IN THE not so distant past, a rude city mayor forcibly evicted all bar girls in his fiefdom’s so-called tourist belt cum red-light district , thinking that he would finally get rid of its image of a “sin city.’”
Some of these “working girls” opted to transfer to Puerto Galera, a coastal town that was largely isolated from densely populated areas of Mindoro Island. The town, however, was then already fast becoming a tourist destination, with its white beaches and coves scattered around a scenic bay area.
It is also situated on the southwestern edge of Verde Island Passage, which was declared as the “Center of Center” for Marine Shorefish Biodiversity, when group of international marine conservationists declared the Philippines as the global “Center of Marine Biodiversity” in 2005.
As many as 60 per cent of known shorefish species are found to overlap within the 10-kilometer square area. Sea turtles humphead wrasses, giant groupers and giant clams , dolphins and even white sharks populate the marine corridor.
Life after the ‘red lights’
“Nagalit sa amin ang mga taga rito. Akala nila magiging red light district lang ang kanilang bayan,” recalled Tita Nits (as she prefers to be called, even if its not her real name).
She admitted that after working as a bar reception in the city , she thought she would be forced into prostitution in the island.
“Pero talaga naman sinuwerte ako (But I was really lucky)” said Nits as she showed the beachfront hotel that she set up with her husband, a foreigner who decided to reside in Puerto Galera after they met in a bar where she worked.
According to Tita Nits, most of the women who had joined her eventually returned to the city, but found their old district sleazier than ever. “’yon ang gusto nilang buhay, bahala sila (if that’s the way they want their life to be, so be it),” she quipped.
But she noted that those who decided to stay had benefitted from the boom in the town’s tourism industry.
Tita Nits said that this is not really surprising. From the start, they were able to allay fears of the conservative community that they were merely being recruited as prostitutes.
The local bar owners there realized that it was more lucrative – and fun — for them to package to both local and foreign tourists their town as a “paradise getaway.”
‘Most beautiful bay’
Puerto Galera, one of the harbor areas during the old Spanish galleon trade, was eventually listed as one of the most gorgeous inlets in the world buy the Most Beautiful Bays in the World Club, a Berlin-based international organization founded in 1997.
oIt is an honor bestowed on the island because of its beautiful pocket beaches and wondrous snorkeling and scuba diving sites.
Hubbert Christopher Dolor, the town mayor, acknowledged the fact that there are now a lot of areas competing with Puerto Galera as a tourist destination.
“We welcome competition but that is not our prime concern. We are concerned about how we are going to improve our tourism on our own, because I always define tourism as service. Ang turismo po ay serbisyo, at ang serbisyo po ay tao, (Tourism is connected to service and service is connected to people)” he said.
The mayor firmly believed that the people should benefit from the municipality’s tourism enterprise. He added, this explains why migration to Puerto Galera is high, because people from other provinces view the municipality as “an area for employment,” with jobs generated by the thriving tourism industry.
“Puerto Galera is famous above and below – the latter because of the dive sites,” said Mayor Dolor. “That is why we have cracked down on illegal fishing, why we have declared many areas as marine-protected areas to ensure that we protect our diving areas,” added Dolor. The “above waters” pertain to the mountains,” he said.
Three things are strictly prohibited in the municipality: Illegal drugs, illegal gambling and to protect the mountains, illegal logging. They have also banned its equally evil cousin, charcoal-making.
‘Heart of Asia’
The 43-year-old Dolor, a doctor by profession who practiced medicine before his foray into politics, is serving out his last term as father of the municipality. He proudly declares that Puerto Galera is the “Heart of Asia,” and he explained why.
“By geographical location, the Philippines is part of the Coral Triangle. When you get the center of the center of the marine biodiversity, that will be the Verde Passage, Puerto Galera is in the northernmost tip of the Verde Passage. That is why we are the Heart of Asia.”
On December 26, 1973, PD 354 was issued by then President Ferdinand E. Marcos making Puerto Galera a reservation area under the Man and Biosphere Program of the UNESCO.
Mayor Dolor found it so unfortunate that over the years, the importance of its being a government reservation area has been seemingly forgotten. The mayor said the problem started when greed got the better of some people, who easily threw away all considerations about how they earn, as long as they profit.
Now, he said, they charge tourists an ‘environmental user’s fee’ of P50, and have implemented ordinances to prove that the municipal government is serious in protecting the environment and that neglect of the environment is a thing of the past.
More or less half of Puerto Galera’s municipal waters have been declared marine protected areas, where only hook and line fishing is allowed.