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The Transformation and Resurrection of Siargao Island

By David Haldane

May 19, 2024



It almost seemed like the old days. The days, that is, before Covid and Odette.

Tourists from both the Philippines and abroad pranced happily about. Food vendors and tour guides did lots of business. And in Siargao Island’s municipality of Pilar, fisherfolk from around the world excitedly prepared for the 14th annual Siargao International Game Fishing Tournament held the last weekend in April.

“I stand as witness to how this event has transformed our once-sleepy town into the game-fishing mecca of the Philippines!” declared Congressman Bingo Matugas, whose family hails from Siargao.

Setting a more somber and reflective tone, municipal Mayor Maria Liza Resurreccion expressed gratitude that the turnout was substantial and included actor-turned-senator Manuel M. Lapid, an honored guest. “We’re all steamed up,” she said. “I’m happy that most of our anglers have returned. Every tournament is a challenge, and we’ve been through so much…”

If anything, that was a monumental understatement. Not just for Pilar, but for all of Siargao Island, a teardrop-shaped gem-of-a-landmass just off Mindanao’s northeastern coast. For its recent history, indeed, has been pocked by sharp and unexpected turns, capable of inflicting mental whiplash.

In the beginning, there was only the sand. The first time I saw it was the day my future wife and father-in-law took me to gaze upon their little piece of the most pristine beach I’d ever laid eyes on. Like a flowing white blanket, it cloaked the land uninterrupted for what seemed like a thousand miles.

“Wow,” I said, unable to contain the enthusiasm of a land-starved Californian, “where are your boundaries?” He shrugged, nodded to the north and, with a sweep of his hand, indicated the distant horizon. “And on the other side?” I wondered. He turned and repeated the nonchalant sweeping gesture in the opposite direction. And, just like that, the scene was etched indelibly into my brain and I was in love, not only with a woman, but with the paradise from whence she’d come.

That was 18 years ago. Today the beach is barely recognizable, pierced by the concrete ruins of lavatories, pavilions and steps. The area is transected by a once-impenetrable stone wall, now reduced to rubble. And every morning busloads of tourists arrive, eager to pay the 60-peso admission fee for the privilege of distributing the rest of their cash among the dozens of merchants nearby.

And what of the parcel that was my father-in-law’s pride? In recent years, his seemingly boundless piece of property has been targeted in three disputes dividing neighbors, families, and friends. And that, in a nutshell, is the Siargao Island story.



Fully appreciating it requires some knowledge of the island’s history. Siargao’s earliest inhabitants were probably Moros, seafaring Muslims who cared little for the land. When the Spaniards arrived in the early sixteenth century, they claimed everything for the Church. Three centuries later, new American conquerors introduced something that had been popularized in the American West; homesteading, a process by which native Filipinos could claim almost anything in sight. Thus, when my father-in-law pointed to the horizons as his boundaries, he might well have been unconsciously evoking the not-too-distant past.

Then the surfers came and everything changed.

It happened in the early 1980s when golden-haired youngsters from America and Australia discovered what many considered the most awesome waves ever, right off the town of General Luna at a place now called Cloud 9. In 1988, the infamous American surfer Mike Boyum showed up and the rest, as they say, is legend.

Besides possessing world-class surfing skills, Boyum was an alleged drug dealer said to have stolen millions. He is believed to have spent about a year in Siargao hiding out under an assumed name. Then, according to local lore, he died in a hut on the beach after undergoing a 44-day cleansing fast ostensibly to atone for his sins.

A few years later, one of Boyum’s friends—famous surf photographer John Callahan—led an expedition to Siargao, including well-known surfers Evan Slater and Taylor Knox, both from California. They chronicled their adventure in a 1992 spread for Southern California-based Surfer magazine and—voila! — a new, dreamy, if still somewhat obscure, destination was born.

One of the more enthusiastic consumers of that article was a young Australian surfer named Gerry Dugan. “I read about this magical, mystical place,” he told me years later. “So I came here, and it was fantastic. The surf was great. There weren’t too many surfers, and we had to almost cut our way through the jungle to get to the beach.”

Eventually Dugan helped create the Siargao International Surfing Cup, an annual tournament that put the place on every surfer’s map. But it took what some describe as a “perfect storm” to bestow on the island the world-class status it enjoys today. That didn’t happen until three stunning events transpired, all in just 10 months.

First, a hit romantic comedy set on the island and bearing its name opened in Manila on Christmas Day, 2017. Then Conde’ Nast Traveler magazine named Siargao the best island destination in Asia, following up a year later by declaring it the best in the world. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, then-President Rodrigo Duterte ordered Boracay, the country’s reigning tourist mecca, closed for six months to deal with overflowing sewage and other environmental concerns.

