A Case Study//
Dubbed as the Philippines’ last frontier, the island of Palawan is also home to one of the recently declared seven wonders of nature, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park (PPSRNR). Located at the provincial capital, this natural site has been a major tourism destination of late, a UNESCO world heritage site and an area for biodiversity study among local and international scientists. Thus the idea of a ‘last frontier’ and of conservation, intertwining with tourism and the ‘city’—both modern inventions, may seem contradictory. Thanks to modern technology and a massive global campaign, visitor arrivals to both the city of Puerto Princesa and the subterranean river has more than tripled since 2007 (160,000 rising to 514,000 tourists last year, with an expected 200,000 increase by end of this year) (INQUIRER.net, 18 April 2012).
How does an area of pristine condition, now finding itself teeming with ‘visitors’ cope? How does it attain and sustain its primary goals or natural preservation and conservation with this influx of tourism, which altogether brings about a different kind of demand and need?
Getting to the site is already an adventure in itself. A common itinerary comprise of the routine of rising up early in the morning, where visitors are then to take a two-hour drive from the city proper to get to Sabang Beach docks where boats await to ferry them to the national park (also gaining popularity these days, one can get to the site by trekking, even through an exhilarating zip line ride). From the national park, visitors board a local ‘canoe’, mostly by groups, to get inside the caves. Not everyone gets lucky to get there any day that they want, as tidal conditions will have to be considered. Tour operators usually vie for good schedules, mainly in the morning. By past lunch the tides would have been too high that getting inside the caves is no longer advisable, much less getting across the other side of the island with ease. While reviews of the site in popular travel media outlets (expedia.com, tripadvisor.com) have been mainly positive, usual complaints are the long queues and waiting time (some had to wait for four hours just to board the boat, depending on the travel season), the lack of sanitary facilities in the waiting bay, and disorderly disembarkation (that can take an hour as well, upon return to the dock).
The project proposes to develop the site’s pit stop, identified as Sabang Beach through infrastructure improvement and the creation of a public space that aims to appeal not only to adventure junkies and seasoned travelers, but to families young and old, and those who seek rest and relaxation. By transforming this ‘so-called’ waiting area into something more of an a destination in itself, travelers are given more options—either to while time away with much more ease or simply enjoy the natural surroundings in their own leisurely pace.
By function, this visitor centre envisions to provide modern, well-built facilities to cater to basic necessities such as the creation of an information centre and reception, support facilities such as toilets, concession shops, including planned areas for embarkation and disembarkation of boats. The structure will also house a biodiversity gallery, where local knowledge of the site will be showcased, to further educate and familiarize visitors with the rich flora and fauna found in the area, at the same time involving the local community in sharing indigenous cultural knowledge through posters and presentations (performances or other types of media). The concept of a rolling outdoors space provides endless possibilities that can be derived from creative planning and activities programming. The idea of play and visual enjoyment from these unique spatial features become integral in making this pit stop more than a place of comings and goings. It evolves into a place of leisure in itself.
By design, the infrastructure aims to project ‘natural landscape continuity’ by mimicking the local scenery and its elements, thus creating a fitting space that adapts to the site. The use of local materials is an inexpensive and sustainable mean to create this vision.