The exact details on how and why Oslob, Philippines recently became a whale shark feeding epicenter differs depending on the source. Here’s what I was told:
In 2011, when a Norwegian marine biologist passed through the small town of Oslob, a roughly three and a half hour drive from Cebu City on the Filipino island of Cebu, he had the intention of studying the local species. But when he saw a local fisherman throwing rocks at whale sharks, who had recently began feeding in the area again, he complained to the local government and convinced the mayor to make it an official tourist attraction. And just like that, Oslob became an internationally known tourist destination.
The center of Oslob consists of one main road called Natalio Bacalso Avenue, which houses a small market, a few restaurants, convenience stores and numerous guest houses. Ten kilometers from the main area of town is the whale shark area, Tan-awan, where tourists are dropped off to wait in line to be taken out on a small rowboat. From there, they can scuba, snorkel or watch from the boat while whale sharks get fed. Each person gets 30 minutes in the water.
While I was there, I estimated around 200 people were around trying to get a look as well, so the experience is far from intimate. Fishermen paddle around nearby dropping food in the water to attract the whale sharks to where the tourist boats sit.
Tourists travel great distances for just 30 minutes alongside the impressive sea creatures. Seeing them is on all of the great to-do’s of Cebu and gets mentions on all of the travel blogs.Tourism brings income, jobs and infrastructure, but it usually has a mixed reception for those directly affected.
Many tourists opt to take a 3:00am bus from Cebu City or from the popular diving spot Moalboal. They leave and return the same day, therefore bypassing most of Oslob. Restaurants and the local government still benefit from their visit, which once used to cost tourists 50 pesos ($1 USD) for 30 minutes of snorkeling but now amounts to 1,500 a person ($28USD). Because the local government manages the project, only locals are employed.
Those who lived in Oslob before the big tourist boom mention that before, it was a very quiet town. I spoke with Pretty, a fruit vendor at the town market who told me the whale sharks bring lots of tourists who spend money. Now, the locals have more buildings and more business. (Later in the day, I returned to the market to pick up more fruit. I spotted the woman who at the whale sharks wharf sold me a few slices of pineapple and a bit of watermelon for an overpriced 100 pesos ($2 USD), something that would normally cost half that price, if not less. I tried to bargain with her, but she wouldn’t budge. I was starving, so I didn’t really care; and after all, what are two dollars to me? “Ah, I recognize her,” I told Pretty. “Oh yes, that’s my mom!” she said. And I realize now why else it’s beneficial to have tourists.)
My sister and I decided to stay two days in Oslob, hopefully avoiding the potential for an excruciating, nauseating bus trip (prone to motion sickness). When we walked around town and children saw us, they, scream “Hello!” suggesting that they realize we’re a novelty, but our presence isn’t something new. Young boys got nervous speaking around us and several people stopped to ask where we’re from. Whereas surrounding the wharf there were crowds of tourists (reminding me of a smaller version of what I saw at the Vatican), around town my sister and I only saw a few. We asked Pretty what there is to do on a Friday night. Unenthusiastically, she explained that there is a bar, but it’s not that great. “Maybe singing,” she said. We had already heard the painful karaoke from our neighbor the night before.
In that sense, the tourism hasn’t caused the town to be overblown. A few tourists linger around Spanish colonial ruins, but not many. Most locals still live exactly as they used to. But the international community’s “discovery” of the whale sharks has inevitably changed it.
John, the owner of the guest house where were staying, says that the whale shark tourist industry has altered his social relations with locals. He came here around 15 years ago when he retired after years of living in Canada. His aim was to fish, relax by the ocean, and host friends. He got to do so for a while. The water in front of the guest house used to be teeming with fisherman, he explained. While we were there, we only say two or three.
They would bring their fish in, drink a beer and talk. Now after they fish, he says they say hello but quickly run to their next job attending to tourists. “We’ve lost quality time, you could say,” he told me. John also explained other changes, like the how the road next to his house used to be like an old country road but now sounds like a freeway.
Even his guest house’s very existence is a direct result of tourism: The town didn’t have the capacity to hold the steep increase in tourists, so the mayor asked those with extra spaces to convert them into accommodation. John refused twice, but the third time he wasn’t really given a choice. “You don’t say no to the mayor,” he sighed.
But like all towns and people, they adapt. John realized he enjoyed meeting people from all of the world and eventually came to like being a guest house owner. Pretty seemed pleased with the changes, but she could have just been telling me what she wanted to hear. Obviously Pretty and John come from opposite sides of the spectrum and are aiming for different things, but whether or not others are positively or negatively affected by the newcomers is yet to be analyzed.
To me, Oslob was still a sleepy town. Besides the whale sharks, there’s simply not much to do. Of course there’s karaoke and the beach, but those aren’t unique to the place. And there are the recent travel warnings. My sister and I ran into a cheery Australian couple on the bus from Oslob to Moalboal. “Yeah, we were going to stay four days and we already paid for the accommodation, but we ditched after two nights,” they said, referring to the lack of activities.
Even though I didn’t see much destructive evidence of tourism beyond the area around the whale sharks, for those that saw the before and after, like John and Pretty, it must require some getting used to.
More demand brings hostels, drunken backpackers, bars and prostitutes. It’s not Phuket and it’s not Boracay, but as I watched the stream of yellow buses full of tourists disembark at the wharf, a fear washed over me that this could eventually become what no one wants it to. At least for a while though, it’s too boring to become any of those things.
Thinking about swimming with the whale sharks? This article wasn’t about the environmental controversy, but if you’re going to Oslob you should do your research. Here are a few articles to help you make you decision:
Featured photo: A man rides his bike in front of the cuartel, still standing from the 1600s.