• A video of a resort cut into the Philippines’ Chocolate Hills, a protected area, has caused public outrage in the island nation.
  • The public outcry has prompted government investigations into the resort, which received approval at the local level but failed to obtain environmental permits required by national law.
  • The controversy comes as tourism makes a post-pandemic comeback in the Philippines, prompting questions about how the industry can be managed more sustainably.

MANILA — The Chocolate Hills of Bohol Island in the central Philippines are a sprawling geological wonder, shaped by nature millions of years ago. Given their recognition as a UNESCO Geopark, netizens in the Philippines were shocked by the recent revelation that a private resort has been built in the midst of this natural wonder — complete with bright-roofed cottages, swimming pools, and waterslides cutting into the hillside.

The sight, featured on a Facebook post in early March (archived here), has garnered 17 million views, largely from an enraged public. This public outcry, in turn, has prompted government investigations into the legality and environmental impact of the resort.

Maria Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga, secretary of the environment and natural resources, confirmed that portions of the protected Chocolate Hills had been carved out to construct Captain’s Peak Garden and Resort, the subject of the video. The incident raises key questions about sustainability as the Philippines looks to revive tourism in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What I saw yesterday was that the project’s developer carved several hills in order to design and execute his project,” Yulo-Loyzaga told local press on March 22 following her visit to Bohol. “It is very obvious that some hills were carved to execute their design … The hills should not be touched. That really can’t be done.”

Global significance

Bohol Island, which is also home to rare wildlife like the endemic and near threatened Philippine tarsier (Carlito syrichta), was declared the Philippines’ inaugural UNESCO Geopark in May 2023. This designation includes it in a global network of 195 geoparks recognized for their geological significance and required to be “managed with a holistic concept of protection, education, and sustainable development.”

The Chocolate Hills constitute 1,776 conical mounds, each nearly identical in size and shape. These mounds are composed of limestone, which formed through the accumulation of corals and shells. Originally underwater, they were later raised through tectonic plate movements millions of years ago. The hills are particularly stunning during the country’s dry season, when the grass blanketing them turns brown, giving them their name.

Scattered across a 5,000-hectare (12,400-acre) area straddling the towns of Carmen, Batuan and Sagbayan, the Chocolate Hills were recognized as a National Geological Monument in 1988. Then, in 1997, they were integrated into the country’s network of protected areas. The protected area includes a buffer outside the hills themselves.

These designations should mean the hills are protected under the country’s most stringent environmental regulations. However, these measures were overlooked, as the resort was built and opened for business without permits from either the country’s tourism or environment departments.

The UNESCO Philippine office cautioned that Bohol risks losing its geopark status if it fails to meet the environmental policy criteria during its revalidation in 2027.

A Philippine tarsier (Carlito syrichta)
Bohol Island, home to rare wildlife like the endemic and near threatened Philippine tarsier (Carlito syrichta), was declared the Philippines’ inaugural UNESCO Geopark in May 2023. Image by Jeroen Hellingman via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

No greenlight

Julieta Sablas, manager of Captain’s Peak, said they acquired a 6-hectare (15-acre) plot of land, including three hills, in 2005, and half of the plot has already been developed for the resort. Sablas said the resort was granted approval by the protected area management board responsible for the Chocolate Hills in 2018 and secured a business permit from the Sagbayan municipal government the following year. The resort opened to the public in 2022, but announced its temporary closure on March 14 this year following the online outcry.

The Philippine environment department revealed that the resort lacks an environmental compliance certificate. The operator was issued with a temporary closure order as early as Sept. 6, 2023, followed by a violation notice on Jan. 22 of this year to reinforce the initial directive.

Yulo-Loyzaga acknowledged that 13,500 hectares (33,400 acres) of flat areas within the 30,900-hectare (76,400-acre) protected area are “alienable and disposable,” meaning individuals or companies are allowed to obtain titles for them. She says these lands were excluded from the proclamation’s coverage when the expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) law was enacted in 2022.

However, the environment department clarified that while the project developer may have secured a land title issued before the area was formally protected, and thus was “generally recognized and respected” by law, it is still subject to “restrictions or regulations on land use and development within the protected area,” including the environmental compliance certificate required under the country’s environmental impact statement system policy.

Loyzaga blamed the Sagbayan municipal government for releasing a building permit and mayor’s permit to Captain’s Peak Resort, despite the resort’s inability to obtain an ECC. “The [local government] knows what needs to be submitted before it can issue a building permit in a protected area,” she said. “The building permit started to be issued in 2020 and there was definitely no ECC at that point.” The Department of the Interior and Local Government has launched a separate probe to penalize the local officials involved.

Foresty patch in the Chocolate Hills.
Given the Chocolate Hills’ recognition as a UNESCO Geopark, netizens in the Philippines were shocked by the recent revelation that a private resort has been built in the midst of this natural wonder. Image by Andrewhaimerl via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

As of 2023, the Philippines logged around 11,500 accredited tourism establishments, Mongabay analysis shows. But the Department of Tourism confirmed that Captain’s Peak neither holds accreditation nor has a pending application for it. Accreditation signifies that establishments adhere to tourism and environmental standards and have obtained requisite permits from both national and local governments.

“While development is essential for growth and progress, it must be conducted in harmony with environmental and cultural preservation,” the tourism department said.

Just one of many?

Between 2013 and 2022, the Philippines experienced consistent growth in tourism, attracting a total of 45.4 million foreign tourist arrivals, our analysis shows. However, the 2020 pandemic resulted in a significant decline in tourism, with foreign arrivals plummeting to 1.4 million that year, down from 8.2 million in 2019.

