PUERTO PRINCESA CITY—The sun is no longer shining on Puerto Princesa City’s tourism industry, or so it seems.
Business establishments around the capital city of Palawan are hurting from losses due to an unusual slowdown in tourism activity in the province’s main economic hub.
While some dismiss it as a lull, many are starting to worry about the likelihood of a recovery.
Many tourists arriving at the Puerto Princesa airport no longer stay at the capital but proceed immediately to other destinations, particularly El Nido town in northern Palawan, or they skip the city and fly directly to Coron town from Metro Manila.
“[Tourists] now go to El Nido direct. At most, they would only spend a night in the city,” said Arjie Lim, owner of the newly built Marianne Hotel.
The trend is a stark reversal of the travel boom after the city’s main attraction, the Underground River, was declared one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature in 2011. Unprecedented tourist traffic triggered a frenzy of hotel constructions and related investments in Puerto Princesa.
The rapid rise in demand to visit the Underground River at that time prompted local airlines to increase flights from Manila from fewer than 10 to more than 24 flights a day, including daily direct flights from Taipei.
With a carrying capacity of less than 1,000 people a day, the park’s management had to go over its self-imposed limit to accommodate more visitors and manage a long waiting list of those hoping to get inside the river cave.
“We are starting to feel the pressure. The situation is different now. Back then, our restaurant would be always full of diners,” said Butch Chase, operator of Kinabuch Restaurant, one of the most popular dining places in the city.
This year, Palawan’s global reputation as a world-class destination received another boost after receiving recognition from entities like Conde Nast Traveler Magazine as the world’s most beautiful island.
Nearly 5 months
While the Puerto Princesa government is hoping that tourist arrivals this year will hit its projected 1 million mark, establishments on the frontline of the local tourism industry are complaining of a “low season” that has extended for nearly five months already.
“We feel this on the ground,” said Marlon Tamsi, a community organizer helping manage Ugong Rock, one of the more successful community-based tourist attractions.
He attributed the problem to the lack of new destinations being developed for the past eight years.
“We still offer the same tours,” he said.
Most of its observations focused on the poor quality of attractions and products or the absence of facilities, such as public toilets.
The agency noted that the island-hopping tour on Honda Bay, the next major tourist draw after the Underground River, needed to have improved merchandising systems and better infrastructure to please visitors.
The USAID study said Puerto Princesa could still serve as a “staging point” of Palawan as a world-class destination but it needed to develop its infrastructure facilities and improve site attractions.
Trip Advisor, which rates attractions based on feedback from travelers, generally ranked destinations in the city as “average.”
Bart Duff, an official of the local chamber of commerce, said the city government should undertake a massive makeover of its tourism plans to make local attractions competitive, or diversify its economy so it would be less reliant on tourism.
In the meantime, El Nido and Coron, which attract tourists to their beaches and picturesque landscapes, have to deal with a separate set of challenges in managing the impact of tourism.
Unplanned development projects have begun to put pressure on these areas’ fragile natural surroundings.
Some business leaders feel it will be difficult for Puerto Princesa to compete with other destinations for a heftier share of tourism activity.
A new airport being completed in the town of San Vicente, just an hour’s drive north of the city, is expected to boost direct travel to newly developed destinations in the north, including the 14-kilometer Long Beach.
“Once the San Vicente airport opens, I think they (tourists) would go straight there. It’s nearer to new tourist destinations, like Port Barton and San Vicente proper, and nearer also to El Nido,” Lim said.