From its sun-soaked shores to the thrills and escapades it has to offer, the province of La Union is undoubtedly a top destination in the Philippines for travelers seeking a mix of adventure and relaxation. In 2019, the province recorded its highest number of tourist arrivals at 660,096, solidifying its position as a leading tourist destination in the country. As a result of the influx of tourists, La Union hit a major milestone by recording the highest tourism receipt ever estimated in the same year, raking in a staggering ₱1.14 billion—a clear indicator of the province’s growing popularity and a significant boost to its economy.

Among the various destinations in La Union, the surf town of San Juan stands out as a rising economy. Located on the western coast of the country, San Juan is home to several beach resorts, restaurants, convenience stores, and other businesses that cater to the needs of both tourists and locals. Throughout the years, its prominence has proven that local economies can benefit from its unique natural attractions and develop strong and prosperous tourism industries. Meanwhile, behind its surfing-friendly waters is a community of people who pour effort to actively promote its sustainable tourism.

Smitten with San Juan

Ma. Cristina “Tina” Antonio is one of many individuals whose life has been changed by the heart of La Union. Born and raised in Quezon City, Ms. Antonio’s paternal side of the family is rooted in Urbiztondo, San Juan, La Union. In 2015, Ms. Antonio relocated to La Union to take care of her family’s bed and breakfast business. Originally planning to stay temporarily, she was captivated by the beauty and close-knit community of the surf town.

“Coming back to La Union really changed my whole perspective in life, my whole lifestyle. I had assumed that I would just stay here for a few years; help with the family business, which is [a] bed and breakfast here in La Union, San Juan. However, after eight years of working here, I have come to love the community,” she recalled.

San Juan Resort Restaurant and Hotel Association President Ms. Tina Antonio

Among her many other hats, Ms. Antonio is also the President of the San Juan Resort Restaurant and Hotel Association (SJRRHASS), a non-government organization founded by Atty. Yabes of Sea Base Surf Central in 2004. Initially established to promote San Juan and La Union as major surfing and tourist destinations, SJRRHASS has redefined its purpose in 2016 to include sustainable tourism practices in its community development goals. They were also inspired by the Coastal Underwater Resources Management Actions’ (CURMA) efforts to rehabilitate the pawikan population in the coastal areas of the municipality.

Through consistent consultation dialogues and multi-sectoral participation, SJRRHASS has become one of the long-trusted tourism stakeholders of the Provincial Government of La Union (PGLU). Throughout the years, SJRRHASS has worked hand in hand with the local government to develop plans tailored to the needs of the local communities and promote economic growth through tourism activities.

Photo from the La Union Surfing Break in October 2022

Undeniably, the surfing community holds great significance in San Juan. To introduce surfing as both a tourist attraction and sport in La Union, an annual Surfing Break has been held every October since 2004. In 2007, the partnership between the Department of Tourism (DOT) and the PGLU for the La Union Surfing Break paved the way for promoting surfing as a tourism activity. Additionally, the hosting of the Southeast Asian Games in 2019 served as a significant milestone in advancing surfing as a sport in San Juan and paved the way for more support from local surfers and businesses, helping to boost the local economy. 

Riding waves of uncertainty

San Juan, La Union’s surfing community was thriving, thanks to the ongoing efforts by stakeholders and the local government. However, much like other tourist destinations across the country, the entire province of La Union was not spared from the adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the province’s visitor arrivals plummeted by 95%, recording only 31,795 compared to the previous year. Similarly, tourism receipts saw a sharp decline of 95%, amounting to only ₱54 million as opposed to the last year’s ₱1.14 billion. This loss in demand and revenue has forced 120 accommodation establishments, comprising 79% of the 152 establishments with a DOT Certificate of Authority to Operate, to shut down temporarily. Consequently, only 21% or 32 accommodation establishments operated in the province in 2021.

With the help of all its private tourism stakeholders, the PGLU crafted the guidelines for tourism during the onslaught of the pandemic using data-driven analysis, resulting in constructive discussions and a community-focused approach that enabled the safe reopening of tourism while balancing health and the economy. As a result, tourism in the province gradually recovered, and many establishments reopened, with 190 out of 211 (90%) accommodation establishments operating on December 31, 2021. As of January 15, 2022, the tourist arrival in the province went up by 257%, with 113,412 in 2021 compared to 31,795 in 2020. As of present, La Union has already recorded more than 200,000 arrivals in 2022.

Saving the shores

Apart from the global health crisis, San Juan and the entire province have also been facing another pressing issue posing a hindrance to the growth of the tourism industry. Various sustainability issues continue to plague the province, including wastewater and sewage, plastic pollution on the beach and waterways, and solid waste and recycling system, among others. 

