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Loggers become river tour guides in Samar

Revenge Tourism is a social phenomenon where people who have been stuck at home, often for months at a time, rush to tourist sites to appease their lockdown fatigue. With easing lockdown and flight restrictions, more and more tourist destinations are experiencing waves of visitors out to re-experience paradise – but what about the people who guide them? The people who themselves work in paradise?

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We’re shooting through a wild, wild washing machine: paddling, cursing, laughing and getting absolutely drenched inside a torpedo-shaped canoe.

We’re in the Ulot River, a 92-kilometer waterway which snakes east to west across Samar. The third largest island in the Philippines, Samar is rough country, hewn from limestone which over millennia formed some of the most dramatic rock formations and cave systems in the Philippines, such as the Langun-Gobingob Complex.

Revenge Tourism is a social phenomenon where people who have been stuck at home, often for months at a time, rush to tourist sites to appease their lockdown fatigue. With easing lockdown and flight restrictions, more and more tourist destinations are experiencing waves of visitors out to re-experience paradise – but what about the people who guide them? The people who themselves work in paradise? 

“I used to help cut and transport logs illegally,” reveals Epifanio ‘Panying’ Obidos, our boat guide. “For generations, we used traditional torpedo shaped canoes called balugo to transport timber. We would get orders to cut down hardwood trees like banuyonarra or kamagong. One balugo can transport over 100 board feet of wood.”

Samar is among the poorest provinces in the country. In 2015, the Philippine Statistics Authority revealed that 45% or nearly half of all families in Samar lived below the poverty line. “The hardest part was that even when we’d risk run-ins with the law by transporting illegally-cut timber, we’d still have barely enough cash to survive. Often we’d borrow money from financiers to buy gas and other provisions to transport the logs they ordered. Even after getting paid, we’d still be in debt,” recalls Panying. 

Things have steadily improved. Samar’s poverty incidence dropped to 30% by 2018, mostly because of small businesses, one of which is the Ulot River Torpedo Extreme Boat Adventure, where boats go bow-to-bow with raging rapids.

“In 2008, to veer away from illegal activities, we started using our torpedo-shaped balugo for tourism to showcase the natural beauty of Samar. We mostly employed locals who formerly worked as illegal loggers or log haulers,” explains Panying. “Back then we only had 12 people and a few old boats – but traversing rivers was a way of life for us, since we’ve been using it for transportation long before Samar’s road network was developed.” 

Each torpedo boat has a three-man crew, comprised of a boat operator, tour guide and a point man, who sits at the bow or front of a boat, deftly using a paddle or pole to keep rocks at bay.

“Now our once-small operation has over 20 boats and employs 70 local people,” beams Panying. In 2018, their group, Tour Guides and Boat Operators for River Protection and Environmental Development Organization (TORPEDO), was recognized by the Department of Tourism for its responsible, community-based operations.

The Ulot River is part of the Samar Island Natural Park (SINP), the country’s largest land-based Protected Area (PA). “The Philippines hosts 247 PAs and practically all of them give locals employment,” explains Department of Environment and Natural Resources Biodiversity Management Bureau (DENR-BMB) director Natividad Bernardino. The stories of many of these PAs are similar to Panying’s – of loggers turned into tour guides, hunters turned into rangers, blast fishers transformed into dive guides.

“For all this to continue, there must be a steady stream of clients,” notes SINP superintendent Eires Mate. “The COVID-19 lockdowns hit the world’s PAs hard, generating all-time visitor revenue lows. Many people were laid off and operations were drastically scaled-down. With our parks again open for business, we invite adventurers to visit the Ulot River and our country’s other beautiful PAs.”

Launched in May of 2022, the Year of the Protected Areas or YOPA aims not just to educate people on the need to conserve PAs, but to encourage them to visit the sites themselves. YOPA hopes to generate funds from tourists to ensure continued management for areas hard-hit by COVID-19 budget cuts.

Declaring natural sites as PAs is among the best ways to protect natural capital. “The jobs generated by sustainable and ethical tourism activities act as economic and social safety nets for locals who might otherwise turn to illegal means to support their families,” says United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) resident representative Selva Ramachandran.

* * *

Back in the Ulot River, the going is wet and wild. Our balugo, which traveled easily downstream, is now battling against the current in what locals jokingly call the ‘Salmon Run’ – akin to the epic upriver journeys undertaken by salmon in colder climes. Chilly geysers of water splash into the boat as our engines go full-throttle.

Just as soon as we’re sopping wet, the river calms down, the ride turning tranquil. Like the turbulent COVID-19 era, raging waters and rough times too, shall pass.

I glance ahead and notice what’s written on one of the guides’ shirts: #MAYFORRIVER, a play on #MayForever, the hope that some things really can endure the test of time.

