CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY —Camiguin Island, the country’s second-smallest province, may just be a tiny dot on the map, but this island is packed with adventure ecotourism that has made it the fifth-most visited province in the Philippines.
Five hours away from Northern Mindanao’s capital of Cagayan de Oro, Camiguin is the getaway capital of the region, and has drawn 578,364 tourists in 2015 and 629,613 in 2016.
In 2014, at least 300,000 tourists visited the province, Department of Tourism records show.
Camiguin, with a circumferential road of just 64 kilometers, offers a lot of ecotourism sites—from the ice-cold spring of Santo Niño and the Bura Natural Soda Spring in Catarman town to the still-undeveloped Macao Spring in Mambajao town and the hot water of Ardent Spring.
The island sits under the shadow of four volcanoes, which heats the water to its springs.
Travelers on a budget can find decent accommodations in Mambajao, the capital of the island province.
Mambajao Mayor Jurdin Jesus Romualdo said they are expanding the town’s available rooms to accommodate the rising influx of tourists.
The provincial government is continuing its investments on infrastructures to tourism sites, opening new routes and roads that lead to tourist destinations.
What is striking about Camiguin’s tourism approach is that it is practically community-managed, in that the communities participate in almost every aspect of the tourism activities.
“We let people take ownership of the tourism sites, providing services directly to the tourists with much autonomy,” Romualdo added.
For instance, the pump boat terminals going to White Island, the famous mile-long sandbar 10 minutes away from Mambajao, and the Mantigue Island pump boat terminal in Mahinog, are managed by their residents. The communities also rent out snorkeling gear to visitors.
“The local government only collects environmental fees, which is very affordable,” Romualdo said.
Diving rates are regulated, so are motorcycle and other vehicles, so pump boats are offered with the same rental rates.
At the Sunken Cemetery in Catarman, locals like Carl Michael Naluan have learned to how to take creative pictures for the tourists.
He learned by observing other photographers. “What we offer is that we take pictures using our guest’s camera or cellphones, and we direct them so they can have the most memorable photos here,” Naluan said.
Tourists can pay them “for whatever amount they want,” Naluan added. They can also serve as snorkeling guides for tourist to see the cemetery below the waters. Bancas are also available for tourists to rent so they can go to the cross.
At the entrance of the Sunken Cemetery, other young people are involved in creating and selling crafts for souvenirs.
“We want to diversify our tourism portfolio by providing new avenues, activities for tourists to come and enjoy,” Mayor Romualdo said.
Part of that is the new night observatory on top of Mount Hibok-hibok, which has telescopes installed that tourists can view the night sky with, without much of the light “pollution” experienced in the city.
Camping at the Night Sky Observatory is now open for tourists, while guided night tours are done on weekends.
The island can now also host sporting events, as it has fully completed its sports center with an Olympic-sized swimming pool, football field, track oval, tennis courts. A gymnasium will be built within the year.
Mayor Romualdo said part of the program is creating new tourism products to make their local industry competitive with other regional tourism destinations.
Camiguin Island’s bed capacity is roughly 2,000, and to cater to more tourists, the provincial government has initiated a Home Stay program that would initially benefit 100 homes.
“What we have done is identify, capacitate, trained homeowners to accept tourists to augment our bed capacity. That way, tourists can have a direct connection and impact on the local economy,” Romualdo said.
Camiguin Gov. Maria Luisa Romualdo said such preparation needs the cooperation of residents to open their homes to tourists, as this will enhance their income.
“Home stay programs are very popular in other tourist destinations, so why not introduce it here, it can surely help the people,” she said.
Highly dependent on the Mindanao mainland’s food supply, the provincial government also hopes to ensure that ferries regularly reach the island.
Farming in Camiguin is a challenge, since its soil is volcanic and flat lands are limited. To counters this, the provincial government ventured into converting some idle lands into organic gardens that would produce a part of the island’s food requirements.
Mayor Romualdo said the program was started in the tail months of his stint as governor last year.
“We get our food supply from the mainland and have it shipped here, but we realized we can augment that by going organic. It has a big market for tourists, they want organic food, and restaurants put a premium for it, so now we grow them,” he added.
They started with experimental gardens in Catarman town, and will propagate more gardens by banking on good practices by other farmers.
Meanwhile, the island’s rice production is very low, limited only on the town of Mahinog, which is not enough for the entire island’s need.
Governor Romualdo said that as part of their control and mitigation for the influx of tourists, they have learned from other island destinations such as Boracay, Panglao in Bohol, and Cebu. The local government has set in place controls for environment compliance for new investments, the mayor said.
“We do not allow high rise buildings in the province, and we control our coastlines for developments in investments,” he said.
Basically, development is limited close to or on the beach, and no structures can be constructed taller than a fully-grown coconut. So far, there are no on-shore constructions as the beaches are being preserved for water activities.
“You don’t want to see high structures from the beach or from the White Island, do you? It will be an eyesore,” Mayor Romualdo said. “That would be one of our thrusts right now; we need to develop new tourism products but also consider the sustainability and environmental preservation.”
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