Palawan eco-town ready to meet the world
SAN VICENTE, PALAWAN—Antonio Gonzales is no longer preoccupied with day-to-day operations to harvest timber that he oversaw in this town in Palawan province 40 years ago while working as a logging executive.
Now 78 with greying hair and on his second term as San Vicente vice mayor, Gonzales is excited talking about nature conservation and transforming a once rundown village carved from the malaria-infested forests of central Palawan into a prime tourist destination.
“We are ready to meet the world,” he said, following a presentation of a tourism master plan for the first-class municipality. The plan centers on branding San Vicente as host to its famed Long Beach, a 14-kilometer stretch of pristine white sand nestled on a forest edge facing the West Philippine Sea.
Gonzales’ renewed enthusiasm is driven by recent milestones in San Vicente’s bid to become a major tourism draw.
In May, the town inaugurated a new airport facility with a 1.6-km runway and a terminal building sufficient to handle limited daytime operations. Already, the charter airline company, Air Juan, has started using the facility for twice-weekly flights, and local officials are expecting Philippine Airlines to also start selling regular flights in October.
Key infrastructure projects are also underway, including the all-important sewage, water and power facilities that investors have been awaiting before they start their own development ventures.
Tourism enterprise zone
The government’s Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (Tieza) has declared San Vicente the country’s first “tourism enterprise zone.” It has sink in a total of P2.75 billion in infrastructure investments to help propel the town into the tourism big league.
Tieza funds have been allocated to several turnkey projects, including the completion of San Vicente Regional Airport, which still needs its own control tower and navigational facilities, access roads from the main highway, sewage and water facilities, ports and facilities at Long Beach.
The agency is also financing the construction of a building at Long Beach that local officials said would house a “one-stop facility” for investors.
“We are asking Tieza to already move their key offices at the new building so that investors will not have a hard time working on their projects. With a one-stop facility, we can all help them secure all national and local permit requirements, including SEP (Strategic Environmental Plan) clearance and other local permits,” Gonzales said.
The development activities have nudged the private sector, which, for the past decades, has been content on merely holding on to prime properties and speculating on the upward tick of land prices that began when major property developers, including the Soriano and Elizalde groups, started buying beach lots all over town.
“The major players are already in place and they have started moving after years of just holding on to their properties,” Gonzales told the Inquirer.
According to municipal administrator James Inawasan, the Elizalde group, which operates prime properties on Boracay Island in Aklan province, is keen on developing a 200-hectare property in the area with an investment portfolio of P10 billion to P20 billion.
A company called La Zuli has started building a 50-room high-end resort at Long Beach and plans to put up a total of 200 rooms.
Century Properties may start developing its land on Caparri beach at Sitio Panindigan, Barangay Poblacion, this year into an upscale P20-billion resort, Inawasan said.
“There’s a whole lot of activity going around and we are just pleased to note that they are starting to move,” he said.
As a recognized tourism enterprise zone, investors in San Vicente enjoy zero tariff for capital importation, an incentive that local planners said had already attracted locators.
Municipal officials like to boast about their comprehensive master plan developed by the consulting firm Palafox and Associates with Tieza funding. Its main planning feature is the imposition of a 50-meter setback at Long Beach, even when the national law on coastal easement requires only 25 meters of foreshore clearance for any structure being put up near the sea.
Inawasan said the local government had integrated “climate planning” into its tourism plans and in the overall municipal development planning.
“We have designed San Vicente as an eco-town with the help of the Climate Change Commission. We tried to address all the inherent problems of the bureaucracy. We have streamlined all the planning processes and came out with strategic governance framework,” he said.
At least, on paper, officials are claiming that their plans guarantee that the town will not go the way of several tourism destinations that have been rocked by environmental management problems, such as Boracay and Palawan’s own El Nido, Coron and its other established destinations.
“That will not happen to us. We have ensured that our master plan is sound and we have the proper facilities in place, such as sewage and water,” Gonzales said.
While the 50-meter no-build easement along Long Beach will be strictly enforced, the town will maintain the national law mandate of only 25 meters clearance for other beaches in San Vicente.
For Long Beach, which covers 883 hectares, the master plan sets restrictions to property owners, such as keeping green and open spaces in at least half of their lots.
“It’s quite an imposition and some property holders have balked at it. But we made sure the landowners are on board with the decision-making,” Inawasan said.
Potential sites for tourism
He cited a valuation study conducted in San Vicente that placed a whopping P21.93-billion price tag to its natural resources.
“That was the valuation of our forest cover as an eco-town,” Inawasan explained, noting that in the process, the existing biodiversity also weighed.
With much of its forests still intact, San Vicente boasts of several pristine waterfalls inland that can complement the beaches as tourist attractions.
“We are helping communities develop these areas into community-based destinations. We want to ensure that San Vicente will remain a paradise,” said Lucy Panagsagan, the municipal tourism officer.
The town has divided its existing destinations into four clusters, which travel agencies have already started promoting and selling.
One cluster features Long Beach while others include other established destinations, such as the picturesque Port Barton that caters mainly to backpackers and adventure seekers.
Vice Mayor Gonzales said the municipality was pursuing a policy agenda designed to ensure the sustainability of tourism enterprise growth, taking off from a rudimentary master plan it had developed.
It had set, among others, a target of delineating more marine protected areas and to have at least 30 percent of coastal resources under protection.
The town is also awaiting 50 electric tricycles from the Department of Energy under a national government program as it phases out the existing fleet of common tricycles, Gonzales said.
San Vicente receives between 25,000 and 27,000 visitors yearly, with an average annual growth of 24 percent in the last decade. Its main market, so far, has been Europe.
It has yet to reap the benefits from the recent increase in tourist arrivals from China and Korea. Government records show that Koreans comprise the bulk of foreign tourists visiting Palawan, with two weekly flights from Busan and Incheon arriving at Puerto Princesa International Airport in the capital city of Puerto Princesa.
Gonzales said the local government had not been overly concerned with promotion or the need to sell San Vicente to tourists.
“We just build, knowing they will come,” he said.
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