With illegal activities, nothing is certain – but with legal, safe and sustainable tourism, then there truly might be forever.

“You know, if not for ecotourism, I would most probably be dead,” reflects Panying as we quietly glide back to shore. “The authorities would have definitely caught me, like they caught others. I might have starved to death, been shot by the cops or been hauled off to jail.”

He looks up, just a bit teary-eyed.

“In a very real way, ecotourism saved my life.”

Travel

Travelling farther away from home linked to better health

How often people travel and the range of places visited are important, with those who regularly travel more than 15 miles away from home more likely to report being in general good health.

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People who travel more outside of their local area feel that they are healthier than those who stay closer to home, finds a new study led by UCL researchers.

How often people travel and the range of places visited are important, with those who regularly travel more than 15 miles away from home more likely to report being in general good health.

Those who travel to a wider variety of places are more likely to see friends and family. This increase in social participation is then linked to better health.

Researchers say the results provide strong evidence of the need for investment in medium and long-distance transport options, such as better serviced roads and access to trains and buses.

For the paper, published in Transport & Health, the researchers analysed travel in the north of England, where residents face worse health outcomes than the rest of England and many rural and suburban areas suffer from poor transport accessibility.

Specifically, they looked at the links between perceived constraints to travel outside of the local area, such as a lack of suitable public transport, and self-rated health, considering trip frequency, the number of different places visited, distance travelled, car use and public transport use.

Lead author Dr Paulo Anciaes (UCL Bartlett School of Environment, Energy & Resources) said: “We expected to find that restrictions on travel through a lack of access to suitable public transport or to a private car would be linked to residents’ perception of their health because of the lack of social participation.

“We explored the links between constraints to travel more than 15 miles from home, demographics and location and social participation in how residents perceived their own health, finding that the key variable is the number of different places people visit outside their local area. This links to more social participation and better health.”

The researchers conducted an online survey of 3,014 nationally representative residents in the north of England. Constraints to travel have previously been identified as contributing to economic disadvantage and a lower sense of wellbeing in the region, but the impact on health hadn’t been analysed before. The team used a research technique called “path analysis”, which uncovers the direct and indirect effects of constraints to travel outside of people’s local area.

The study found that the links between travel constraints, social participation and health are stronger among those aged over 55. Among this group, constraints to the number of different places people can travel to is linked to less frequent contact with friends and participation in clubs and societies.

Dr Anciaes explained: “Those aged over 55 are more likely to face other constraints to travel such as limited mobility. They are also more likely to suffer from loneliness. In the north of England, rural and suburban areas with limited access options are more likely to experience population loss as young people move to the cities in search of work and good travel options. Meanwhile, older generations are left behind in these areas with limited transport options. The range of places they can visit is low, leading to less social participation and lower levels of general health.

“The results of this study emphasise the need for public policies that reduce constraints to travel in the region, by providing better options for private and public transport that allows for more frequent and longer trips.”

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Destinations

The one-and-only Hobbiton from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is now on Airbnb

With access to 44 Hobbit Holes, The Millhouse, The Green Dragon Inn, and other beloved locations from the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, guests will take an unexpected journey into Middle-earth for an experience unlike any other.

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For the first time ever, fans from around the world can explore the faraway lands of their favorite holiday films with an exclusive overnight stay at the original Hobbiton™ Movie Set. Russell Alexander is inviting guests to his family’s property to live like Bilbo Baggins and retreat to The Shire for an overnight stay at Hobbiton, as featured in the famed The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies.

Nestled in the picturesque pastures of New Zealand’s Waikato region on a 2,500-acre working farm, the property’s rolling, green hills – bear a striking similarity to The Shire as described by J. R. R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings, and captivated Sir Peter Jackson’s movie scouts more than two decades ago. The team quickly realized the Hobbits had found their home – and this holiday season, it could be yours.

Alexander will host three individual two-night stays for up to four guests at NZD $10 per night* as an homage to the 10th anniversary of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, courtesy of Airbnb.

With access to 44 Hobbit Holes, The Millhouse, The Green Dragon Inn, and other beloved locations from the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, guests will take an unexpected journey into Middle-earth for an experience unlike any other.

With sweeping views of The Shire, they’ll enjoy:

  • Cozy overnight accommodation curated by the trilogies’ Creative Director Brian Massey, including a writing nook fit for Bilbo Baggins at The Millhouse.
  • Private access to a personal Hobbit Hole, set up for relaxing moments of Preciousss  downtime and afternoon tea.
  • An evening banquet in The Green Dragon Inn with a feast featuring beef and ale stew, whole roast chickens, freshly baked breads and plenty of ale, plus Second Breakfast and Elevenses served daily.
  • A behind-the-scenes private tour of Hobbiton Movie Set.

Now, one does not simply walk into Middle-earth. There are rules.

