Don’t tell anyone about El Nido: Philippines

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I have just returned to Puerto Princesa from El Nido in the Philippines. My friends visited El Nido three years ago and couldn’t contain their excitement about knowing somewhere that was a little secretive, special and out of the hands of the likes of Lonely Planet. ‘Nothing’s there!’ they said. ‘It’s paradise! It’s a hidden secret! You have to go’. So I did go…and I arrived three years too late. What happens when a destination isn’t a secret anymore?

First impressions of El Nido

When I arrived the town was absolutely packed: tricycles were trying to take people to their hotels through the narrow, buzzing streets. Drivers dashed and darted as they dodged the tourists on the sides of the roads…who hadn’t booked a hotel. Not booking a hotel was proving to be a testing problem: Tourist demand is starting to outweigh what El Nido can comfortably offer. ‘Is this the right El Nido I thought?’ because it felt like the whole of Puerto Princesa had decided to move up here.


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What happens when a secret breaks out

A couple of days later me and some friends went island hopping hoping to get the same, if not a better experience we had had in Honda Bay. Some of these friends had been to El Nido years before and the look on their faces was not a good one. As we sped across the seas, it quickly became apparent that the ‘Secret Lagoon’ and ‘Secret Beach’ were something that everyone knew about. Hoards of boats congregated at the islands’ mouths as tourists scrambled to make it to the natural hidden jewels they hold within. Resembling a line of travellers eagerly waiting to board their plane, we all grouped together waiting to plunge into the cool lagoon waters.

As we docked up at one island, my friend Dave started to well up. Complete with a bar, deckchairs and a restaurant, this island had totally changed. He admitted that he had planned to take me here the next day on a kayak, as 4 years ago, this was his secret island. No one had claimed it, nothing was on it and it was Dave’s secret piece of El Nido. No more I’m afraid.  No more.

The Good

The Philippines relies heavily on tourism for its income and it is one of Teacake’s most favourite countries in Asia: it’s beauty, people and vibe is just exceptional. If the Philippines can share its magic with the world, power to them. More people are getting to know what the Philippines holds and the Filipinos can hopefully make good money. The key question is however, can they do this responsibly and productively, building a successful ecotourism industry that is going to benefit all?

The Bad

Maybe I’m bad. Maybe I just need to sit down, shut up and accept that I can’t have secret spots whilst travelling anymore, just like what happened in Yangshou China. I don’t like this sense of tourist bombardment very much but hey, ‘wake up and smell the coffee Teacake, you’re a tourist too and part of the problem’. If you can’t beat them, join them right? The world is becoming a closer place and people will find out about what you may want to keep to yourself. That island that Dave claimed as his own four years ago certainly wasn’t his. Someone bought it and invested in it. They have every right to change it because places are eventually going to progress right? It’s an interesting debate for sure.

For El Nido, it was starting to become apparent that the scales were starting to tip. Can the locals manage to look after El Nido whilst continuing to bring the tourists in? I believe they are most certainly trying: I had been told The 4 Palawan Commandments by locals before as a kind reminder that paradise needs to be maintained with love and respect.

The Ugly

Boracay is well known for having become too popular and too tourist-saturated: will El Nido go the same way?

Waves in El Nido Palawan
There’s a thin line: are we going to cross it?

There’s a thin line

Where is the line in how much you should actually share with others? The selfish side of you may want to keep it for yourself but nothing stays the same forever. Countries are continually progressing and word will eventually get out about what is on offer. If you are going to share your secret, it’s always good to stress how important responsible tourism is along with it. Will locals be able to balance their need for money with the sustainability of Palawan’s beauty? Time will tell.

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Don't tell anyone about El Nido Palawan Philippines

11 thoughts on “Don’t tell anyone about El Nido: Philippines”

  1. I agree completely! Well written. Here’s my two cents….We planned a trip to Palawan for our (brief) Christmas holidays this past December. We had heard of the exact same things echoed in your post, and after having our piece of chaos in Koh Phi Phi and everywhere else in Thailand for that matter, we were over it. We decided on Port Barton, which was indeed a secret paradise. Maybe not the most ideal beach, but the town is still mostly locals with no hawkers or full moon parties. It’s a special place because it is still undiscovered. Truly! Not to mention the island hopping/diving is amazing here, Turtles and Morays on every dive. Anyways, moral of the story is, those places still do exist, you just need to search a little harder to find ’em!

