Whale sharks give Donsol, Sorsogon ‘new lease on life’

Jonathan L. Mayuga Business Mirror 6 Nov 12;

FROM a sleepy fishing and agricultural town in Sorsogon, Donsol is now bustling with tourists that provide jobs and livelihood to its people, thanks to the butanding, the whale sharks that frequently visit the area and a successful conservation program.

The whale shark is a now among the more famous tourist attractions in Sorsogon and the Bicol region, the World Wide Fund-Philippines (WWF) said in press statement.

The WWF said that 15 years ago, the coastal town of Donsol was a fifth-class rural municipality where “weathered vehicles spurred swirling clouds on dusty, unpaved roads.”

The town sits 540 kilometers southeast of Manila, and little was known about it had it not been for its famous butanding that visits its coastal areas.

That was before an amateur home-video brought to Manila by diver David Duran in 1998 revealed whale sharks, the world’s largest fish species, swimming and feeding right in the local bay.

This sparked an idea of making something out of this natural wonder through tourism.

The world’s most popular whale-shark tour then was in Ningaloo Reef, off the western coast of Australia. Whale-shark viewing, however, cost $350 to $500 per head, without the certainty of interaction with the gentle giants.

Donsol’s whale sharks mostly keep within a kilometer from shore, perfect for gutsy tourists bearing snorkels and masks.

According to WWF, with strong government leadership, the townsfolk of Donsol finally decided it was time to promote whale-shark watching as a tourist attraction.

Since 1998, WWF-Philippines has been into a holistic conservation program which ranges from satellite tagging and photo-identification to the effective management of tourism impacts in the town of Donsol.

Current efforts are supported by WWF-Denmark, Ecocean, the Hubbs Sea World Research Institute, Certina and Banco de Oro Unibank (BDO) and include vigorous environmental education drives to transform public-school children into ecological champions.

Donsol currently receives an average of 25,000 visitors each summer, a sharp contrast to the 867 recorded in 2002. Boat trips also rose from barely 340 in 2002 to over 5,300 per season.

“Prior to 1998, Donsol’s yearly boat rental revenues totaled about P14,000. Now they annually breach P14 million,” WWF-Philippines Donsol Project Manager Raul Burce said.

He said thanks to the presence of the whale sharks, economic benefits are permeating throughout all levels in Donsol and its neighboring towns in the province.

Local government revenue also grew from barely P4,000 in 1998 to P4.6 million per year. Combined, the town’s renowned Butanding Interaction Officers (BIOS) are logging in over P3.1 million per season, exclusive of tips, he said.

Alan Amanse, one of the original Donsol BIOs, said he was able to send all his four children to college because of the whale shark.

He said that before, he only had one small fishing boat. Now, he has three tourism and fishing boats. “I even paid for the newest one with my own money.”

Total revenues from Donsol’s whale shark interaction program rose from barely P18,000 in 2002 to more than P22 million 10 years later. These figures exclude revenues generated by resorts, restaurants, dive gear rentals, souvenir stores and rental vans.

Tourist arrivals have shown upward trends. New income, investment and employment opportunities have popped up every year.

Side by side with their traditional livelihood of fishing, ecotourism has now become Donsol’s second engine of economic growth.

According to Burce, because of the way stakeholders “democratized” Donsol’s system, the people had every chance to “share the joy” of ecotourism and feel the positive impacts.

“Tourism gave us a big boost,” said Jasmine Yanson, a boatman’s wife and mother of seven. “We were able to buy an outrigger boat and household appliances, plus my children were able to finish school.”

Now a first-class municipality, Donsol is frequented by tourists. There are close to 230 tourist rooms available during the high season. From a few hundred curious backpackers, Donsol’s seasonal visitor count has exceeded 25,000, or more than 130 per day.

Aside from boat operators and BIOs, Donsol now boasts of a full complement of tourist personnel and services that include paddle boatmen, resorts, lodging houses and homestays, restaurants, caterers, souvenir shops and gear rental.

Burce said this was made possible by a successful conservation program in Donsol and the province of Sorsogon.

“The economic benefits of embracing conservation cannot be denied. A simple decision to protect whale sharks has greatly improved Donsolano lives. This is the local economy that whale sharks built,” he said.

(Jonathan L. Mayuga)