For many, traveling is all about hiking, diving, and seeing how beautiful the world is. It’s a breather from the hullabaloo of life, a time to forget the daily grind. But for Route +63, a social enterprise that aims to promote the Philippines and contribute to local development initiatives through tourism, there is more to traveling than exploring picturesque vistas. “Traveling is a way to gain a wider perspective of the world. I love traveling because it teaches you new ways of seeing things. You meet interesting people along the way and learn different cultures. It takes you out of your comfort zone and makes you a better person,” says Cherryl Si, President and CEO of Route +63.
Named after the country code of the Philippines, Route +63 was established in 2012 by development professionals working in social enterprises and government agencies. The founders had one common goal: to respond to vital issues they’ve encountered in their own journeys around the country such as the need to combat negative perceptions about the Philippines, the need to conserve Philippine culture and environment, the need to boost income levels in areas with huge tourism potential and rich natural resources, and the need to prevent unsustainable tourism practices. “We are classified as a tour operator but we are also a social enterprise because we have socioeconomic and environmental goals aside from financial sustainability. Our trips allow travelers to get to know the Philippines and at the same time contribute to a social or environmental cause as well. We encourage travelers to go green, go local, and maintain good relationships with the community. We also partner with community-based enterprises, government units, social enterprises, and local organizations in developing our tours,” she adds.
To promote sustainable tourism in every trip they organize, travelers who join have to follow a “responsible travel code,” which encourages them to learn about the place they are visiting, know something about the people, their culture, language, history, and environment; respect the local communities by being sensitive to local values and customs; buy local and fair trade; support local products and locally-owned businesses; haggle responsibly, taking in consideration the quality of what you are buying and the production process it underwent; leave no trace principle (leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures); and keep their ecological footprints low by minimizing damage to the environment. “We tell them to keep their disposables at a minimum. Strictly no littering is imposed. If possible, we ask them to take home the trash they generate because waste management is usually more difficult in rural areas. We pick up trash along the way in beaches and hike trails for proper disposal at the town center. For smokers, we advise them to dispose cigarette butts properly. We also encourage them to conserve water and electricity because it’s very precious in some areas and tourists tend to use far more than local people do,” Si explains.
Route +63 offers tours to places all over the Philippines. A majority of destinations are in Luzon such as Banaue, Bataan, Catanduanes, Ilocos Region, Palaui Island in Cagayan, Pampanga, Palawan, Sagada, Taal, Rizal, and a lot more. “The first trip we organized was in Batad, Banaue back in 2012 when the Ifugao rice terraces were listed in UNESCO’s list of heritage sites in danger. We organized a volunteer trip to join the restoration efforts. Around 30 participants joined the trip,” says Si.
“On their maiden tour, I was able to volunteer in the traditional bachang (bayanihan or free labor) which is a highly engaging activity of restoring the damaged portions of the rice terraces after years of natural calamities and increasing man-made disregard. It has since been clear to me the importance of conserving our agricultural heritage systems as it relates to food security of the indigenous community; the strengthening of our cultural identity as well as in protecting the natural environment,” says MEC Aguinaldo, who joined Route +63’s pilot trip.
In April 2013, the group organized another trip to Banaue where they were welcomed by the community at Tam-An Village with a surprise cultural presentation after working on the terraces. “The experience shows that what really makes traveling around the Philippines special are the people—they always make you feel welcome,” shares Si.
One of Si’s personal favorite destinations is the province of Bataan. Rich in stories of remarkable historical and cultural significance, Bataan is an admirable ecotourism destination that is gaining popularity among tourists. Not be missed is the Pawikan Conservation Center in Morong, a facility maintained by a group of reformed sea turtle poachers that offers the chance to learn more about these captivating and sadly endangered sea creatures, primarily by allowing tourists to take part in a night patrol for nesting specimens, during which eggs are collected for transfer to the Center’s makeshift hatchery. “Our first trip to Bataan in November 2012 is one of the most memorable trips I’ve ever had. Here, we witnessed a mother pawikan (sea turtle) laying eggs.
It was a rare experience and it made the trip extra special since it was our first trip to the destination with Route +63. Prior to that, I have been volunteering in the area for six years and I had never witnessed the actual laying of eggs!” Si exclaims with a glint of joy in her voice.
A typical tour by Route +63 starts with an assembly at a bus terminal or port/airport. “We usually use public transportation to minimize our carbon footprint and to provide income opportunities to local transport operators,” says Si. Depending on what kind of tour it is, the itinerary usually includes an orientation so as to guide the participants accordingly during the trips. Accommodations on longer trips are usually dorm-type rooms that are shared among fellow participants to encourage them to get to know each other. Don’t fret, because there’s an option to upgrade to a solo room should one prefer to have more privacy. Food is never a problem as Route +63 makes sure every participant’s tummy ends up happy after a long day out. “Sometimes we eat in restaurants, sometimes we avail of catering services in the local community. As much as possible, we look for places that offer the local specialties and give income opportunities to the locals,” Si, the resident foodie of the group, shares.
While Route+63 already organizes trips to Siargao (a pilot site for the Climate Change Commission’s Eco Town project) and the Davao Region, the group aims to offer more trips in Visayas and Mindanao in the future. “Generally, our direction is towards expanding our line-up of destinations and our market as well. We are also working on special programs in partnership with international organizations and educational institutions. In the end, this will allow us to increase our impact by contributing more to local economic development and to the different causes we support,” says Si.
Route +63 changes the tourists’ perspective of traveling around the Philippines. The group opens a window and gives a peek at what the country can offer and what tourists can do to preserve the beautiful land- and seascapes and the rich culture and heritage of the country. Most importantly, it generates income for the local community. “I love the Philippines because it is a beautiful country with kind-hearted people. With the diverse culture, landscapes, and experiences to be had around the country, there’s always something for everyone. Indeed, it is ‘more fun’ in the Philippines,” she concludes.
Matet Garcia-Reyes writes to travel and travels to write. An AB Communications Arts graduate from the University of Santo Tomas, she gave up her six-year career in Marketing Communications and Public Relations to fulfill her dreams of becoming a travel, food, and lifestyle writer. Her works have been published both online and in print, locally and internationally. She advocates promotion of local tourism and supports initiatives on sustainability of indigenous communities.