Challenges of sustainable tourism in the Philippines – Interview with Susan Santos Cárdenas

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For this interview, Anula Galewska spoke with Susan Santos Cárdenas, the President and CEO of Society for Sustainable Tourism & Development Inc. and board member of the Asian Ecotourism Network, about the situation of tourism in the Philippines and the role of education in helping sustainable approach spread faster.

This article is part of the interview series with Speakers of the GSTC Conferences in Suwon, Korea and Athens, Greece held in October and November 2016.

gstc-trainer_susan-santos-de-cardenasSusan Santos Cárdenas specializes in sustainable tourism development and stewardship initiatives with Community Social Responsibility (CSR) applicable at the grassroots. She was a consultant and adviser for Local Government Units (LGUs) in the Philippines for grassroots communities with focus on organic farm tourism, environmental conservation, climate change mitigation, disaster preparedness, management and recovery.

Anula: Why specifically does sustainable tourism matter for the Philippines?

Susan: The Philippines is in a climate vulnerable area. We experience 20 typhoons per year and all our islands and beaches are always at risk.

I’ve been working all my life on the beaches, and seen how tourism has gone through the roof. First there is a beach with no people, and then one person comes in, two persons… the next thing you know there are dozens of resorts already. The growth is phenomenal but the development is not sustainable. They have no knowledge about sustainability, what environmental conservation is, why it is important.

We have some great laws about environmental protection, saying you are not suppose to build in marine protected areas or forest areas – but these are only on paper.

A good example is Boracay where they built a 3 storey tourism resort. I worked there for several years and then I left because I saw there was no ecological balance. At that time I had no idea what to do.

At the beginning I had more dreamy naive approach. I was thinking – Maybe we can restore the nature. I thought that we can then plant again the coconut trees, reforest and everything will come back. But when the swamps are gone, and some hotels are built on top swamps, that’s another story, and there is no way back.

We have over 7000 islands, with a lot more to be developed. At the moment anyone can buy an island and build a resort. Fine, as long as it is sustainable. But in the Philippines it is always massive tourism. And the department of tourism always counts the arrivals, the millions of arrivals. That is for arrivals for what – 200 USD total spending? As opposed to for example 20 people but they’re spending 250 per night, or $1,500 a week. So the value of tourism has to be calculated differently than just in numbers.

Anula: How can the situation be changed?

Susan: The strategy should be to educate the people, to enhance the knowledge of destination managers, and also the local governments because they are the ones who give all the business permits.

Anula: Who should educate them?

Susan: Here’s where I come in! (Laughter). Who else but the NGOs?

There have been so many trainings and conferences all over the world about sustainable tourism but it doesn’t filter down to the host communities. The local governments have no clue. It’s all about the political interest and how to do the most with their 3 years or 6 year- term while they’re in power. Of course this means they have to develop tourism, fast. So they come, develop and destroy at the end, but it’s all short term interest for them.

Anula: So you work closely with GSTC to change it.

Susan: Yes, we work as an NGO focused on skills and capacity building of public and private stakeholders. And basically to save the planet (laughter) and of course also the Philippines. One super typhoon and we’re done.

There are three groups we work with: destinations, hotel resorts and the tour operators. And then the destination managers – the public stakeholders.

The approach is to train the trainers, and from there you go down. Many people go to these amazing international conferences but do they train the people on the ground – no. We have to make sure that the knowledge reaches those who actually deal with tourism and make decisions on a daily basis.

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Anula: You said it’s the role of NGOs to educate tourism professionals. What role can the universities play?

Susan: The students and the universities are more aware about sustainability than existing tourism professionals, as it has been already integrated in their curriculum. So we have hope there – I’m so happy that they are more aware of the issues than the old school hoteliers.

Anula: And who will educate the tourists?

Susan: It’s up to the tour operators, hotels and destinations to set the standards. And then people will become aware that these standards exist and that they are expected to behave in a particular way. That they need to reduce footprint, use less energy… It’s all about expectations. It’s chicken and egg. But it always comes from the industry, the hotels and operators and destination managers.

So it has to be the industry first, and then the tourists will follow. Like it is in Bhutan. Bhutan sets a levy of 250 USD a day, which means not everyone will be able to go. Tourists have to follow the rules set by the industry.

The same situation with Inkaterra Hotel in Peru, which in my favorite example of sustainable tourism business. Tourists see on their website that the company is founded on ecological research and conservation funded by tourism. Then they know what to expect. In fact, they go there because of Inkaterra’s sustainability efforts. But it’s not hard-sell marketing. It’s very subtle. The company needs to know how to put the message through and not to bore or scare the tourist.

Anula: How about the Philippines, what are the best examples of sustainable tourism businesses there?

Susan: None. Not even one! There are those who pretend to be, but beware of green washing. There are a few new destinations who are trying to develop tourism and take learnings from other islands like those who win the Green Destinations Awards recently. They say we want to do it the right way. So we want to help those who are treating sustainable development seriously and are willing to go the right path.


GSTC Global Sustainable Tourism Conference took place in Suwon, Korea in October 2016. To view presentations from the past conference and learn about upcoming GSTC events, visit GSTC website.

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