West PH Sea as tourist spot eyed for 'stronger maritime, defense posture'

Transforming the West Philippine Sea into a tourism spot is among the suggestions raised by an analyst to ensure the protection of the Philippine waters against illegal incursions and other maritime activities.

At a forum organized by independent think tank Stratbase ADR Institute on Monday, its president, Dindo Manhit, supported the idea of initiating tourism activities in the West Philippine Sea as part of the government's approach to enable a "stronger maritime and defense posture to effectively manage security concerns in our waters."

He backed such an initiative as he said that various security issues in the Philippine waters being claimed illegally by China affect its biodiversity and marine resources and limit tourism opportunities in the area.

"Tourism initiatives such as The Great Kalayaan Expedition by the local government of Kalayaan make the West Philippine Sea more accessible to Filipinos. Increasing and asserting our presence within our territory must be free from threats and harm from other states," he said.

The Great Kalayaan Expedition was recently initiated by the municipal government of Kalayaan Island in Palawan to generate livelihood for the residents. The Philippine Coast Guard's BRP Melchora Aquino already made its maiden voyage in March 2022.

The expedition, which is envisioned to be part of the activities that the municipality will offer by 2040, has a tourism package that will run for six nights and seven days.

According to Khenjap Hupanda, the project manager of Kalayaan Tourism Development Project, activities include cooking, wildlife observation, fishing, diving, kayaking, snorkeling, island walking, coastal cleanup and cultural immersion.

Covered areas are the islands of Lawak, Patag, Likas and Pag-Asa.

"At Stratbase Albert Del Rosario Institute, we believe that the security in the West Philippine Sea in the traditional, non-traditional, and emerging domains must be acted upon through a strategic and responsive inter-agency approach," Manhit said.

Saying that the 2016 arbitral ruling found that China’s land reclamation and construction of artificial islands had caused "irreparable harm to the coral reef ecosystem" and permanently destroyed the evidence of the natural conditions of various reefs, Manhit called on the country's leaders and scientists "to formulate and execute strategies that will sustain biodiversity and develop Philippine marine resources."

As this developed, the Australian Embassy in Manila said it is investing a significant amount from its P3.6 billion budget for a regional maritime program for the Philippines' marine security and maritime environmental protection.

"Australia’s relationship with the Philippines spans defense and security, development and education, trade and investment, and people to people links. One area that is going from strength to strength is our maritime cooperation," the embassy's Deputy Head of Mission, Moya Collett, said.

"The marine environment is under threat from pollution, climate change, and over exploitation. And it is more important than ever that we work together to protect it.  And we are proud to support the Philippines in its efforts to preserve the marine environment and become more climate change and disaster resilient," she added.

Among the maritime programs Australia is conducting in the country is the funding of some coral restoration projects, including in the waters off Palawan.