The results were immediate and astounding. Nearly 200,000 foreign and domestic tourists—many of them diverted from Boracay—visited Siargao in 2018, a 50.7% increase from the year before. The 2019 figures were even higher, causing travel bloggers and other media to loudly proclaim the good news. And so, seemingly overnight, the tiny island became a travel destination that had, well, truly arrived.




But there was a cost. While the tourists created jobs and brought in lots of cash, the price of food and other essentials increased significantly. People once employed as farmers and fishermen suddenly became tour guides. And a largely Catholic island steeped in traditional conservative values now had to contend with an influx of bikini-clad foreigners.

By far the most dramatic impact, however, was on island property. In General Luna, farmland worth about 600 pesos per square meter suddenly jumped to nearly ten times that amount. And a square meter of prime beach property once worth 29,000 pesos now sold for nearly P86,000.

And so the land disputes began. In just one year, a clerk said, the average number of cases per month at the General Luna courthouse more than doubled—from 10 to 26—nearly all involving relatives fighting over land. “Some are crying,” he said, “and others are mad.”

“It’s split the family,” complained one islander, Cresenciana Orejas, then 67, whose relatives sued her for selling two hectares of coco land to a foreign developer for 19 million pesos.

It was more money than she’d ever seen, making her a charter member of Siargao’s growing class of instant millionaires. For a while, all went well. She divided a portion of it among her own six children, renovated the family home, lent some to friends, put some in the bank, and even purchased more coco land at a lower price to maintain the family’s income.

Then a cartel of relatives showed up, claiming that the property had been unfairly divided forty years earlier, and they each owned a share. Sitting on the front porch of her tiny house looking older than her years, Orejas trembled as her eyes brimmed with tears. “It’s so upsetting that I can’t even sleep,” she admitted. “I’ve even started drinking at night.”

But then, just when conditions on the island seemed to have arrived at a point of no return, along came the Covid pandemic, followed closely by Typhoon Odette. For two years, the country closed its borders, bringing Siargao tourism to an utter halt. Tour guides stowed their buses and returned to subsistence farming and fishing. And yet, though earning money became difficult, many residents felt buoyed by the rejuvenating effects on the environment.

“The water was as crystal clear as I’d ever seen it,” I wrote following a visit in 2020. “Just beneath the surface a swarm of green fish scurried about, while scads of purple crabs crawled past each other on the rocks overhead. But the telltale sign was the smell; instead of sunscreen, the tide pools exuded the natural odor of, yes, the teeming reef that God had intended.”

And yet, the accolades were premature. Arriving virtually in the shadows of the pandemic, a Category 5 Super Typhoon called Odette made landfall in 2021, devastating billions of pesos worth of property, blowing away thousands of coconut trees, seriously damaging the local airport, and costing two islanders their lives.




And that’s when Siargao’s second miracle began taking shape.

Within a year, the island community had come together to recover and reclaim. The iconic Cloud Nine Pier, destroyed by the storm, was reimagined and rebuilt. Everywhere, buildings were reconstructed and fields replanted. Until 2023, when Siargao’s resurrection seemed almost complete.

That year saw an astounding 324% growth in tourism; almost 530,000 arrivals compared to a little over 125,000 the year before. Of those, nearly 54,000 were foreign travelers, an unprecedented increase of more than 511%. The numbers far surpassed pre-pandemic tourism levels.

And yet a note of caution permeated Pilar Mayor Resurreccion’s assessment at the recent international game fishing tournament. “I’m feeling very protective,” she said in an interview with The Sunday Times Magazine. “I’m glad that people are making money again, but I’m worried about the long-term effects.”

Among her concerns, she said, are potential damages to the island’s culture, economy, and environment.

“I want the younger generation to enjoy what we enjoyed when we were young,” the Mayor said.

Which takes me back to that long-ago day on my father-in-law’s expanse of sand. For just as the sand was there at the beginning, so shall it remain ’til the end. In the final analysis, the sand doesn’t care who owns it or how many tourists it hosts. Because it is stronger than all of us, with a will of its own.

“It’s a very daunting challenge requiring lots of political will,” the Mayor said of her efforts to protect and preserve. “We don’t have any other island to go home to, so we have to protect what we have.”

To which I say, amen, let’s write that in the sand.





David Haldane is an award-winning American author, journalist, and broadcaster with homes in Southern California and Northern Mindanao. Besides writing a weekly column for The Manila Times, he contributes to the Sunday Times Magazine, where this piece originally appeared. Haldane’s latest book , A Tooth in My Popsicle, is available on Amazon.






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