In 2022, the same year Captain’s Peak began operating, the Philippines experienced a notable rebound in tourism, welcoming 2 million visitors. This marked an increase of 14 times or 1,300% from 2021, which saw only around 146,000 arrivals, the lowest in the past decade.

Many tourism businesses saw the post-pandemic period as a chance to recoup income losses and reinvest in an industry that grew at an annual rate of around 4.9% over the past decade, our analysis shows, reaching a peak of 12% annual growth in 2019. From 2013 to 2022, tourism in the Philippines generated 15 trillion pesos ($267 billion) in revenue, contributing around 9% to the country’s economy.

The Central Visayas region, home to Bohol Island that features nature-based attractions like the Chocolate Hills, Loboc River Cruise, Tarsier Sanctuary and Hinadganan Cave, emerged as the most-visited region in the Philippines. The region welcomed 49.16 million domestic and foreign tourist visits, including repeat visitors, over the past decade, our analysis shows. Among these, 7.5 million visits were to Bohol.

In Bohol, it’s not just Captain’s Peak that has capitalized on the tourism rebound. Environmental department inspections revealed that several other resorts have been developed within this geologically significant tourism destination.

Tarsier Sanctuary
The Central Visayas region, home to Bohol Island that features nature-based attractions like the Chocolate Hills, Loboc River Cruise, Tarsier Sanctuary (in picture) and Hinadganan Cave, emerged as the most-visited region in the Philippines. Image by shankar s. via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Yulo-Loyzaga cited the example of Sagbayan Peak, another mountain resort and retreat center. “Sagbayan Peak cut off a portion of the top of the Chocolate Hills to place a concrete platform,” she said.

The environment department announced that it will issue another statement regarding the other erring resorts and the legal actions to be taken after completing their inspections.

As for the Captain’s Peak operator, the department mentioned the possibility of a fine of up to 5 million pesos ($90,000) and imprisonment of six to 12 years for operating and constructing structures in this natural monument without the necessary permits.

Government criticized

Bohol-based environmental watchdog group Tagbilaran Baywatch said the resolution issued by the protected area management board in 2018, which designated 20% of the Chocolate Hills protected area as a multiple-use zone for development and endorsed Captain’s Peak, is unlawful. It said the resolution contradicts a 1997 presidential proclamation declaring the Chocolate Hills and its surrounding areas as a natural monument.

Tagbilaran Baywatch said the management board, a local body under the country’s environment department, should revoke this resolution, and demanded the permanent closure and demolition of the resort’s structures.

Jonas Leones, undersecretary of the environment, said the government will also investigate the management board to determine the basis for permitting this resort development. “This is what we should look at … Why did it allow these kinds of activities in Bohol’s protected areas? Our secretary already has [given] marching orders: we will strengthen our policies and check what are the possible problems in the implementation of the NIPAS law.”

Youth group Stewards and Volunteers for the Earth–Philippines (SAVE PH), criticized the relevant government agencies for their “gross failure” to protect Chocolate Hills from projects promoted “in the name of job creation and tourism development.”

SAVE PH convener Zyoen Garcia said this blunder is the “latest abuse and brazen disregard of Philippines’ laws.” “Government agencies, despite having the authority to disallow any projects encroaching or posing a threat to our protected areas, have been instrumental in such transgressions,” she said.

Chocolate Hills.
Scattered across a 5,000-hectare (12,400-acre) area straddling the towns of Carmen, Batuan and Sagbayan, the Chocolate Hills were recognized as a National Geological Monument in 1988. Image by choypictures via Flickr (Public domain).

Stricter measures needed

In a joint statement, the departments of the environment, tourism, and interior and local government issued reassurances of their commitment to protecting natural resources by “identifying gaps in historical policies and practices and developing a balanced and comprehensive approach at both national and local levels of government.”

“This includes strengthening regulations and monitoring mechanisms, rationalizing land use classification and enforcing evidence-informed environmental protection according to global standards, while also considering the communities’ needs for livelihood and employment,” they stated.

Specifically, the environment department has long sought the establishment of an enforcement bureau to “implement orders and prosecute cases if necessary in a faster manner,” according to Yulo-Loyzaga. Bills supporting this initiative have been filed in Congress, and while awaiting enactment into law, the department is collaborating with the national police, military, investigations bureau, and local governments to enforce its directives.

Rogelio Andrada II, a professor in protected area management and ecotourism at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, said that as the Philippines’ tourism industry progresses post-pandemic, it should prioritize rethinking strategies to prevent reverting to past practices where economic development outweighed environmental conservation, particularly in highly popular destinations like Bohol.

“We need to seriously think about and re-examine how we do tourism and start adhering to the principles of ecotourism better,” Andrada told Mongabay in an email. “The managers of our protected areas that are subjected to tourism development must be mindful and careful not to fall into the greed of overtourism, even at the guise of ‘doing good to the community’ by providing income which easily becomes unsustainable.”

For ecotourism, or responsible travel to natural areas, to thrive, Andrada said, the Philippine government must “cull out and call out irresponsible enterprises that misuse the ecotourism term and concept for greenwashing.”

Banner image: The Chocolate Hills of Bohol Island in the central Philippines are a sprawling geological wonder, shaped by nature millions of years ago. Image by John Brian Silverio via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Data reporting for this article was produced with support from the Earth Journalism Network and Thibi’s Environmental Data Journalism Academy through the Environmental Data Journalism Academy for Philippine journalists.

Researchers look to locals to fill knowledge gap on Philippine tarsier

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.