El Nido is one of those destinations. The stuff of dreams, from pockets of blindingly white sand scattered along the many jagged coastlines to the unforgettably teal water that surrounds them. It’s little wonder that visitor numbers have been soaring by at least 15% each year, driven by cheaper flights and the picture perfect feeds of some of the world’s most influential travel ‘grammers. But this tiny town, sandwiched between towering limestone cliffs in the north of Palawan, isn’t set up for such huge influxes of tourists and despite the benefits to the local economy, overdevelopment and water pollution are now a huge issue.
Nearby island Boracay hit worldwide headlines last year after President Duterte ordered the island closed to tourists for six months to recover from similar issues. Since it reopened to tourists, I spent a couple of nights there and will be writing a blog post all about what it’s like to visit the island in 2019! There are currently no plans to close the region but a huge rehabilitation of the island is underway and I could already see the impact of these new regulations to promote sustainable tourism in El Nido throughout my unforgettable time there.
In many ways, El Nido have been ahead of the curve. During my time in El Nido, I met Municipal Tourism Office Arvin Acosta who chatted to me about the changes and while a strict single use plastics ban has been in place since December 2017, he noted that regulations began in 2013 to limit the use of materials such as stryofoam. As well as the ban helping to clean up the beautiful oceans and lagoons around El Nido (photos of litter in the Secret Lagoon went viral, prompting a wave of shocked responses from travellers), the local government are aiming to reduce the sheer amount of rubbish being sent to landfill.
Many businesses in El Nido now favour paper straws (thankfully much sturdier versions than those that shrivel and clump into mush within a few sips) and hotels and tour companies also discourage the use of plastic bags and bottles. We stayed at two hotels in the region and both were keen to brief us on the sustainable facilities available, including free filtered drinking water dispensers which came in handy for filling up my WaterWell reusable bottle. Compared to those shocking pictures online, my experience of El Nido’s Big and Secret Lagoons was almost entirely positive, with the presence of one plastic biscuit wrapper so jarring in the transparent water that I couldn’t help but fish it out as I swam by.
As of November 2018, new developments in El Nido include a Php200 Eco-Tourism Development Fee and major changes to the popular island hopping tours running daily. Previously, the hugely popular Tour A would allow visitors to visit the incredible Small Lagoon and the Big Lagoon on the same day. These are now ‘premium stops’, making it possible to visit only one per day with no combination tours allowed. While this is a blow to budget travellers, who will now have to do Tour A and Tour C (which now includes the Small Lagoon) to see both attractions, the moves should lessen the flurry of visitors at any time and personally, I see it as a big win for sustainable tourism in the area. There’s something sad and offputting about seeing so many boats vying for space in the famously aqua bays, almost as though you’re intruding on somewhere sacred that deserves better than noisy humans scraping past delicate coral in kayaks.
The natural landscape of El Nido is undoubtedly the destination’s crowning jewel. In comparison to the laid back resorts outside the town centre, the main streets of El Nido were construction-heavy, crowded and the beach full of boats waiting to carry travellers out on day trips. I spent a day on Tour A with Tarawis Island Tours and while the day felt slightly chaotic (and sadly didn’t involve much interaction from our guides), a briefing about the environmental initiatives before heading out of the bay was a great touch.
The itinerary was fabulous, with stops at 7 Commando Beach, Big Lagoon, Secret Lagoon and lunch on Shimizu Island. While the beaches were stunning, the undeniable highlight was the Big Lagoon where I spent our entire time allocation gaping in awe, no filter required. Lunch, eaten barefoot on the most dazzlingly white beach, was a lovely if crowded stop and I couldn’t help but wish that we weren’t sharing the narrow stretch of sand with at least four other tour groups. But with some decent veggie options, served on reusable plates with metal cutlery, I was again glad at the nod towards sustainability. At one point, I questioned whether a private boat that allowed you to avoid peak times would be a more eco-friendly option but as with taking public transport vs driving, I think joining a group to lessen the number of boats remains the best way.
