Donsol – Whale sharks
Following the article written by Violaine on the polemic about the feeding of whale sharks in Oslob and its ecological, social and economic consequences, we went to the origins of the ecotourism experience of whale sharks’ interaction. Contrasting with Oslob, Donsol has been at the avant-garde of a tourism planning respecting the ecosystem, through strong multi-sectoral partnerships.
The small municipality of Donsol became famous when, in 1998, a group of divers led by Romir Aglugub filmed and published online their encounter with the “gentle giants”. Since then, the number of tourists has been exponentially increasing, making Donsol the Whale Shark World Capital. From 867 visitors in 2002, 25 174 tourists have flowed into the place in 2011. Unlike in Oslob where tourism activities have not been planned and lack proper organization, whale shark interaction in Donsol has received the expertise of WWF since 1998: environmental conservation and implementation of a community-based tourism fostering community empowerment while controlling impacts of whale sharks’ ecosystem.
What makes the experience in Donsol unique is this community planning with strict interaction rules within a tripartite organization. Since the beginning, there has been collaboration between the WWF, the local government and the DOT: the WWF is in charge of conservation and research activities, the municipality manages and controls the tourism activities, and the DOT is in charge of community trainings and promotion. Concerning the community preparation, Butanding Interaction Officers (BIO ; butanding = whale sharks in tagalog) which are the eco-guides, as well as the boat captains, the spotters and crews have been trained by the DOT on animal approach and interaction, safety and customer service. In addition, strict rules on whale sharks interaction haven been identified based on previous research from Australian experts: only one boat with 6 people maximum per whale shark, prohibition of diving, touching them or restricting their movement. Finally, a carrying capacity has been studied, allowing only 30 boats per day on site with 10 minutes interaction per animal.
Whale shark watching in Donsol is an interesting example of community-based ecotourism. But, due to its success, several issues appear: with the massive flow of visitors and fewer sightings than before (read this article from WWF http://wwf.org.ph/wwf3/news/article/49), rules are more and more broken facing the pressing expectations of the tourists to swim with the world’s biggest and peaceful fish. In 1998, 28 fishermen were trained to become BIOs. Today, they are 41. Training and employment are subject to the BIO association which obviously does not allow more BIOs anymore. While this activity has become a very lucrative business, the opportunity to make more people benefit from these activities would particularly fit with the concept of community-based tourism. Another issue we have not much talked about before: the barely sustainable use of the revenues from the boat captains, BIOs and crews, who rather spend in cock fighting and drinking than save for their future or the one of their children. A significant effort of education from the government and NGOs still need to be done to solve this matter in addition to the access to financial access fitting with the need of the local communities: adapted savings products, micro-credits…
Even if some actions have been undertaken such as the collection of Php 50 per group of visitors (included in the Php 600 paid per group to the BIOs) for social security and BIO Association’s funds, the municipality of Donsol shows bad faith in trying to solve this issue of revenue’s use. Not to mention that the fee collected by the municipality from tourists lak transparency. It goes directly to the general funds but is not dedicated to community development or ecosystem conservation while the latter is the reason why Donsol became globally famous.