Siargao: Tourism Exemplar or Coal Mine Canary?

Siargao Island (pronounced “shar-gow”) has received a fair amount of tourist attention in recent years, particularly the town of General Luna. 

In 2008, then-president Gloria Arroyo initiated the Super Regions Program, aimed at increasing economic activity through infrastructure improvements and tourism development. A longer runway was built at the Siargao airport to accommodate larger planes and jet service from the Philippines’ major hubs.

As more routes, cheaper domestic and international carriers, and mid-, to high-end accommodations came online, the area has experienced a boom in tourism. Surfers discovered the island and its famed Cloud 9 break in the 1980s, and was named by Surfer Magazine as one of the “Ten Best Surf Trips of All Time” in 1995. They have been steadily coming ever since. Most locals will tell you they welcome the attention and the dollars; privately they say they worry that the area is prone to over-development and a growth curve that can’t be sustained without proper management. 

Nascent tourist destinations like Siargao, especially in the developing world, all face the same complex short-term/long-term challenge: Striking the right balance of local economic security that maintains growth at a sustainable level - enabling future generations the ability to meet their own needs - yet remaining vigilant against the perils that over-production and cheap prices can bring. 

The island of Boracay, northwest of here, contributed to nearly 20% of the nation’s tourism revenue, but rapid development, pollution, and environmental neglect became so profound that the government shut down all access to it for nearly a year in 2018. Some 15,000 workers were affected, with no assurances those jobs or businesses would still be there when they returned. Though re-opened to visitors, Boracay is now a place where bringing an umbrella to the beach, or even erecting an unapproved sandcastle is strictly prohibited.

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