How El Nido Became An Eco-Conscious Paradise
When golden hour strikes, people pause and turn their attention to the majestic limestone formations as the sun sinks into the sea. The sky turns burnt orange and yellow, fierce fuchsia and blood red, and ultimately a peaceful rose quartz. Serenity is reflected in the calm ocean waters. This is El Nido in its true, unbridled glory.
Out of all the stunning 7,641 islands in the Philippines, Palawan is often called the country’s last frontier, boasting a rich and exceptional biodiversity found nowhere else in Southeast Asia. On the northwest tip of Palawan is postcard-perfect El Nido, a place that at first glance, looks like time has forgotten it. Spanish for “The Nest”, named after the swiftlet’s precious edible nest, El Nido features Jurassic karst formations, wild tropical jungles, hidden beaches, secret lagoons and crystal-clear azure waters where underwater splendours await.
It is also a pioneer in the region for the commitment of many local players to maintaining and protecting its natural resources. Due to its diverse underwater ecosystem, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and various local and international government bodies endeavoured to make El Nido’s Bacuit Bay a marine sanctuary. In 1996, the El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area was made into one of eight protected areas in Palawan—officially conserving and managing 36,000 hectares of land and 54,000 hectares of marine waters in and around El Nido.
Pockets of sand dot Bacuit Bay, which is best explored by boat
Jagged limestone cliffs and small hidden coves characterise El Nido, Palawan
A remote corner of El Nido
The beauty of El Nido has beckoned many to its shores, and a vibrant community organically grew to address the basic needs of travellers that began to explore its virgin surroundings more than three decades ago. Filipinos and foreign visitors who fell in love with the island stayed to open small businesses, hotels and hostels that stand along major coastlines, providing El Nido its rustic charm—including myself.
Guided by a friend who has known El Nido since her childhood, in February 2015, a couple of friends and I flew from Manila to visit El Nido town for the first time. While there, we saw a need for a cool nightlife space that other well-travelled visitors could appreciate. The following year, we opened Sava Beach Bar, offering speciality cocktails as well as events with live DJs, with picturesque Bacuit Bay as its backdrop. I’ve become a frequent visitor of El Nido since then, and my friends and business partners have relocated to El Nido full-time to manage the business.
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Aside from adding creative value to the island’s community, El Nido’s beauty has inspired me and many others to think differently about tourism and its environmental impact. After President Duterte shut down Boracay for six months for a clean-up in 2018, Boracay became a cautionary tale for all Philippine islands that rely on tourism for progress yet don’t consider the necessary protection of the environment. Alex Garland was living in El Nido when he wrote his 1996 cult novel, The Beach, set on a fictional beach in Thailand. The 2000 movie version starring Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed in Maya Bay, which ironically was so devastated by the influx of travellers who followed the film that Maya Bay was forced to close in 2018. We don’t want to see either of these happen here.
Melanie Alvarez, owner of Maremegmeg Beach Club, and long-time resident of El Nido, has borne witness to the town’s transformation since she first started visiting in the late ’80s. “There are so many more bars, restaurants and hotels open now,” she says. “It’s a good thing then that El Nido has already implemented the ban of single-use plastics and become stricter with businesses when it comes to compliance.”
El Nido really began opening up in the early ’80s, when eco-tourism pioneer Ten Knots Group first developed an airstrip along Villa Libertad in Lio and a luxury dive resort on Miniloc Island 12 kilometres away by boat, which unlocked a gateway to the rest of the island. But it did so with a plan to preserve the condition in which they discovered it. In 1995, the company hired Mariglo Laririt to oversee scientific studies on the health of terrestrial and marine ecosystems and to determine how expansion would impact the environment.
“Even then, I liked the company’s respect for nature, especially for its underwater environment, and how it was an integral part of their corporate culture,” says Laririt, director of sustainability of the Ten Knots Group. The following year the company developed a sewage facility and installed mooring buoys to protect its reefs, a first in El Nido.
In the decades since Ten Knots Group established its presence in El Nido, it has created four resorts that stand as successful examples of how luxury and eco-conscious development is attainable when done with passion and conviction. “Our island resorts are distinguished by differences in design and architecture dictated by the nuances of their locations,” says Laririt.
She explains that the ones on Miniloc Island and Apulit Island maximise access to the varied marine life within their respective coves, while Pangalusian Island is stretched out along an expansive white beach—a true luxury among the islands in Bacuit Bay, which is dominated by small coves with pockets of hidden beach. Lagen Island, on the other hand, features an exceptional forest with villas intimately woven among its ancient trees.