  • No unexpected parties, please –  unless with Gandalf and company.
  • Bare feet are allowed but wipe them first.
  • Magical rings permitted, but keep them secret, keep them safe.
  • Pony parking is provided only at The Green Dragon Inn.
  • Straying far at night is discouraged, thanks to multiple troll sightings of late.
  • No pets are allowed, except Pickles the resident Hobbiton cat.
  • Never laugh at live dragons…

“For more than two decades, we’ve welcomed millions of passionate fans to Hobbiton Movie Set, but never before has anyone had the opportunity to spend a night in Middle-earth. I am delighted to share the beauty of my family’s farm and pleased to be hosting this iconic location on Airbnb for fans from around the world,” shares Host Russel Alexander.

How to book

Hobbits, elves, wizards and others may request to book one of three overnight stays on Wednesday, December 14 from 10:00AM NZDT/5:00AM PHT at airbnb.com/hobbiton. Stays will take place March 2-4, March 9-11, and March 16-18, 2023. You Shall Not Pass! (without requesting to book, of course).

To request to book, guests must have a verified Airbnb profile, a history of positive reviews and be aged 18+. Maximum occupancy is four persons. Two bedrooms are configured, featuring one queen bed, and the other two king-singles.

Guests are responsible for their own transportation to and from Auckland, New Zealand. Round trip car transportation will be provided for the two-hour journey between the airport and the property. (And just as a Wizard is never late, it’s important our guests arrive at their stay precisely when they mean to).

Travellers looking to book should note that this stay’s rules require strict adherence with local COVID-19 guidelines. Guests are responsible for their own travel to and from Auckland. Airbnb is closely monitoring COVID-19 infection rates and government policies and will offer booking guests a refund of the booking fee ($31) and $1,000 USD Airbnb travel credit if Airbnb determines it is necessary to cancel the stay due to COVID-19 guidelines.

*Plus taxes and fees. These three individual two-night stays are not a contest. The Hobbiton Movie Set is privately owned and operated.

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Destinations

Greenfield District in Mandaluyong kicks off its holiday celebration

To mark the beginning of the district-wide yuletide merry-making, the event kicked off recently with the traditional lighting of the 60-foot Christmas tree at the Greenfield District Central Park,. followed by a magical display of fireworks and Christmas caroling by a 20-piece chorale , setting the mood for guests to get into the holiday spirit.

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Greenfield District, the smart and connected urban center of Greenfield Development Corporation (GDC) in Mandaluyong City, transformed into a holiday wonderland with the launch of GDC’s annual Christmas festivities called “A Christmas for Generations”. 

To mark the beginning of the district-wide yuletide merry-making, the event kicked off recently with the traditional lighting of the 60-foot Christmas tree at the Greenfield District Central Park,.  followed by a magical display of fireworks and Christmas caroling by a 20-piece chorale , setting the mood for guests to get into the holiday spirit.

“After two years of not having face-to-face yuletide celebrations, Filipinos are surely excited to once again gather with their loved ones to celebrate the country’s festive Christmas season,” said GDC President and Chairman Jeffrey D.Y. Campos.  “Greenfield District is a venue where different generations, from senior citizen grandparents to Gen Z kids, can bond with each other by taking part in the fun holiday activities of the District,” he added.

Ongoing  until December 25, Filipinos of all ages are in for a lot of holiday fun at the District. On December 17, families, especially kids are invited to come and meet  Santa Claus at Greenfield District’s “A Night with Santa” , which will feature merry activities and gift giving.

Meanwhile, adults can start their holiday shopping early as the Greenfield District Central Park will showcase weekend bazaars starting this month until December. Shoppers can look forward to discovering value for money gift ideas, trendy fashion pieces, delicious treats and more. While shopping, visitors can also enjoy a quick food trip and engage in Arts and Crafts activities while immersing at the bazaars dressed in colorful Christmas decorations. 

With a mission to build future-ready and sustainable communities for generations of Filipinos, GDC upholds its tradition of organizing events that promote the value of togetherness and spending quality time with the family.

“At GDC, we are committed to not only building properties for generations but also creating verdant, spacious neighborhoods where Filipino families can create beautiful memories together throughout the years. Christmas is a special occasion for many Filipinos, and we want Greenfield District to be part of their memorable Christmas experience every year,” said GDC Executive Vice President and General Manager Atty. Duane A.X. Santos. 

Located at the corner of EDSA and Shaw Boulevard, Greenfield District is accessible to the public through various routes and roadways from the main business districts of Metro Manila, making it an ideal destination for recreational activities, get-togethers, and shopping this yuletide season.

Visit the Greenfield District with friends and family this holiday season.  To know more about the activities at Greenfield District, visit https://www.facebook.com/greenfielddistrict.

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