Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island. 2008 photo by author.

Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island. 2008 photo by author.

Plans to turn Philippine-occupied features on the disputed Spratly Islands have been postponed for at least a year as these coincided with the election season, the territories’ mayor said Thursday.

Eugenio Bito-onon, mayor of Kalayaan town under Palawan province, said the tourism campaign supposed to start this year will “most probably” be launched in 2017, after the new administration has taken over.

Representatives of the Department of Tourism (DoT) were supposed to assess the biggest Philippine-occupied feature, Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island, two weeks ago, but cancelled the visit, he said.

“Kinancel, partly because of election… Naabutan kasi ng election ‘yung Senate bill. So after the election ire-refile uli, a new start, pero after that tag-ulan na ‘yun, so most probably 2017 na [ang tourism campaign],” Bito-onon said.

Bito-onon, who himself is running this year for another term as Kalayaan mayor, was referring to the bill filed by Senator Sonny Angara which aims to declare the Pag-Asa Island cluster as an “eco-tourism destination and protected area.”

The bill, which also covers Parola (Northeast Cay), Kota (Loaita), and Panata (Lankiam Cay) islands, entails a call for funding from the DoT.

Overtures for making Kalayaan a tourism attraction were renewed in the past few years, with an eye at further cementing the Philippines’ claim to the islands, reefs, and atolls comprising the town.

These came amid China’s buildup of artificial islands and structures in nearby features, of which some were said to have been opened to tourists recently.

Along calls for tourism in Kalayaan were plans by the national government to repair the deteriorating Rancudo Air Field on Pag-Asa and building a jetty there.

Both construction plans reached bidding stage, but were shelved as the government wants to maintain “moral high ground” in the case filed against China at the United Nations’ International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).

ITLOS is expected to decide on the case this year, but Bito-onon said this was not a factor in the tourism drive’s delay.

“It’s more due to election,” he said.

Philippine election laws prohibit almost all public works and funding, especially during campaign period.

“Paano mo naman sisimulan ‘yung project kung walang pondo?” Bito-onon said.

Despite this, Bito-onon said he remains hopeful that the tourism project would still move forward.

He said the local government of Kalayaan had already pushed through with its acquisition of a steel-hulled boat, a project aimed at aiding both residents and soon-to-be tourists.

The project has been bidded out and the 22-meter boat worth P10.6 million is expected to be delivered this September, he said.

“This will be used for the safety of travelers,” as well as rescue operations and bringing food, water, and other supplies for residents in times of emergency, Bito-onon said. (John Roson)

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