Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Taking on the Mactan challenge

First posted 23:18:24 (Mla time) February 21, 2009
Tina Arceo-Dumlao
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MACTAN, Cebu, Philippines—When the Creator populated the seas with rich marine life, he decided to give the Gilutungan channel facing this tourist enclave more than its fair share.

Magnificent sharks, numerous species of corals, gliding manta rays, bright aquarium fish and graceful dolphins are just some of the citizens of this vital waterway that separates Mactan from the island of Olango.

With such a rich tapestry of colors and vibrant life under the sea, it is no wonder that this small coastal barangay about 30 minutes away from Cebu City has become a major tourist capital.

No less than international chains such as Hilton and Shangri-la decided to invest in large resort hotels here to cater to the steady train of local and foreign visitors.

These international and local firms realize, however, that the money-toting visitors will stop coming if they do not take care of the fragile marine ecosystem that supports the billion-peso tourism industry here.

Lose them and they lose their revenue.

This realization spurred the revival of Oceancare, a marine environment advocacy group composed of different groups with a stake in the health of Mactan.

It is dedicated to protect and rehabilitate the marine environment of Mactan island and the connected ecosystems.

A similar group was actually set up in 2003 but it fell by the wayside because of factors such as lack of commitment and focus.

The present crop of members has thus committed itself to not repeating the mistakes of the past.

Oceancare president Jose Antonio Aboitiz tells the Inquirer that the group was reconvened in July last year through the efforts of the Philippine Business for Social Progress because of the urgent need to take major steps to keep environmental degradation at bay while ensuring continued livelihood for the over 23,000 families who live in the area.

“We are organizing the different stakeholders and educating them so that they will realize that they are sitting on a marine ecosystem that is so valuable,” says Aboitiz, who also chairs the Visayas committee of PBSP. “We have a vested interest in together improving the environment.”

Aboitiz says Mactan can boast of being one of the best dive sites in the country and among the most accessible especially to foreigners, considering that it is just around 20 minutes from the Mactan International Airport.

“It really is quite unique,” says Aboitiz, an avid diver himself.

Since PBSP spearheaded the revival of Oceancare last year, the membership has been growing steadily. It now counts the major hotels and resorts among its members, as well as the souvenir shops, restaurants, real estate developers, dive shops and scuba diving schools.

Raymond Bragg, general manager of the Shangri-La Mactan Resort and Spa, says Shangri-La is an active partner in Oceancare because its programs tie in nicely with Shangri-La’s own ongoing efforts to not just take care of its immediate environment, but also to touch the lives of the community in which Shangri-La operates.

For Bragg, who also sits as vice president of Oceancare, the motivation is simple: If we do not take care of the environment, we will not have a beautiful resort.

With more hotels and resorts coming together, it is hoped that there will be equitable rules and guidelines for the management of the marine environment.

This means that there will be even more strict enforcement of prohibitions on throwing trash into the sea and the excessive extraction of marine resources like fish and shells.

It is also the group’s goal to bring about more order in the holding of water sports or recreation activities just so that swimmers or divers on one part of the marine system will not be over by the jet ski, for instance, from another resort.

Aboitiz says that there are also serious efforts to establish a recompression facility on Mactan Island to treat decompression sickness. This will help bring in more divers to the island since they know that there are appropriate medical facilities on hand in case they get sick.

“We also want to see more marine protected areas on both sides of the channel to further improve the marine life,” he says.

Oceancare certainly has its work cut out for it, especially since it takes years for any efforts to bear fruit. But Aboitiz is confident that the seeds of closer cooperation have been planted for the benefit of Mactan Island.

“This is a kind of work that goes beyond boundaries and political groups,” Aboitiz says. “We are all just working together to bring the marine environment of Mactan to its full potential.”


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