Coron mayor: No permit applications yet for Nickelodeon theme park

PALAWAN, Philippines – The municipal government of Coron has yet to receive permit applications on the planned Nickelodeon theme park.

Coron Mayor Ajerico Barracoso made the statement a day after Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo said in a media interview that the controversial Nickelodeon theme park “will push through.”

Barracoso said Teo's announcement, which she volunteered in a CNN Philippines interview, puzzled Coron officials since the project developers had yet to file any permit applications at the local level.

“Wala pa kaming alam sa totoo lang, honest-to-goodness – nagtataka nga kami (In all honesty, we don't know anything yet, honest-to-goodness – we're also wondering),” Barracoso told Rappler in a phone interview on Friday, June 2.

Nickelodeon’s parent company, Viacom International Media Networks and partner Coral World Park Undersea Resorts Incorporated announced in January that they will develop a 400-hectare underwater theme park and resort in Coron slated to open in 2020.

Barracoso said he had yet to receive an application document containing a map, among others. The only document he got from the developers was a letter of intent they personally sent to him days after their announcement.

The mayor added that the developers visited him only to express their interest in investing in Coron. Their plan to build an attraction in his town for now, he said, remained just a "plan."

“'Yung kanilang mga plano, plano pa lang 'yun. Wala pa talagang concrete documents na iniwan dito (Their plans are really only just plans. They have not submitted any concrete documents yet)," he said.

Once the concrete plan is submitted to the local government, the developers would go through a lengthy process involving securing endorsements from many local government offices from the barangay up to the provincial level.

Application process

The endorsement of a proposed project requires the support of the local community through a public consultation. This will be the basis of the project’s “social acceptability,” one of  the 3 guiding principles of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) in issuing a Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) clearance.

The PCSD is a multi-sectoral and intergovernmental body tasked to enforce Republic Act 7611 or the SEP for Palawan Act of 1992, a special law to steer the province – as the Philippines’ last ecological frontier – into a sustainable development path.

As the law’s main strategy, the PCSD implements the Environmentally Critical Areas Network (ECAN), a system providing grades of protection and development control over the whole of Palawan.

PCSD Staff spokesperson Jovic Fabello said that their office has yet to receive any communication, verbal or written, from the Nickolodeon theme park proponents.

“We haven’t received anything from them in terms of intent or whatsoever,” Fabello told Rappler in a separate interview.

Aside from “social acceptability,” Fabello said the SEP clearance system also requires proposed projects to pass through “environmental integrity” and “integrated approach” principles.

The PCSD, Fabello added, will require the developers to present a full-blown environmental impact assessment to evaluate the "extent of damage or the possible impact that will alter the natural environment” on the project site.

According to the Viacom statement in January, "Nickelodeon’s first resort in Southeast Asia is slated to have 70 hectares set aside for the resort’s accommodation and 30 hectares for the themed attraction."

Fabello said he doubted if there was a contiguous area in Coron that can accommodate such massive development.  (READ: Nickelodeon park: Palawan execs say oceans not 'private' properties)

Teo said in her June 1 interview with CNN Philippines that the developers had personally assured her that they would preserve the place and not destroy the environment.

On the same day she was criticized for saying that the project would push through, Teo issued a brief statement distancing herself from the project.

In a statement posted on the Department of Tourism’s (DOT) official Facebook page, Teo said: “From a tourism perspective, the DOT is excited about the idea because this would attract both local and foreign tourists."

“With regard to the approval of such a concept, the DOT would properly refer the matter to the appropriate agencies that can evaluate and decide on it," she added.

On top of a SEP clearance, the developers also need to secure, among other government permits, an environmental compliance certificate (ECC) from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) from the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) if it enters into areas considered as ancestral waters.

Last frontier

In a statement sent to Rappler, Save Philippine Seas executive director Anna Oposa said her organization, along with other conservation groups in the country, maintain its stand against the project.

“Our position from January 2017 has not changed: we are still against the construction of the Nickelodeon-Coral World Park attraction,” said Oposa, who launched an online petition that already garnered 247,000 signatures as of posting.

What concerns them even more, she added, are the "condominiums" to be built in the resort, as announced by Teo.

“Coron is beautiful as it is, with limestone cliffs, coral reefs and lagoons. It does not need artificial structures to draw local and foreign tourists," Oposa said.

“Palawan is the country’s last frontier – let’s keep it that way,” she added.

She said the conservation community demands “transparency from all government agencies, local government units, and the developers themselves to present their conservation and development plan.”

There is fierce opposition to the project among concerned citizens and conservation groups who said it would cause irreparable damage to Coron's already threatened marine ecosystems, particularly the coral reefs.

While Coron boasts of spectacular diving sites, only 0.6% of  its live coral cover is in “excellent” condition, PCSD data revealed. (READ: Discovering the jewels of Coron)

Coron’s live coral cover in “very good” and “good” condition are at 1% and 3.2%, respectively. The rest are in “fair” (63.4%) and “poor” (31.8%) condition. – Rappler.com