Puerto Princesa

The culture shock: how to deal with tourism in the indigenous tribes in Puerto Princesa?

Puerto Princesa, the biggest city in Palawan island, is really proud of its subterranean river. Declared as a World Heritage site by the UNSECO and recently awarded one of the new 7 wonders of the world, the river attracted between 60 to 70% of the 514,000 tourists that came to Puerto Princesa in 2011. However, the river has not an infinite carrying capacity and the city of Puerto Princesa established a quota of 2000 visitors per day. The municipality, under the supervision of the charismatic mayor Edward Hagedorn, decided to develop new community-based tourism sites to decongest the subterranean river and show the tourists that there are other wonders in Puerto Princesa.

The community-based tourism sites in Puerto Princesa

Before going to Bacuit Archipelago in north Palawan, Matthieu and I met Ms Rebecca Labit, the tourism officer of Puerto Princesa. We already heard about the community-based tourism in the city because it is often considered as an example in other parts of the Philippines. Currently, there are 6 sites of community-based tourism in the region of Puerto Princesa. The municipality identifies places with high potential for tourism and then organizes and trains the community through the help of the barangay captain. Communities are encouraged to innovate and differentiate their tourism offer from other one. Thus, so far there are many different possibilities for tourists in Puerto Princesa: mangrove cruise, waterfalls, island hopping, caves, treks, indigenous performances… Ms Labit offered us to join a group of tour operators the following day to visit the batak indigenous tribe center.

The batak cultural center

The batak tribes, living mainly in Palawan island, experienced a fast decrease of their population: from 600 in the 1900s to few hundreds nowadays (to know more about the batak history and culture, please click here). The batak indigenous tribe targeted by the project is living on a remote village in the mountain, 6km away from the main road and other villages. This tribe has 9 families (around 80 members), all genetically related. Historically animist, the tribe is now mainly catholic, influenced in particular by an American missionary who has been living in the tribe for 3 years. The community mainly relies on honey and almaciga resin collection for living.

The project of the municipality started from a well-meant intention. It was not possible to avoid tourists to go to the batak village and the tribes had only little sources of income, so they decided to build a batak cultural center near the main road for the tribe to perform dances and discourage visitors to go to the village. In this cultural center, you can find a small museum, a traditional house, some artisanal products and a stage for the performances.

Members of the tribe ready for the show

At the entrance of the museum, you can read the rules to respect. The first one is “ Do treat tribes as your equal. Understand their limitations, yet, appreciate their indigenous skills and rare wisdom. Each culture is unique in itself, nothing is inferior, nothing is superior”. This is where problems start.

The rules to follow

After a short interview of Rica, the wife of the tribe’s captain, the tour operators from Cebu arrived and the tribe (senior citizens and children included) got ready for the show. The tribe’s captain, very proud, presented the different dances and songs. The oldest members of the tribe had to teach the others how to perform dances and songs for the tourists. The main issue is that the Puerto Princesa municipality did not institute a fix payment for the tribe, the performances are on a voluntary basis and the tribe relies on donations (mainly food) from visitors. This is how, after taking tons of pictures of the tribe saying “smile,smile”, the tour operators donated snacks to the community, waiting for them to scramble for the small compensation they receive and taking pictures.

The culture shock…

Matthieu and I felt really bad about it; it looked more like a human zoo than a performance treating the tribe as an equal. The debate is not so simple: should we let the tribe in their mountain living in bad conditions (all the children have the malaria) or should we offer them the possibility to get money from their culture, at the price of being a circus freak for tourists…? I have no solution to give but I think that the municipality should establish a fix wage for each performer of the tribe, to get out of this logic of charity, which often leads to the inferiority situation of the tribe. This could already be a good start.

A tourist offering food


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