  2. I had the exact same experience last March, it was kind of disapointing. It helps to stay in a hut outside of El Nido Town.

    I have been back to places where I had an amazing time years before (like Goa), but I think I should stop doing that. The memory often is better..

    • Yes! It has also happened to me that I have gone back somewhere and it has just not been the same. I think lots of things make a place though: the smells, the people(!), the weather haha. Good advice on staying in a hut outside of El Nido Town!

  3. It’s documented rather well in a tourism theory known as the Butler Sequence. As a place exceeds its carrying capacity, it inevitably heads towards an ugly period of stagnation. Then it has two choices – decline or reinvent itself. Atlantic City is a fantastic example of a tourist destination that boomed as a seaside retreat, died, and then reinvented itself (for better or worse) as a gambling hotspot on the east coast.

    It’s all about sustainability — not just in terms of being green, but in terms of setting and maintaining a level of tourism that can be sustained without compromising the natural resources that put a place on the map. If the Philippines government wanted to maintain Palawan’s beauty, it could put into place strict development limits that would, in turn, limit the number of tourists that could be in the place at the same time.

    El Nido is fine for now, as is Coron. They’re a long way from becoming Boracay (which, compared to Bali or Phuket, isn’t so terrible) but steps need to be taken if they’re going to avoid becoming another ugly tourist trap.

  4. Ever since I built the Philippines into my current itinerary, everyone and their dog had whispered Palawan. I happened to be there when the most recent typhoon struck, I was rained in most of the time. The beauty of it, for me, lay with the unanimous strength of the people that live there. Tourism had apparently taken a dive in Palawan after a couple of people were kidnapped nearly a decade ago. Recently, and exponentially, it’s recovering, but the people still aren’t reaping the benefits. One tricycle driver told me that the average woman in Palawan earns 150 pesos a week. I eat that for breakfast. Most of the tricycles are rented from the owners, so of that 50 pesos he asked for, he has to give a portion away. How is this fair tourism? If we’re disappointed that our sweet spots are no longer so sweet, we need to consider why then the locals are still struggling to pay their bills.

  5. When I was there I ended up getting sick either from the diving equipment of because my dive master left me behind after I lost a fin and I surfaced to fast. As a result I had to sit around and rest. I loved the area. despite being sick I kayaked to islands on my own and rested exhausted on the sand once I got there. Tour boats came and went and I couldn’t help but feel the slightest pangs of pity for people being led around the blind.

    I had wanted to move on from there. like Coron or camp up to the northern parts of the territory so I ended up in a lovely guest house for the duration of the stay with extremely hospital locals, that told me stories of a haunted tree on a mountain in the central area of the island where if animals slept they died.

    I like to find my secret places, and when I do I tell people about them, because I’m hopeful that there is a new secret place waiting for me to find it.

  6. Went there for honeymoon in 2012 and thought it was heaven. Loved it and wanted to stay forever and open a bar or something and never leave. It’s too small for a population explosion, and such a shame to spoil it. The Philippines are huge – 8000 islands – so many other places to check out rather than spoil one tiny place.

  7. El Nido was the 6th place I’ve visited in the Philippines and it saved my overall opinion of the country. After some rough run-ins with police and other street thieves, I’d pretty much given up on the Phils but Puerto Princessa and El Nido were honest, hands-off, smiley and genuine. Can’t wait to get back!

  8. I totally feel you. I was in Palawan and actually decided not to go up to El Nido. It was just too much for me. I went to the Underground River in Sabang and the massive tourism shocked me and disgusted me a bit.
    But as you say where’s the limit? I really had a dilemma going on when I was on the island and this is what I decided to do:

    Thanks for the post, glad to hear I’m not the only one to feel that way!


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