Saturday, 29 September 2012

(De)constructing Development: Political Spaces and Geographical Boundaries in Tourism Planning

Undated aerial photo of Alona Beach, from
I was reminded of tourism planning, as an aspect of the climate change debate, when I attended a conference on Climate Change and Development Policy in Helsinki last 28-29 September 2012 at the invitation of the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research.  One of the sessions highlighted the need to decongest spaces and make towns and cities compact for purposes of energy efficiency, carbon footprint reduction, and climate change mitigation, recognizing that cities than the rural places, are the largest emitters of carbon dioxide.  While the argument was done in the context of cities, I believe it is also applicable to the pseudo-cities, or those I call spaces where the characteristic of cities (population density and intense requirements of sanitation, utilities, housing, and transportation) are prevalent and where there is a need to ensure that proper planning and development processes are pursued.

Take the case of Alona Beach, in Panglao, for example.  Visiting Alona Beach, both during the night and the day, you will be able to imagine the extent of human activity in the area, experience the degree of congestion, and approximate energy intensity.  If numbers are right, Alona Beach and its surrounding area is home to at least 6,473 people during the peak seasons of November to April, with population density of approximately 726 people per square kilometre, a figure very close to Cebu City’s population density figure in 2009.  For the last five years, construction activity in Alona Beach, and in the barangay of Tawala has dramatically increased, with permanent structures built almost on one-to-one project per month basis.  While no serious study has been conducted on the matter, the fear that Alona Beach will become the next Boracay in terms of chaos, unplanned development, congested spaces, is valid. 

In 2004, UNESCAP released one of its influential papers in tourism planning and argued that “there is evidence that some tourism destinations have developed without conscious, strategic and integrated planning” and that as a consequence “many of them have experienced unforeseen consequences which have led to their deterioration.” The same paper suggests, among others, that in order to ensure that we avoid these consequences, there is a need to reform tourism policy that considers several aspects impinging on human development, undertake a properly-conducted tourism planning processes grounded on a comprehensive analysis of context and current and potential problems, and ensure plan implementation, monitoring, and evaluation. 

The challenge of tourism planning remains a formidable task in Panglao.  I came across a paper that elaborates the guidelines for Panglao Tourism planning but I still have to see a spatial plan that comes with it.  In the Bohol Tourism Summit in November 2011, Mayor Alcala of Panglao admits that one of the challenges of tourism planning in the municipality is the lack of a Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP), still unfinished during that time.  The CLUP is mandated planning document, and Panglao’s last CLUP has already expired in 2010. 

Though the provincial government of Bohol has a tourism master plan, it may not have an effect on the articulations of priorities of local government units.  The provincial government, while governing a province, does not govern a geographic territory.  The one that has control over how land resources are used are the cities and municipalities.  This is one of the ironies of local development planning in the country.  Provinces do not have land use plans, only municipalities do, and for the many of us who believe that a good plan is grounded on geo-physical characteristics of an area, with strong considerations of economic, social, environmental, political contexts, any plan that provinces will make will only go as far as being instructive, but not prescriptive.  At the end of the day, it’s the cities and towns that decide. 

Physical plans of the province of Bohol, for example, will serve most the intention of the province in defining its priorities and aligning its development programs but may not necessarily connect to the sets of priorities of municipalities. While congruence is likely, this is not automatic.  In like manner, while the province can set its priorities for tourism, and even drastically decide to reconfigure the use of tourism resources, it can not impinge on the right of municipalities like Panglao to do what it deems right.

Here lies the problem of capacity.  I think, there is a little, if not nil investment in building the capacity of local planners on the ground, especially in the context of tourism planning. However, there is an abundance of guidelines for how planning for tourism can be effectively and efficiently conducted.  For example, UNEP published a book on Sustainable Coastal Tourism in 2009, and years before that, a guide to assessing tourism capacity.  Several Panglao-specific studies have already been conducted to serve as planning context documents.  For example, in 2006, EcoGov published the Panglao Island Assessment Report that focused on hydrogeological characterization of the island and puts forward several recommendations.  This is to say that there is no drought of resources from which Panglao can learn from, but there is the problem on how these resources can be translated to capacities that Panglao planners and legislators can use in moving its tourism planning forward.

Sadly, planning is not the only problem.  Implementation is also very problematic.  Three years back, I wrote about the efforts of the municipal mayor in clearing the 20-meter salvage zone that later resulted to a ridiculous temporary restraining order issued by the court. But then, you have new players now, playing with the 20 meter salvage zone and making local leaders look like fools.
I am not anti-development.  But the recent opening of a prime tourism destination praised even by provincial government officials baffled me. In the picture below, that I got from the resort’s website, The Bellevue Resort, it is very clear that the 20-meter salvage zone is again violated. 

(Bellevue Resort, Panglao, taken from the hotel's official website)

The tourism planning guidelines of Panglao specifically states that:

“The distance of 100 meters inland from the established easementof 20 meters shall be known as the “Beach Zone.” The first 10 meters after the easement shall be reserved as “open space” dedicated as “pathway” for public use. Beyond the beach zone will be the “Inland Zone.”

“Resort establishments within the beach zone shall observe height limits of 3 stories or 15 meters from the original ground line for the first 50 meters from the easement, and thereafter, may increase to 5 stories.”

“There shall be a mandatory easement along all coastal areas defined according to the Water Code of the Philippines as the 20- meter easement from the established high water measured landward and perpendicular to it. The beachfront easement shall also include the distance of 10 meters from the mandatory easement which shall be reserved as open space to be dedicated as pathway for public use. No permanent structure and sign of any nature shall be allowed within the beachfront easement.”

The picture above, speaks well of itself. I need not say more.

But in a situation like this, my argument on political spaces and geographical boundaries does not seem to hold anymore.  There seems to be an explicit agreement that laws and institutions can be ignored.  And so while you have a weak capacity in planning, you also have a very weak capacity in implementation. 

I just hope that this is not an indication of a weakening moral fibre of our leaders and our society in the province, a weak sense of what is right or wrong, or the turning of a blind eye to what is illegal all for the sake of development.