Oslob boatmen said they feared a drop in income and fewer tourists.

Municipal Mayor Ronald Guaren doused emerging opposition to an April 15 increase in visitor fees for whale shark tourism by saying the increase will only apply to those who snorkel and dive.

In yesterday’s public hearing in the town, an uproar of disagreement met the mayor’s announcement of rate increases approved in an amendment to a January ordinance by the Oslob Municipal Council.

The protest eased a bit when he said the P300 rate for whale shark watching would be retained.

The mayor explained that the Oslob Municipal Council first wanted to ban snorkeling and diving to protect the whale sharks, but were prevailed upon by Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia who feared that a ban on underwater activities would drive away tourists.

“We are looking at the sustainability of our operation,” Guaren told the 42 members of the Tan-awan Oslob Sea Warden Fishermen’s Association (TOSWFA) who attended the hearing.

The new rates will take effect on April 15.

(It appeared from the discussion that Oslob will no longer adopt a higher P500 “regular rate” for whale shark watching which was approved in Resolution No. 326 amending the Oslob ordinance regulating whale shark tourism. The council had approved a new “local/ discounted rate of P300 as an amendment, making the status quo a visitor fee for Filipinos only but a higher P500 fee for foreigners.)

Guaren explained that the council first wanted a ban on snorkeling and diving to prevent guests from touching or riding the whale sharks but during their meeting with Governor Garcia and dive shops, they proposed an increased rate instead a ban.

Resort owner Pearl Evans said that it was unfair for visitors to pay more without seeing any improvement in services.

Evans said her guests raised concerns about the distribution of tickets and priority numbers and long lines.

Ramon Lagahit, one of the founding members of the TOSWFA said that they will adopt a wait-and-see position on the new rates.

“We will just observe. If there will be fewer guests, we will definitely protest to retain the old rate,” he said in the forum.

Lagahit said fishermen bear the burden of buying krill to feed to the whale sharks, rowing the boat and directly handling guests.

Snorkeling will be increased from P320 to P500 for local guests, while foreigners will be charged P1,000.

For diving, the rate will be increased to P600 for locals and P1,500 for foreign divers.

Under the whale watching ordinance in Oslob, 60 percent of the income would go to fishermen associations, 30 percent to the municipality and 10 percent to the barangay.

At present P300 is charged for whale shark watching, with an additional P20 for snorkeling and P50 for diving, while Oslob residents enjoy a discount at P30 per adult and half that rate for children.

“The governor also doesn’t want to cancel diving and snorkeling, so we will just increase the prices but we will retain the rate on whale shark watching,” Guaren told the crowd.

The mayor said they would prioritize the safety of the whale sharks “more than anything.”.

“Let us worry about the effect (of the new rates) when there will be no more tourists in town.”

Source: Inquirer.net