In Zamboanga’s Once Islas, Women of Sama Banguingui are taking the Eco-Tourism Charge

On July 01, 2018, Zamboanga City has launched yet another tourist magnet to stake its claim as the flagship travel destination of the region – the Once Islas. The Sama Banguingui Tribe, the very people that discovered and named all 11 islands, joined the rest of Asia’s Latin City in welcoming tourists into their home. 

The indigenous group, who then relied on fishing and seaweed farming, were trained and educated on new opportunities for income generation such as boat rentals and community guiding. Among those who heeded that call are the women of the tribe, who now lead the troupe of local community guides in the islands. 

Sitting as president of the local Tour Guide Association is Huraida Malik, one of the first to be trained by the city to handle tourists visiting Once Islas. “When the islands opened to tourists in 2018, our people were given new livelihood opportunities. Women of our community, who were then expected to just stay at home while men went out for fishing or harvesting, were included in a series of training for community guiding and culinary preparation – skills we were able to put to use when tourists started coming in,” shares Malik. 

Malik, also a peace volunteer for an NGO since 2007, leads 15 community guides. She works with the tourism office to ensure that each of them is well-equipped with the knowledge and skills to handle tours around their Once Islas. It was just in two years, however, that Malik and her colleagues needed to deal with what could be the biggest blow to the tourism industry and their newly found form of livelihood. 

The pandemic and tourism halt
When the pandemic hit the pause button on travel in 2020, communities dependent on commerce from tourists needed to deal with the crisis differently.  “We were greatly affected by the pandemic because our main livelihood got stopped. Our boats stayed docked since they cannot be used for fishing as they have been registered solely for tourism activities,” notes Malik. The single mother of three relied mainly on her savings, opening a small convenience store in her community. Others, especially families of five and more, weren’t as lucky. 

Now that borders are opening up and tourists are starting to flock to the islands once again, Malik and her colleagues are encouraging their guests to post videos and photos on social media to help them entice more people to explore the beauty of Once Islas – the home of their people, culture and heritage. 

Deep in Sama Banguingui history, culture and cuisine

The Sama Banguingui tribe welcomes tourists to the Once Islas with their traditional dance, Pangalay Ragbana.

Hailing from both Tausug and Sama Banguingui tribes, Malik is one that takes pride in her heritage and how it shaped the Once Islas of today. It was her ancestors that counted and named the 11 Ina (mother) islands, discounting the remaining four Anak (offspring) islets. This led to the baptization of the group of islands with its Chavacano name. The Sama Banguingui makes up a majority of the dwellers of Once Islas’ Sirommon, Lampinigan and Buh-buh islands. 

Today, the Sama Banguingui tribe, along with other government agencies, serves as the wardens of the islands for security and sustainability. Their hospitality extends to making sure guests are safe throughout their stay and get to fully experience all that the Once Islas can offer – from sea activities like kayaking and swimming, to eco-tours like wharf visits and rock formation treks. The tourism office also worked with Sama Banguingui women to advance their culinary skills in making local specials like Lokot-Lokot and preparation of the tribe’s own produce. 

They have also been strictly implementing a “Garbage In, Garbage Out” policy to maintain not just the allure of the islands but also the sanctity of these natural wonders. This initiative places Once Islas as one of the country’s top eco-tourism destinations. 

The Once Islas opened to the public in 2018.

Malik has highlighted how the attention to the islands has made the destination more popular, has brought funding for maintenance and development, and has sustained their livelihoods. Malik has added that even though her home competes with thousands more islands across the Philippines, nothing can compare to Once Islas’ distinctive character – capitalizing on its sheer number, the myriad of adventures available, and the vibrance of Sama Banguingui culture. 

Domestic tourism: Propeller of post-pandemic recovery
AirAsia joins the call of tourism advocates, local communities, and travel-related MSMEs for Filipinos and international tourists to explore more of the Philippines. What may seem like ordinary leisure travel for some may just be the jumpstart needed by small communities to recover from the onslaught of the pandemic. 

The World’s Best Low-Cost airline doubles down on expanding its domestic routes and flight frequency to sustain the nation’s tourism recuperation. To Zamboanga City alone, AirAsia has increased flights to DAILY from its previous frequency of six per week. 

Skies are clearer and the horizon is much brighter. There is an opportunity for every traveler to be part of the rebound of travel and the resumption of the livelihoods of many Filipinos like Huraida Malik – in every snap, in every social posting, and in every adventure experienced.

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