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A Tale of Two Islands in the Philippines

Linda Adriano was a shy woman. A single mother, she supported her household by selling trinkets out of her handbag on Palawan — a long island of tropical landscapes teeming with flora and fauna in the southwestern Philippines.

One day, she picked up a discarded soda can, thinking that if she could collect more and sell them to a scrap metal dealer, she would earn better money. The idea of gathering and recycling cans led her to Ten Knots-El Nido Resorts — a local ecotourism company.

Impressed by her motivation, the environmental director offered financing and training. Today, Adriano runs a recycling center that handles all of El Nido Resorts’ recyclable waste, including glass and plastic.

“I call it turning trash to treasure,” Adriano explains to me beneath the shade of coconut palms and surrounded by piles of glass, cardboard, and metal cans bound for buyers in the capital, Manila. “Ecotourism changed my life, and theirs too,” she adds, nodding to her six full-time workers.

There are more than 7,000 islands floating in a sea of striking blue in this remarkably hospitable country, where locals are apt to invite you to a meal accompanied by San Miguel, the local beer, as well as lots of laughter and often singing.

So it comes as no surprise that after tourism’s heavy trek across Southeast Asia’s once pristine outposts, from Bali to Ha Long Bay, the less explored parts of the Philippines (which still make up most of the country) are poised to be the latest “paradise found.”

Indeed, that is already under way, which is why this tale of two islands — Palawan and Boracay — offers lessons as the country lays out the welcome mat to more visitors.

Boracay had an early taste of tourism’s promise to deliver prosperity to poor countries. In the 1990s, backpackers flocked to its sleepy villages and jungly hills, chasing rumors of the world’s most beautiful beach.

Savvy marketing and mass tourism followed, and the island got pounded by a tsunami of development. Hotels, bars, restaurants, and mini-malls transformed the once virgin “White Beach” into a free-for-all zone. Untreated wastewater poured into the sea; litter grew faster than introduced exotic flowers; wildlife habitat disappeared; locals were priced out of their family lands. Visitors who saw Boracay when its beach was untrampled would find it unrecognizable today.

If Boracay was the hare — taking the full-throttle approach — then Palawan was the more plodding but thoughtful tortoise. (It’s not an entirely fair comparison, as the vastly larger Palawan had built-in buffers against the onslaught; for instance, its wish-you-were-here blue lagoons, coral reefs, and verdant jungle are not all concentrated in one locale.)

The island eschewed rapid development and the quick profits that accompany it. Along the way, it has embraced sustainable tourism practices such as educating villagers, courting Earth-friendly travel businesses, and forging partnerships with organizations such as Conservation International and the World Wildlife Fund.

More than a decade later, that approach is paying off: The mayor of Puerto Princesa, the provincial capital, says that tourism has helped protect its cultural and natural heritage.

Nearby is the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, with perhaps the world’s longest navigable underground river; the area is a haven for endemic birds, monkeys, and monitor lizards. The park serves as an example of community-based tourism, supporting conservation and directing benefits to local people.

In Coron, another Palawan enclave of almost surreal natural beauty and home to lakes sacred to the indigenous Tagbanua people, the sustainable Coron Initiative was set up to avoid Boracay’s mistakes. Its action plan includes environmental education for residents and visitors alike. And this year, El Nido Resorts won an award from the World Travel and Tourism Council for its strategy of community empowerment and for spearheading the creation of a marine reserve.

The hare has taken notice.

On a recent visit to Boracay, I discovered that new international hotels are bringing sustainable practices to the island. For instance, Shangri-La’s resort uses recycled glass bottles for its own filtered water, and it is protecting the last stand of forest for the endangered flying fox, along with educating guests on other eco-initiatives.

“We have introduced sustainable seafood, opened an environmental education center, and created our own recycling program. We use nontoxic cleaning products. Our goal is to show other hotels on Boracay what is possible,” says Amit Oberoi, Shangri-La’s general manager.

With annual tourism in the country targeted to double to ten million visitors by 2016, the lessons of Boracay and Palawan are not lost on younger Filipinos. The country rallied thousands of volunteers to an international coastal cleanup (second only to the U.S. in number of volunteers), and the former U.S. military base at Subic Bay has become the first sustainable-tourism school in the Asia-Pacific region, educating a new generation of leaders.

As in the fable, the tortoises are winning in the Philippines. Our job as travelers is to support tortoises wherever we find them.

Nat Geo World Legacy Awards honor sustainable tourism in action.

Costas Christ is an editor at large at National Geographic Traveler and writes for the magazine regularly. Follow his story on Twitter @CostasChrist.