“Despite the changes in ownership from Asian Conservation Company to Ayala Land in 2013, what has not changed is that Ten Knots has made its sustainability initiatives systematic and systemic,” says Laririt. Among the initiatives to help protect the area’s wildlife, the resorts monitor animal sightings, tag and release endangered marine turtles, organise bi-weekly coastal clean-ups and maintain mooring buoys in 21 sites around Bacuit Bay. Ten Knots also partnered with the El Nido Foundation to install artificial reefs in Tres Marias, and regularly patrols Bacuit Bay to report illegal activities in El Nido’s waters.
Isle of Style
In the neighbouring town Taytay, two hours’ travel time by boat and land from Lio Airport, is Flower Island Resort: a Robinson Crusoe-inspired eco-resort island getaway that accommodates only 20 guests at a time. Flower Island Resort features charming bungalows, bridges and cabanas designed with sustainable local materials. “Guests who come here look for off-the-beaten-track experiences,” says Mia Arcenas-Branellec, who manages the resort. “Our guests understand that the best places can be hard to get to, but they value the privacy, tranquillity and seclusion that the island allows, as well as the rare opportunity to reconnect with nature.”
In 2001, Jacques Christophe Branellec, group president and CEO of Jewelmer, the international luxury jewellery brand whose coveted golden South Sea pearls are produced in Palawan’s pristine waters, acquired Flower Island from an environmental, sea-loving French-Filipino couple who developed it in the early 1980s. “It was actually a visit to Flower Island many years ago that implanted the idea to create a venture done in collaboration with nature,” recalls Arcenas-Branellec.
Today, Jewelmer is credited for shining a light on the country and the national gem of the Philippines, having won international jewellery awards not only for design but also for sustainability efforts. Guests of Flower Island are also in a unique position to visit one of Jewelmer’s pearl farms, where they can witness pearl making firsthand. “The tour immersion depends on the curiosity of the guest—from a glimpse of the complex to a more in-depth look at the biotechnological processes behind the production of a pearl.
In 2006, the Branellec family founded the Save Palawan Seas Foundation to protect and nurture natural resources in Palawan by educating its coastal communities and creating environmentally sustainable livelihood alternatives for them. Today they continue to lessen their environmental impact on the island by limiting its total capacity and eliminating single-use plastics.
In Perfect Harmony
On the other side of the island, the 365-hectare Lio Tourism Estate, which is also managed by Ten Knots, is the future of this budding destination. Designed to be in total harmony with nature, it features structures no taller than 18 metres—the height of a coconut tree. This mixed-use, sustainable community is a utopian version of El Nido, with much breathing room and only 60 per cent of the area allowed to be developed. Restaurants and shops are found in buildings harmonious with the natural surroundings.
Furthermore, Lio is pedestrian-friendly with dedicated trails and bike paths among the six hotels available to guests. The 3.8-kilometre Lio Eco-Trail is one of these self-guided hikes for people of all ages to enjoy. Aside from the viewing deck that allows views of Cadlao Island and Bacuit Bay, hikers can sometimes get a rare glimpse of local wildlife like the Palawan hornbill or white vented sham as well.
Located five minutes from the airport and 30 minutes from El Nido town, Lio Tourism Estate is ideal for the traveller who wants to explore the town by day and then return to its quiet, spacious environs at night. Lio visitors can shop at the Taboan Weekend Market—a sustainable livelihood project for El Nido’s indigenous people—and many of its resorts outsource Sibaltan women weavers’ products. Opening in May is Sitio Uno, conceived as a place for small businesses to incubate and designed to attract young locals and tourists alike.
A big feature of the local creative scene in Lio is Kalye Artisano, a cultural hub envisioned by philanthropist Bea Zobel De Ayala Jr and her daughter Paloma Urquijo, who also owns and runs Piopio, a Filipino brand featuring indigenous weaves. Since opening in January 2018, Kalye Artisano has received tremendous support not only from the local community and visitors to El Nido but also from the Philippine artistic community at large. “We offer visitors a one-stop shop to showcase Filipino talent and the local community a sense of place that promotes collaboration and creativity for people of all ages,” says Urquijo.
In the beginning, Kalye Artisano only featured Palawan artists but it is now expanding to accommodate those from around the country who share in its ethos. Moreover, it hosts various events throughout the year to promote and showcase El Nido’s local culture and talent.
“The events have led to many of our artists being commissioned to collaborate with new local businesses. Whether through structural design, furniture design or even just small finishes, more and more establishments in El Nido are now looking to our artists to help provide a local touch. In turn, visitors will now see more local art when travelling around the island,” says Urquijo. In addition, two B&Bs are under construction in the planned artist’s village, set to open by late 2020.
El Nido’s beauty has served as an inspiration to those who have slowly moulded it from a rugged natural treasure into a dynamic creative community. As travellers begin to discover this part of Palawan, so does the concerted push for responsibility and eco-consciousness among its residents and visitors. As Laririt says, “Hopefully more of us will realise that there is a higher calling to all this enjoyment, and that is to protect the capital on which all El Nido tourism depends: nature.”