Jobs v.s. Conservation: Palawan's Nickelodeon Theme Park

This week, Viacom International Media, parent company of the popular children’s television network Nickelodeon announced a lucrative project in the Philippines that left Filipinos with a bittersweet reaction.

The multinational corporation plans to invest $150 million on a 400-hectare Nickelodeon-branded, “underwater themed” tourist resort which will be built on the iconic and world-renowned Coron beaches.

The point of controversy lies with the choice of location for the colossal project, which is not only a popular tourist destination known for having untouched, purely natural scenery but is also home to biodiversity that could be threatened with the construction of the resort.

The announcement of an “underwater themed” resort also caught everyone’s attention, given that coral reefs scatter along the Palawan seabed. This concern was echoed by Environmental Secretary Gina Lopez, who announced she would “say no right away” if the project would cause the destruction of coral reefs.

A petition calling for the cancellation of the project went viral shortly , gaining 180,000 signatures out of a 200,000 target merely 2 days after its launch.

The developers quickly rebuffed claims of an “underwater development”, insisting that the only structures on water will be floating and the “underwater” attraction will be built on land.

That claim contradicts the official statement they released announcing the project however, which states an “undersea attraction and resort” as well as a “resort dining experience” that will be “20 feet below sea level with vivid views of the world beneath the ocean.”

Either the official statement they released was grossly mistaken, or Viacom International Media are lying about the purported “land-based underwater attraction”. Either way, the uproar has shed to light an important debate between having gainful employment or environmental conservation.

Proponents of the project, including the developers themselves, argue for the job creation the resort will bring. The scale of the construction will require a great number of workers on its own, but running the operation once completed will also boost job creation in the services sector.

Not to mention, a brand such as Nickelodeon is world-renowned and will be a hit for foreign tourists – driving up visitor arrivals. The presence of a well-recognized brand will also solidify the country’s reputation as a premier destination for foreign investments.

However, Palawan already enjoys recognition as one of the world’s premier tourist destinations. Travel & Leisure magazine named Palawan “the world’s best island” for the second time in a row in 2016, having lauded it the same in 2015.

The island-province also boasts A-list patrons such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, while other Hollywood celebrities are known to have visited in the past.

Tourist arrival numbers has surged in recent years, in 2015 the provincial government recorded an increase of 66% in tourist arrivals compared to the year before that. The total number of tourist arrivals hit 1.4 million – a large chunk of the 5.3 million total tourist arrivals to the Philippines that year.

This begs the question, do we need Nickelodeon to build a resort in Palawan to drive up tourist numbers when the island is already a hit as it is?

One of Palawan’s selling points is untouched, natural beauty that is what Boracay used to be when it was once known as a world-class island. Today, Boracay’s beauty has been blemished by countless developments.

Palawan could endure the same fate that Boracay did if it falls to the allure of mass urbanisation. When the destination considered the Philippines’ “Final Frontier” for being one of the few remaining areas untouched by development falls, what else do we have left?

The developers talk about missed employment opportunities if the project fails, but a fishermen union – Pamalakaya – has protested the project citing fears construction could disrupt their fishing routes which is their livelihood.

Viacom have stated that the project is pushing through, but they are actively working to secure government permits. We hope they undergo stringent screening for the sake of the country’s last remaining untouched beauty.