This isn’t a travel blog. Though if you’re up for a trip to Caramoan Islands, send me a PM and I’ll share the essential details my girlfriend and I picked up on for anyone who intends to go there. There will also be no shortage of travel blogs and sites that can do a much better job of getting you there.
This is more a reflection of sorts; a cobbling together of takeaways from my conversations with our host, Kuya Ramil, our tourguide and boatman, Kuya Sonny, and a whole cast of residents and small business owners we chatted with during our time in Barangay Paniman.
I just came from a more academic trip prior to Caramoan, so I’ll be the first to say that this won’t have the same rigor of a Rapid Area Assessment. Though I left the islands feeling that there is so much more to learn about the place. In terms of building a story, I’ve only spoken to one group of stakeholders and thus this account may be simply just theirs. But let’s see how far we can go with the words of the people we met those two and a half days.
Caramoan, even before the coming of the first Survivor production in 2007, has already been in the midst of change. The little town of Paniman, specifically, used to be a fishing village. The movement of the typhoon belt southwards towards Mindanao has also changed the ecological balance in the waters between Catanduanes and Camarines Sur, changing the water’s temperature and ultimately reducing the volume of fish catch the communities traditionally relied on. (And amusingly, former fishermen like Kuya Sonny note that the fish return in large quantities just before a storm hits.)
With a lower volume and lesser reliability of their catch, they sought alternative means of income and, as if on cue, the Survivor productions rushed to fill a void. Survivor gave jobs to the local community of Brgy Paniman in the form of laborers, crew workers, boat men, security personnel, and personal assistants. The productions have left clear marks on the community from the props that have been repurposed into housing fixtures and decorations, to the pride that one can hear from the little anecdotes they share about how their house, this island, or that farm was used in shooting. The productions provided the much-needed income generating activities to a town that was quickly losing its primary means of income. For the likes of our host, Kuya Ramil, he earned P1000/day for three months of working as a boat captain for the US production.
But perhaps the biggest mark of Survivor on Caramoan is an externality — tourism.
The islands steadily grew in popularity as Survivor productions streamed in from Serbia, Israel, France, Sweden, India, and eventually the United States. The most lucrative income-generating activities for the entire adult, working population of Brgy Paniman are in the tourism sector, whether it be hosting homestays for as cheap as P300/night to running hotels for up to P1,500/night or running package tours that are pegged throughout the entire municipality at P1,500 for the short trip island-hopping (only 10 minutes to the nearest island) or P2,500 for the long-trip (1 hour to the nearest island). Of course there are those who will earn through food and beverage services (a rough average of P100-150 per person per meal), and retail souvenir sales (knock-off Survivor Caramoan shirts at P120-150).
Comparing the P1000/day Kuya Ramil earned in working for Survivor US, he earned almost P7000 for two days of hosting our group of five — more than three times the income for less work (by this point he was also ‘subcontracting’ his tour activities to his friends like Kuya Sonny).
So it wasn’t a total surprise when folks like Ramil and Sonny actually feel bittersweet about Survivor this 2013, a good six years since the first production came in and their tourism industry was born to supplement and eventually replace fishing.
Because now, Survivor productions actually eat into their income from tourism. Case in point: when the productions start rolling, some islands and water ways become off-limits. Tourists are then given a shorter, abbreviated experience that have caused a lot of frustration and customer dissatisfaction. It also doesn’t help the local villagers who feel that they are earning less when the tourists are kept away and they only have the income from the productions to rely on. In the past years they’ve learned to juggle the two, however. But there remains a sense of dissatisfaction among the working class in Paniman that (a) the wages they are paid by the productions fail to completely compensate for their lost income, and (b) they feel a mix of powerlessness and anger at the thought that foreigners — visitors — have barred them from the islands that they’ve come to call home.
There is no association to coalesce these fishermen, tour operators, and guides. There is no formal organization present to help them settle and air these disputes. They find the mayor and governor to be incredibly distant entities. Something that may seem as trivial as P30 ‘environmental fee’ that all tourists pay once they arrive at Caramoan is being questioned. “It’s called an environmental fee,” these locals challenge, “but no money has come from the local government to help in cleaning up the islands of the tourists’ trash.” The barangay captain, a fisherman too, has at least shown the effort to conduct and lead island clean-up operations himself (which consists of the locals going to each island to pick up the trash like Jollibee boxes and diapers, by hand). Instead what people get for paying the environmental fee is a small stub with the mayor’s face on it.
If I had more time in Caramoan, and perhaps had the opportunity to engage other sectors such as the LGU of Caramoan and Camarines Sur, and the private entities that produce Survivor in the islands, I would be interested to know if there is a developmental plan in place for the tourism sector of Caramoan. I’d like to know what they perceive to be their competitive advantage in terms of tourism and what role the local communities of Paniman and Bikal (another jump-off point for the island hopping) have to play in determining their strategy moving forward.
I asked our tour guide, Kuya Sonny, if people like him ever received training on how to be a tour guide; he couldn’t say. And yet he had an instinctive sense of the history of each island and memorized the water ways that are safest and rock-free. Not everyone has the same instinctive knowledge, he’d say; some guides just leave their customers and don’t bother to entertain them at all (I observed this myself in the other groups that were with us).
I also detect a certain lack in terms of mere support for tourism; in the time we went around the little town of Paniman, I did not see a single map of the place or its islands. There wasn’t even one on the boat. The only map I had in Paniman was in the Google Map I had in my tablet; even the images there were received with awe and surprise by the locals — as if I had a piece of sorcery in my hands.
The development of tourism will entail a series of hard, deliberate choices on the part of CamSur’s leaders and the local community. I can imagine the broad strokes: people want to profit while at the same time protecting the natural assets that allowed them an industry in the first place. That’s always easier said than done.
On the way home, Frances and I mused that it would be great for CamSur to introduce something like Cebu’s SuperCat to supplement or even replace the ferry between Sabang port (the take-off point from Naga) to Guijalo port (the gateway to Caramoan). But the mere prospects of that divided us eventually: What will happen to those who operate the current ferries? Will the local communities of Paniman be able to accommodate what will surely be a massive influx of tourists? Or is the SuperCat a bad idea to begin with. Is keeping the place relatively challenging to get to a part of the strategy to preserve it? But if more tourists aren’t brought in, then the community’s incomes may not rise beyond its current levels, potentially stunting its long-term growth. And so on.
But I hope debates like these don’t scare away Caramoan’s leaders. And I hope that if such debates are had, they are done so in earnest. After all, I believe the Department of Tourism’s argument is that it’s more “fun in the Philippines.” I agree. Though you know what they said about playing hard? You work hard, too.