A week after a 6.0-magnitude earthquake hit the first-class town of Mabini that has jurisdiction over the world-famous Anilao scuba diving spots in Batangas, there are plenty of signs that life has yet to return to normal for many of the town’s residents.
Over 1,400 families forced to flee their homes after the quake struck last April 8 were still living in evacuation centers because their damaged houses remain uninhabitable. The office of the mayor, Noel Luistro, was flooded with village leaders streaming in to ask for tents, food supplies and other relief goods for their constituents. Almost a third of the town’s 73 registered resorts sustained partial damages, he said. In the middle of the municipal tourism office is a crack on the cement floor that has yet to be patched up.
But all these are not stopping foreign and local visitors from flocking back to the town’s dive spots just days after the powerful tremor that forced Luistro to impose a one-day ban on diving last April 9. Located in a peninsula surrounded by Batangas Bay, Balayan Bay and the Maricaban Strait, Anilao is considered one of the richest dive destinations in the Asia Pacific region in terms of marine biodiversity.
Data from the town’s tourism office, which issues diving permits at the cost of Php200 each, show that the number of such permits has steadily grown since it dropped to zero on April 9 because of the ban.
Starting at just 30 on April 10, Monday, when the town allowed diving to resume, the number of diving permits surged to 400 by April 13, Maundy Thursday. That’s almost as high as the month-to-date high of 440 permits issued on April 3, the day before a series of quakes ranging from magnitude 4.4 to magnitude 5.5 hit the nearby town of Tingloy on April 4.
Staff at the Anilao Beach Club said on April 13 all their rooms were booked from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday as walk-in visitors quickly replaced those who cancelled their reservations immediately after the earthquake on April 8.
“It’s almost as if the earthquake didn’t happen at all,” said Luistro of the number of permits issued by the municipal government which collects from Php850,000 to a million pesos a month from issuing the permits. The local government uses the proceeds for the town’s marine conservation programs.
For many of the town’s resort owners, quickly assessing the impact of the tremor on their buildings and resuming operations after confirming the damages were slight made up just half the challenge they faced after the earthquake. The bigger problem was getting out accurate information on the temporary government ban on diving and the status of the diving sites to their customers through traditional and social media.
Though the local government ban on diving lasted just a day and was already lifted by April 10, resort owners were getting calls from customers who haven’t heard the news and were planning to cancel their bookings, said Romeo Trono, head of the Resort Owners of Mabini (ROM), a local industry association. What complicated matters were statements from Coast Guard officials who also haven’t heard that the ban has been lifted the day after it was imposed.
“We got somebody to interview the mayor on video and we made sure to get that video out in various platforms,” said Trono, a former marine conservationist who owns and runs the Bontoc in Batangas Bed and Breakfast (BBBB), one of the town’s more popular resorts.
Another flashpoint was a social media post by a long-time foreign diver who wrote that half of Anilao’s coral reefs were damaged by the series of powerful earthquakes. That prompted many worried divers to call the resorts about cancelling their bookings, worried they’d just end up disappointed when they go on a dive.
“We had to ask that person to correct the post and issue an apology,” said Trono. “I told him ‘I was in marine conservation for 36 years as director of WWF (World Wildlife Fund) and Conservation International. We funded a lot of coral reef surveys and you cannot come up with that conclusion in a matter of two days. You better correct and issue an apology.’ He was forced to take it down.”
Trono says the earthquake was a wake-up call for Mabini’s resort owners, who are now realizing the need for greater cooperation and preparation to cope with disasters and other emergencies. “It will be typhoon season again this coming June and July and it will be best if everybody is prepared for that,” he said. “Although we’re competitors, we can also support each other.”
Roel Landingin is the editor-in-chief of Entrepreneur PH