“Since I came here in 2015, trash and wastewater have been an issue in all the establishments and it’s something that we really see because we’re living by the ocean,” Ms. Antonio said. To help ensure a sustainable future, SJRRHASS alongside its partners has implemented several sustainable tourism practices as a response to these pressing matters. 

ECONEST supplier of fully biodegreadable take-out containers made out of cassava and bagasse, together with SJRRHASS VP for Environment and marine biologist Laura Riavitz

In 2019, SJRRHASS began making great strides in its sustainability initiatives, including crafting sustainability guidelines and a comprehensive suppliers list that offer sustainable products such as biodegradable straws and food packaging. Since 2020, the organization has also been working with partners to promote proper waste segregation and recycling. Through partnerships with local junk shops, businesses can either sell their materials for profit or donate them for free. This practice not only helps to reduce environmental issues in the province but also supports the livelihoods of its locals.

Meanwhile, SJRRHASS has made a significant investment in solar panels and renewable solar energy. This shift was largely influenced by the partnership forged with Coal-Free La Union in 2018. Following this partnership, many establishments began to invest in solar panels and energy grids powered by solar energy. This transition has enabled the province to reduce its carbon footprint and promote sustainable energy practices. Additionally, solar energy is now more accessible to Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), a positive step towards greater energy efficiency and a more sustainable future.

Catching the wave of sustainable tourism

In 2016, PGLU embarked on its journey toward implementing ISA’s flagship program, the Performance Governance System (PGS). After achieving Proficiency status, the third stage in the governance pathway, in 2019, it shifted its focus toward developing sustainable tourism. PGLU recognizes that the strengths of the province lie in agriculture and tourism and aims to become the “Heart of Agri-Tourism in Northern Luzon by 2025.” 

PGLU's Green Tourism Enterpises Program receive Boungainvillea Seal of Compliance

Sustainable tourism is no longer just a goal for PGLU, but a reality, with the province successfully creating a unique and diverse tourism experience embraced by locals and travelers alike. However, with the implementation of sustainable tourism practices comes challenges, one of which is the community’s acceptance.

For the La Union Provincial Tourism Office (LUPTO), PGLU’s arm for planning, implementation, and monitoring of tourism and culture-related programs, the efforts and initiatives of the province will be “deemed ineffective without the acceptance of the community.” To promote responsible tourism and ensure the needs of future generations are met, the PGLU initiated the Kalikasan Naman campaign, which aims to raise awareness and encourage community participation in sustainable tourism practices. PGLU introduced the Green Tourism Enterprises Program in 2021 to support this goal, which certifies private tourism establishments in the province for their compliance with environmental, health, and safety standards.

To help equip its stakeholders with the leadership and management skills necessary for building innovative and sustainable businesses in the new normal, PGLU conducted a series of webinars called the PGLU Tourism Online Learning in 2020. 

Photo from the PGLU Tourism Online Training Series

The webinar attracted a total of 1,181 registered participants and featured a series of carefully structured modules, including Tourism Crisis Management, Business Continuity Planning, Building Travel Confidence, and Agri-Tourism, among others. 

With agri-entrepreneurship, tourism, and culture as key drivers of economic growth in the Northern Philippines, PGLU conducted the very first BURAS 2022: North Luzon Agri-Tourism Summit. This landmark event brought together farm, heritage, and leisure professionals, as well as key stakeholders from the public and private sectors to explore the latest industry trends and forecasts, discuss strategies for recovery during the pandemic, and develop resilient strategies for the future. The event proved to be a resounding success, with over 200 participants from Ilocos, Cagayan, Central Luzon, and Cordillera Administrative Region coming together to exchange ideas and forge new partnerships that will help drive sustainable growth and development in the region.

Photo from the BURAS 2022: North Luzon Agri-Tourism Summit

Ripple effect

With 2023 offering greater potential for economic and community growth, San Juan and the entire province of La Union are sure to capture the attention and hearts of visitors worldwide. PGLU working hand in hand with SJRRHASS and other stakeholders alike, serves as an excellent example of how a collaborative effort can lead to success.

As Ms. Antonio puts it, consulting with stakeholders and incorporating their recommendations allows its local government to create a more inclusive and sustainable tourism industry that benefits everyone involved and fosters a sense of trust crucial in achieving common goals.

“I have come to know my government partners and have been active in influencing and recommending on decisions regarding tourism and environment in our town,” she said. “The local government unit really assists us. They consult with us, which I think is one of the most important things when working with your local government unit.”

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