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Donsol, the town built on Whale sharks

07/11/2012 19:23:52

Tourists come to see the whale sharks, with gather off Donsol to feed on the plankton which consume nutrients discharged by Donsol's still-healthy rivers. Picture: Jurgen Freund/WWF Philippines.

Another example of the good that tourism can do for wildlife, conservation and communities
November 2012. What a big difference conservation makes. Barely 15 years ago, the Philippines coastal town of Donsol was a 5th class rural municipality - where weathered vehicles spurred swirling clouds on dusty, unpaved roads. Sitting 540 kilometres southeast of Manila, the Donsol of the early 1990s was a relaxed and reticent town of fisherfolk and farmers.

1998 - Amateur video of Whale sharks
Donsol finally embraced destiny in 1998 - when an amateur home-video brought to Manila by diver David Duran revealed Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) - Earth's largest fish species - swimming and feeding right in the Bay. Back then, the world's most popular Whale shark tour was still in Ningaloo Reef, off the western coast of Australia. Aside from being rather pricey ($350 to $500) per head), interactions were not guaranteed.

Though occasionally gathering in other spots such as Australia, Mexico and parts of Africa, Donsol's Whale sharks mostly keep within a kilometre from shore, perfect for gutsy tourists bearing snorkels and masks. With strong government leadership and the support of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the townsfolk of Donsol took the plunge - and entered the history books.

Photo ID
Since 1998, WWF-Philippines has been spearheading a holistic conservation program which ranges from satellite tagging and photo-identification to the effective management of tourism impacts. Current efforts are supported by WWF-Denmark, ECOCEAN, the Hubbs Sea World Research Institute (HSWRI), CERTINA and Banco de Oro Unibank (BDO) and include vigorous environmental education drives to transform public school children into ecological champions.

25000 visitors per year
Today Donsol receives an average of 25,000 visitors each summer - a sharp contrast to the 867 recorded in 2002. Sailing on the influx of tourists, boat trips rose from barely 340 in 2002 to over 5300 per season. For the Philippines, Donsol has indeed become whale shark central.

Tourists preparing to go overboard with Whalesharks. Revenue from Whaleshark tourism has powered the development of Donsol. Photo courtesy of Greg Yann.

Tourists preparing to go overboard with Whalesharks. Revenue from Whaleshark tourism has powered the development of Donsol. Photo courtesy of Greg Yann.

"Prior to 1998, Donsol's yearly boat rental revenues totalled about 14,000 pesos. Now they annually breach 14 million ($350,000 US)," reveals WWF-Philippines Donsol Project Manager Raul Burce. "Economic benefits are permeating throughout all levels."

From barely 4000 pesos in 1998, municipal earnings from seasonal registration fees and taxes are breaching 4.6M pesos per year. Combined, the town's renowned Butanding Interaction Officers (BIOS - Each boat or group that visits the Whale sharks must have a BIO with them) are logging in over 3.1 Million pesos per season, exclusive of tips.

Widespread benefits
When asked what benefits ecotourism brought to his family, Alan Amanse, one of the original Donsol BIOs, said, "I sent my four children to college." Lambert Avisado, head of the Boat Owner's Association (BOA), said, "When this started, I owned one small fishing boat. Today, I own 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 18,000 pesos in 2002 to more than 22 Million pesos ten years later. These figures exclude revenues generated by resorts, restaurants, dive gear rentals, souvenir stores and rental vans.

Year on year, tourist arrivals have showed upward trends. New income, investment and employment opportunities have popped up. Side by side with their traditional livelihood of fishing, ecotourism has become Donsol's second engine of economic growth.

Because of the way stakeholders ‘democratized' Donsol's system, the people of Donsol had every chance to ‘share the joy' of ecotourism and feel its positive impacts both on their dining tables and in their wallets.

"Tourism gave us a big boost," says 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."

Today Donsol is a bustling first-class municipality. 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 - 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.

"The economic benefits of embracing conservation cannot be denied," adds Burce. "A simple decision to protect whale sharks has greatly improved Donsolano lives. This is the local economy that Whale sharks built."

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