Donsol, PH: Lose Your Way


If you are in the hobby of unraveling the truth behind parodies, then certainly Donsol is for you.

It is a fact that Donsol is all about paradoxes.

“The secret to discovery is to never believe in existing facts” -B. McGill

People from all over the world heavily flock to the tiny sleepy town of Donsol from February until April to get a glimpse of the Whale Shark, one of nature’s most well-known paradoxes.

With the term “shark” attached to its name and being considered as the largest fish in the sea, it is a real paradox why it chooses to prey on microscopic planktons rather than animals worthy of its size and hence fulfilling its vicious predatory potential.  No question that it’s a gentle giant.

Donsol Diving Whale Shark Eyes

 (Whale shark up close)

But if you think that there is no greater paradox that can compare to the whale shark, you are certainly mistaken, because the town of Donsol certainly is a far greater paradox than its world famous icon.

With its bustling streets full of visitors and with enthusiasm present all around, most wouldn’t think that something is amiss here.

One only need to intentionally divert from the path carefully laid down for outsiders to break the illusion and realize that the festivities you observe are not what it seem. That maybe everything has been orchestrated to appear in such a way that truth is never discovered by many.

Intentionally losing your way would lead you to the depressing sight of poverty plaguing Donsol. One of the top tourist destination in the Philippines with billions of revenues generated per year, it is definitely a paradox that majority of its residents continue to experience dreadful living conditions.

As early as planning your trip to Donsol, you’ll have the expectation of seeing better signs of development compared to other provinces you have visited, knowing that it’s frequented by many.  Sadly you’ll be disappointed upon arrival, seeing kilometer upon kilometer of people living in extreme poverty.

Donsol Poverty Living Conditions

Donsol Poverty Living Conditions

Donsol Poverty Living Conditions at Night

 (Donsol poverty)

In most cases the massive cash influx brought by tourism would benefit a community, in Donsol this is not the case.

This can be attributed to Donsol adopting quasi-monopolistic approach in its tourism industry, the local government unit (LGU) in partnership with private operators, have taken control over the majority of tourism operations. Anyone wishing to see the whale sharks must go through the tourism center pay a fee and ride only the boats accredited by the tourism center. Everything must go through the tourism center even the river firefly watching tour. Donsol residents who dare to operate any tourism related activities without the center’s approval would suffer the penalty of being jailed.

I usually have no qualms against a quasi-monopolistic set-up because it can be beneficial in some scenarios. Along with “other reasons”, I believe that such monopoly was mainly created to protect the whale shark and ensure the safety of the visitors.

Sadly such quasi-monopolistic approach alienates most of Donsol residents from participating and thus from reaping the benefits which at the first place rightfully belong to them more than anyone else.

It appears that the quasi-monopolistic set up is not working as originally anticipated which probably is a sign that competition should be encouraged.  I bet the local government unit (LGU), in partnership with private operators, have other ways of protecting the whale shark without them taking over the entire Donsol tourism industry. With billions earned I can’t see any hindrance to allowing competition and the LGU and private operators taking a back seat of simply just setting up training, seminar centers and patrol to ensure safety rules are being followed.

I have noticed that Donsol residents can be compared to envious kids looking at the more privileged kids and all the fun that they are having.

I have encountered people willing to offer clandestine tourism services at lower prices even with the risk of jail time just to have a share of the pie. I guess not being able to feed their families is a thought more worrying than being jailed.

“Sir just kindly rent your snorkel here. I know they are renting some in the tourism center but please rent ours so we can have a few pesos of income today. Besides they are earning a lot already.”, I heard one Donsol resident say.

Donsol Clandestine Illegal Firefly River Tour (Clandestine firefly watching river tour offered by desperate locals)

 Even the foreigners, whom I randomly approached to share a boat earlier in the morning to see whale sharks, marveled at the prevalence of poverty.  While gulping a couple of beers during the evening, Ferdi from Germany couldn’t contain his wonder and asked:

“Do most Filipinos live in this kind of condition? Nicco, do you also live this way? I can’t believe that it is possible to live in a 30sqm shanty. ”

Corey and Ben (not his real name), from Canada and Israel respectively , concurred with his musings.

Donsol Night Beer Drinking Session

 (New found friends in Donsol)

It’s definitely after the whale shark season that reality can be seen clearly. With the whale sharks gone no illusion can conceal reality.  Majority of people are again left without jobs, if they have one.

Kuya Ronnel, manager of Villa Jolee Resort, definitely wouldn’t have summed it up more perfectly  (whispering so as not to be heard):

“Definitely there are lots of tourists here. But common residents don’t benefit much. Whatever small livelihood we are able to find only last during whale shark season. That is if we are able find one. When the Whale Shark season is over, most of the people have nothing. There is no available livelihood to feed our families. “

“Did you know that even the souvenirs sold in tourism center are not locally made from Donsol? Souvenirs are sourced from the province of Quezon. As much as we want to earn a living participating in the tourism activity, most can’t legally. We have to be accredited to be able to, but most of us can’t afford the high price of accreditation.  Sadly this was not the case in the past.”

“We understand LGU’s intentions of keeping both tourist and whale sharks safe, but we hope that they would find a way to involve majority of us again so we can also experience the benefits of the recent tourism boom.”

Donsol Villa Jolee Resort

 (With Villa Jolee manager)

It should be remembered that the poorest of the people should benefit from tourism more than anyone else.  The main aim of tourism is to improve the small rural economy and eliminate poverty by generating more jobs.

Seeing Donsol’s predicament, it wouldn’t be too crazy for me to imagine that whale sharks feel the same way I do.

Tthe whale shark may not be a paradox at all. It consciously chose to adapt a plankton diet so it can continually not scare us to swim by its side in an effort to improve Donsol’s quality of life.

Why would it come back every year to Donsol to feed when it could have went somewhere else, away from the noisy propellers and chaos?  Can you imagine yourself famished walking in search of a good meal when suddenly a bunch of pesky tourists appears out of nowhere, following you? Irritating isn’t it?

Indeed they deserve to be called nothing less than a gentle giant.

The whale shark, a creature of a different species, is voluntarily helping us live a better life.  We, creatures of the same species, therefore have no more excuse not to help each other.

Visit Donsol and intentionally lose your way. By doing so, we can hope that this sad paradox is someday unraveled and  removed from existence.


(Nicco Lampa visited Donsol, Philippines on May 21, 2011 until May 22, 2011)


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