WATCH | Eco groups’ conservation campaign eases Hinatuan’s Enchanted River from unbridled tourism pressure

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The so-called Enchanted River along the coastal town of Hinatuan, Surigao del Sur province, has long ranked as one of the most visited tourist destinations not just in Caraga Region but across Mindanao.

With its crystal clear runs of shimmering aqua and greenish blue hues, together with marine fauna abounding in its brackish riverine stretches, Enchanted River truly deserves its name.

Once considered as a well-kept secret of Surigao del Sur, Enchanted River did not take long to become a popular attraction for both local tourists as well as outsiders.

It is situated in Barangay Cambatong, about 14 kilometers from the town center of Hinatuan and accessible via a four- to five-hour drive either from Butuan City or Davao City.

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Swimming in the past, when the activity at the lagoon was still allowed. Photographed by Erwin M. Mascariñas, News5 | InterAksyon

Tourist arrivals have ballooned beyond expectation in less than 10 years. Where it once accommodated an estimated 150 visitors on average a day, the attraction had lately been reeling under the pressure of 500 to 1,000 tourists daily, according to records kept by the Caraga Department of Tourism office.

Data from the municipal tourism office indicated that, in 2016, the Enchanted River area received 321,192 visitors, both domestic and foreign – a huge jump from 207,019 in 2015.

Need for Conservation and Protection
Nanito Bandiola, Hinatuan Municipal Economic Enterprise Administrator and Enchanted River Manager, pointed out in a report he presented during the 2nd Mindanao Protected Area Management Bureau (PAMB) Conference in Butuan City the need for the urgent conservation and protection measures to conserve the place.

“Among the challenges that environmental managers face are seasonal human congestion, overwhelming numbers of swimmers, degraded water quality, occasional flooding and sanitation problems, said Bandiola.

In 2014, a Rapid Resource Assessment (RRA) of the area was made by University of San Carlos (USC), Filipino Cave Divers (FCD), Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), with support from the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) a German cooperation development agency, through the Protected Area Management Enhancement (PAME) Project in partnership with the Local Government of Hinatuan.

Resource assessment
The resource assessment was conducted on the three underwater caves in the Philippines, which includes the Enchanted River.

Research teams collected water and sediment samples for analysis, listed the flora and fauna found inside and outside the underwater caves, and conducted detailed vegetation surveys.

The work provided science- and evidence-based inputs to decision makers of the concerned local government units (LGUs) on how to better manage these unique ecological resources in the longer term.

Critical findings from the RRA prompted the decision of Hinatuan’s authorities to temporarily declare a closed season, restricting visitors in order for the natural environment to heal from degradation due to uncontrolled human pressure.

During the duration of the closure, several people expressed dismay, but many considered it a significant environmental move.

HERUCS
Based on the assessment and data analyses, an Improved Management and Zoning of Hinatuan Enchanted River Underwater Cave System (HERUCS) was drawn up, and safety as well as environmental recommendations were formulated. These include:

  • Prohibiting swimmers from clinging to the walls and jumping off the cliff near the cave entrance.
  • Creation of floating platforms for swimmers to hang on.
  • Intensification of public information, education, and communication campaigns, especially directed at visitors from outside, to better protect and preserve HERUCS.
  • Continuous delivery of enhanced ecosystem services in HERUCS, such as provision of safe, clean water in the river/cave system.
  • Prohibition of fishing activities along the river’s route leading to the main HERUCS visitors area.
  • The conduct of due assessment of land use and land management practices surrounding HERUCS, which will play a big role in preserving and enhancing the cave system for scientific or recreational value.”
  • On December 2016, the local government in Hinatuan announced that Enchanted River would be temporarily closed from January 9, 2017 until February 3 for much needed maintenance and rehabilitation of HERUCS.

But the rehabilitation and maintenance work was hampered by prevailing rainy and bad weather conditions, pushing the re-opening date to March 5, 2017 with new rules and guidelines for visitors.

The local government formulated the policy to manage the impact of tourism, disallowing swimmers at the main lagoon area and adopting it as strictly for public viewing only.

Swimming activity was allowed further downstream from the lagoon along the river, with a regulated human traffic management allowing a maximum of 200 swimmers only per hour and strictly attired with appropriate safety vests provided by the management.

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Swimming allowed downstream from the environmentally sensitive lagoon. Photographed by Jhun Magno.

Saving the underwater caves
Jake Miranda of the Filipino Cave Divers group explained why there was an immediate need to rehabilitate the tourism site.

“In the past, swimmers intentionally or unintentionally broke rocks off the delicate limestone walls. The rocks fell into the underwater cave and, over time, reduced the opening or mouth of the spring, effectively throttling down the flow of freshwater and allowing seawater increasingly salinify the river.

“As more tourists visited and swam in the blue lagoon, the situation became irreparable to the point that very little freshwater was coming out to replenish the water balance of the spring,” said Miranda.

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Infograph from Filipino Cave Divers illustrate some of the problems at Enchanted River.

Restored closer to original condition
Miranda added: “Since the closure of the blue lagoon to swimming, and remedial work done, the spring has been restored closer to its original condition. The unimpeded flow of freshwater benefits the ecosystem of the river, which extends out to Hinatuan Bay, the traditional fishing grounds of Hinatuanons.”

Gemma S. Millan, Tourism Operations Officer II of Hinatuan, confirmed that the river has gradually reverted to it’s original condition compared to what it was prior to rehabilitation.

“Enchanted River had become so crowded that you could hardly see the water but just bodies and heads of swimmers on the lagoon. The number of people really was just too many for the limited area to accommodate.

“Since our re-opening this March, the visitors in controlled numbers have appreciated the area better, even with the restrictions and new guidelines and code of discipline in place,” said Millan. “Our conservation effort slowly bore fruit.”

“As of August 2017, we’ve had 38,666 tourist arrivals, bringing in around PhP2.2 million in revenue,” Millan reported.

For public viewing only
After the initial rehabilitation effort, Millan stated, “the main lagoon had become strictly for public viewing only, with swimming allowed only at the downstream stretch of the river and limited to 200 swimmers per hour strictly wearing appropriate life vest provided by the management.

“Vehicles were not allowed at the premises close to the river. Parking areas were designated at the scenic parking bay some distance away. Guests had to negotiate a five-minute walk from the parking bay to reach the river area.

“Bringing of food and eating at the river premises were disallowed. However, guests could bring their own drinking water.

“Designated cottages for rest and dining are provided at the main tourist entrance near the parking bay. The visitors have the opportunity to witness fish feeding, which is done once a day at around 3:00 in the afternoon.”

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Fish feeding activity. Photographed by Erwin M. Mascariñas, News5 | InterAksyon

‘Significant move’
“Having the rules and guidelines is a very significant move. This will help preserve the area for future generations to come. It’s my first time to visit the place and I’m amazed by it’s beauty and the dining service has been amazing as well as it has been very affordable, I can’t imagine having such a meal in Manila and just pay a very affordable amount for it,” said Jhun Magno, a businessman from Parañaque who visited the area for the very first time with his wife and friends.

Hinatuan Mayor Shem Garay shared that feedback since the resumption of operations, to date, have gradually increased from 50% to 75% in favor of the conservation program and the introduction of new policies.