gustilo, a freelance graphic designer and DJ who used to run a small lodging house in Sitio Cabigsing. Instead of worrying over the requirements needed to reopen, he’s more comfortable to close doors and pursue other creative endeavors first, opportunities he recognizes he’s still lucky to have.
Over at Maremegmeg Beach Club, Diggy is one of the few locals who has managed to reopen business. While grateful that he’s finally had guests over the weekend, he’s still pragmatic about the way things are moving.
“I think [the numbers] could be better. What we’re having right now is just five percent of what we used to have. That’s still not enough to sustain the resort,” he says.
A part of the slow turnout is that access to El Nido has become even more limited. Historically, El Nido has always been foreigner land: in 2018, the year its total tourists arrival broke into the 200,000-mark, the island logged 22 percent more international than local tourists; the year before that, 24 percent. On top of El Nido’s limited entry points, this is one of the reasons why, for the average Filipino, a visit to El Nido comes few and far between—it isn’t cheap.
Now that there’s a need to pivot to a domestic market, prices in El Nido have gone down by half, making it more affordable for local tourists. Business owners like Mica hope this might encourage Filipinos to come visit in the near future, perhaps even consider staying for longer. She says some of the new arrivals are people who work from home, and who were attracted by the low house prices.
If more foreigners and Filipino tourists come and plant themselves in El Nido, Mica and Xav hope they'll see a diverse and multi-talented community that can upskill and learn from one another.
“I think that’s an opportunity to have a more resilient economy, like you have in Bali,” Xav says.
Meanwhile, people like Marigs, who work in the field of sustainability, believe that now is the chance for El Nido to take stock of the ways it can do tourism better in the future. After all, it was barely two years ago when the island nearly faced a rehabilitation scare quite similar to that of Boracay’s.
“Now that we’ve experienced what a 100,000 per year arrival looks like for a small place like El Nido, how about we rewind a bit, and prepare for when that time will come?
Marigs doesn’t have all the answers but she does have a vision of a sustainable El Nido. To keep El Nido’s conservation programs running, El Nido Resorts has partnered with its neighbors to create income generating opportunities for members of the community, especially those that have been affected by the economic downturn. These programs also aim to teach locals to be more mindful of the environment, a reminder that to take care of our future means to take care of our home.
“Now that we’ve experienced what a 100,000 per year arrival looks like for a small place like El Nido, how about we rewind a bit, and prepare for when that time will come?”
In the wake of the pandemic, there have been calls to reconfigure the way we do things, our approach to what we mean when we say we want things to return to “normal.” In the tourism industry, much is the same. Maybe it’s time for us to be more mindful of the details, the things we’ve always taken for granted: the way we build our infrastructures, the way we do business, even the way we travel.
For the most part, there are ongoing efforts to correct and improve existing practices in El Nido: there’s now a centralized system for booking travel activities, and the local government is a lot stricter in implementing rules and ordinances. Even island hopping tours have been modified so as to not overwhelm the islands’ environmental capacity; instead of whole-day tours, the local tourism board has modified it to half-day ones, with each set only allowed to visit three destinations at most.
Maybe it was the circumstances forcing everyone’s hand, or maybe it was just the final push for a wake up call that was a long time coming—but whatever induced these changes, perhaps it's a sign there could be a better future for El Nido.
Still, there’s a question that burns in my mind: When will I, and those like me, return to El Nido?
I can’t help but wonder if El Nido’s future can make room for my kind of traveling, for those who can’t always afford to spend tens of thousands of pesos on one holiday, but are just as eager, desperate, and within their rights to explore the natural world today. It’s clear that traveling won’t be easy anytime soon and that, all things considered, it would be even more discriminating—there are swab tests and insurances to pay for, limited accommodations and travel options to choose from. A kind of travel that comes with a shopping list of considerations, not to mention a risk that needs to be weighed.
But if having more people in El Nido is one tangible way we can measure that the Philippines is on its way to recovery, perhaps we need to ask whether the kind of tourism we’re shaping allows enough people in. Or it is more realistic to expect that, at least for a while, places like El Nido will only see those who can well and truly afford it? If so, would it be enough?
Weeks later, I find myself scrolling through El Nido's official travel website, looking at all the necessary forms needed to visit the island. There’s an unused plane ticket waiting in my inbox, a ticket that, in an alternate universe, I would’ve used back in July to mark my third visit to the island.
There’s no doubt in my mind that El Nido has what it takes to recover—and its people believe the same too.
“We’ll be able to bounce back,” Diggy says confidently. “We’ve been named top destination for several years already, even this year. We don’t even have to market the island—it markets itself.”
Every room that gets booked, every new face they see on the street, these are signs of life slowly returning, little victories that the locals celebrate. Just this morning, Mica sent me a text: “On a positive note, we noticed a few tourists have arrived! They seem to be from Manila!”
Slowly, but surely. One foot after the other, one step at a time.
This story was produced in partnership with Clean Fuel.
Founded in 2007, Clean Fuel is one of the country’s pioneers in using auto liquified petroleum gas, a cheaper and cleaner fuel alternative for public utility vehicles. Learn more about Clean Fuel here.