In my travel these days, I’m making a conscious effort to prioritise sustainable accommodation wherever possible and El Nido has some amazing options for those looking for an environmentally stay in the region. One hotel group leading the way is El Nido Resorts and when I discovered the chain of sustainable luxury resorts, I used my once-in-a-lifetime budget I had from winning the Post Office Travel Blogger Awards (and a media discount, full disclosure), to indulge in a night on the stunning Miniloc Island, the group’s Eco-Discovery island.
While my full Miniloc Island hotel review is coming soon (trust me, you don’t want to miss it), let me just tell you that this resort is a destination in its own right and they’re truly passionate about educating their guests about the surrounding environment, while making sure every single person is having the time of their life. The resorts employ a team of Environmental Officers who have created a marine turtle conservation programme, promote low impact guest experiences (kayaks > jet skis) and are responsible for much of the resorts guest education, including a very enjoyable talk in the time between Happy Hour and dinner where most of us had congregated in the bar to watch the sunset.
Less glamorously, the resort also purchased eco-friendly boat engines in 2006, have used a refillable water system since 2008 and even use their own sewage treatment plant and materials recovery facility for waste. Considering the amount of rubbish collected in El Nido has doubled since 2014, it’s reassuring to see these luxury resorts taking matters into their own hands when it comes to lessening their footprint on the Earth. Guests receive woven bags and slippers created by local women, trained in weaving to allow the resorts to support the local communities and the restaurants uses locally sourced produce wherever possible.
While staying in resorts like this is the stuff of dreams of sustainable travellers, there are more affordable options out there that abide by eco-friendly principles too. Owned by the same group, Lio Estate is a collection of moderately priced hotels boasting a similarly sustainable ethos and an enviable beachfront location. For budget travellers, Eco Hotel El Nido is located in the beautiful Corong Corong Bay, priding itself on a waste-reduction focus and the desire to showcase local craftmanship throughout the solar powered hotel.
There are still hints of work to be done and over time, I’m sure the local government will be handling the issue of constantly rising tourist numbers. On a separate sunrise tour of Small Lagoon (one of the many incredible free activities offered to guests of Miniloc Island), we were one of the first kayaks to enter through the cave’s hidden entrance and noticed a small area to the right with a bubbled film across the surface where pollutants must wash in from the tide and become trapped. The lagoon was otherwise so clear and tranquil, particularly in the early morning light where all we could hear was birds tweeting and the paddle of our oars, that the presence of any contaminants felt so wrong.
I also hope to see the eco-tourism initiatives rolling out across Boracay and El Nido applied to other areas of the Philippines and replicated in other countries too. Sure, our awareness of living more sustainably has increased in the UK but to see the Department of Tourism taking such prominent action shows that we all have the ability to do so much more. Andrew and Emily at Along Dusty Roads wrote on Instagram lately about the impact of overtourism on Rainbow Mountain in Peru and as we see more and more issues like this across the globe, it makes me wonder whether visitor restrictions like those in Boracay are a viable longer term solution.
If I had to summarise my four night stay, it’d be how El Nido’s undeniable beauty shone through every moment. As someone who has spent years gazing longingly at filtered Instagram pictures from that very destination, it would have been easy to feel disappointed but it’s impossible to feel anything other than joy when you’re seeing it with your own eyes. The limestone cliffs are just as lush, the sand just as white and the water of the Big Lagoon as clear, blue and perfect as I could have dreamed. If paradise exists, I swear it’s El Nido with those absolutely exquisite hidden corners and tiny stretches of untrodden beaches. It’s for this, and the livelihoods of the local people who depend on preserving the region’s incredible beauty, that I hope that the local government and Tourism Office continue taking steps to protect the region’s spectacular biodiversity and beauty.
NB: a huge thank you to the El Nido Tourism Office for speaking with me for this piece and arranging our island hopping tour with Tarawin Tours.