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Oslob hikes fees for diving, swimming with whale sharks

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Fees for swimming or diving with whale sharks in Oslob town, south Cebu, will go up almost double on April 15.

The price hike is supposed to “discourage”  crowds of visitors from going near the giant fish, said a town official.

Oslob Mayor Ronald Guaren said the current P300 fee “is too affordable, so anyone can swim with the whale sharks.”

“We are very concerned about the safety of the whale sharks, so we decided to increase the fees so less people would  come,” he told Cebu Daily News.

The same fee of P300 will be charged domestic visitors for “watching” whale sharks from a non-motorized banca steered by local fishermen.

For foreign vistors, it will be a P500 fee.

The P300 fee for  40 minutes of  snorkeling with the whale sharks in  Oslob will go up to P500 for local visitors  and P1,000 for foreigners.

For diving, the increase is more steep.  From P300, the rate is P600 for local divers and P1,500 for foreign divers.

The sudden price change in a barely three-month-old municipal ordinance that regulates Oslob’s newest tourism sensation in barangay Tan-awan comes just as summer vacation has started and a surge of holiday makers and visitors is expected.

The rate hike is drawing flak from local divers, after a copy of the ordinance was posted online.

“They are only thinking of increasing their income. It’s a case of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Only the rich can avail of that,” said Cebu-based diver and marine biologist Gary Cases of the Philippine Commission on Sports Scuba Diving (PCSSD).

Cases said the new rates would place Oslob’s fees higher than those charged in more popular dive spots like Cebu’s Malapascua and Mactan, Anilao in Pampanga, and Tubbataha Reef National Marine Park in Palawan.

In Malapascua and Anilao, the fee for diving is P150 for a whole day.  In Tubbataha Reef ,the government collects P3,500 for one week of whole-day diving, said Cases, who formerly headed  the PCSSD, a line agency of the Department of Tourism (DOT).

Oslob residents, however, enjoy a deep discounted rate of P30 per adult and P15 for a children below 12 years old.

Oslob, a sleepy fishing town in southeast Cebu, started attracting droves of local and foreign visitors with the unusual phenomenon of whale sharks  swimming close to  paddle boats where local fishermen hand-feed the animals krill.

The whale sharks, whose migratory path has taken them near south Cebu for decades, were long regarded as “pests” by local fishermen who would lure them away from their fish nets with bait, but it was only last year when coastal residents found it more lucrative to  keep them around to attract tourists.

Attention reached its peak in January 2012, during the Chinese New Year when over 3,000 visitors lined up on a Monday, Jan. 23,  to take a banca ride to experience “whale shark interaction” near the shore.

Mayor Guaren said the main purpose of the fee increase was to “regulate the people”.

The new fees will take effect on April 15.

At least 200 visitors come to Tan-awan on weekdays and  peaks on weekends with 600 to 800 visitors, said Oslob officials.

Receipts are issued for visitors who pay after being briefed on rules like “no touching” and “no feeding” whale sharks, in an outdoor tent by the beach.

The fees are collected by the municipal government and shared with associations of fishermen-guides and the barangay following an agreed formula.

The municipal ordinance regulating whale shark activities was passed in January. Barely three months later, came the decision to increase the original schedule of rates.

Mayor Guaren said town officials consulted three fisherfolk group, which lead the whale shark watching activities of visitors in barangay Tan-awan  since last month.

He said these groups agreed with them.

Guaren said officials are now meeting with private dive shops that operate in Oslob to brief them on the new rules. The shops are supposed to be accredited with the municipality to control vessels that dock in the area.

“We are very strict with our guidelines because we want to protect the whale sharks,” he said.

Cases said the new Oslob rates would drive away tourists, both local and foreign.

“That is a public domain,” he said referring to the open sea.

“Why do you charge so much? What happened to the law on national patrimony, which gives free access (to the sea)?” he said.

A copy of the amended Oslob ordinance posted online  has started to stir negative comments.

“Who will police this? Hoping they are organized enough to follow this. Sorsogon is cheaper than Oslob with these rates,” says Go Sarangani in one Facebook comment.

The abuse of whale sharks stirred a recent uproar when Facebook photos circulated of an 18-year-old girl squatting on the back of a stranded whale shark in Boljoon, a town farther south in Cebu.

The girl was with neighbors and relatives from the coastal community, posing for fun shots with the whale shark and touching the fish.  Many online users mistakenly thought this was taking place in Oslob, and expressed outrage.

The teenager, frightened by the online backlash, said she didn’t know it was prohibited to touch the animal, and thought they were just having “harmless fun” with it before fishermen tore open the tangled fish net and released the “tuki” back to the sea.

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