One of the most meaningful concepts I learned during my first year in GHD was ‘shared value’, a framework which suggests that companies can create both social and economic value in the communities where they operate without compromising their profit margins. In large part, it was the desire to gain a better understanding of this idea that motivated me to pursue my current internship through the Beeck Center’s GU Impacts program in El Nido, Palawan, working on sustainable tourism with El Nido Resorts. With my interest in private sector approaches to development, the idea that the driving force for business – profit–  can actually be complementary to poverty reduction is so powerful because it means that without adding philanthropy or CSR, the core operations of company can be a formidable force in fostering sustainable development.

As such, it seemed serendipitous that the idea of ‘shared value’ was repeatedly brought up in conversations with my supervisor, local government officials, and other stakeholders in the tourism industry during my first few days in El Nido. Driven by the private sector, the rapidly growing tourism industry has brought vivid change to the prospects of this region in the past decade alone. On paper, the promise of shared value seems well on its way to being fulfilled; the number of tourists grows every year, and with it, the economic growth of the municipality.   

Trying out the composting process at El Nido Resorts' Materials Recovery Facility.

Trying out the composting process at El Nido Resorts’ Materials Recovery Facility.

Now wrapping up my fourth week in El Nido, however, I’ve realized that the gap between the theory and realities of shared value are vast. Along with the six undergraduate students participating in the program, I have been doing a variety of visits and interviews with different tourism stakeholders in preparation for the first ever El Nido Sustainable Tourism Forum. Poor enforcement of protected area policies, attempts by businesses to shirk local taxes, and cost-reducing practices that inflict damage to the stunning natural environment of El Nido are apparent everywhere. Not only does this hurt the long term viability of El Nido as a tourist destination, but it also harms the shorter term ability of the local government to provide public goods; to date, El Nido does not have a public hospital or a sewage treatment plant, facilities whose absence are deeply felt in both social and environmental terms.

I’m fortunate enough to be interning for a company that is tackling these issues head on.  El Nido Resorts was built on the principles of environmental protection and community engagement, values that have been codified into the company’s well known ‘quadruple bottom line’: people, planet, progress, profit.  With tourism on the rise all around the municipality, this commitment to gauge company performance not only by profit earned, but by the ability to innovate, protect the biodiversity of the region, and benefit local communities has made El Nido Resorts a leader in fostering sustainable tourism in the Philippines. Since I’ve been here, I have heard numerous stories of the way El Nido Resorts has acted as a catalyst in building new industries, training entrepreneurs, and supporting local economies through its operations— an example of shared value in real time.

El Nido Resorts Interns with Mayor Nieves Rosento.

El Nido Resorts Interns with Mayor Nieves Rosento.

From my perspective, this success is attributable to El Nido Resorts’ mission to create a shared sense of values in El Nido. While this seems like a rather ‘warm and fuzzy’ sentiment, it is precisely the earnest pursuit of all parts of the company’s bottom line that has birthed policies such as 90% local hiring, local sourcing of food and souvenirs, and the carefully integrated systems of waste recovery, sewage treatment, and water desalination that make El Nido Resorts such a positive force in El Nido.

Me at the beautiful Big Lagoon!

Me at the beautiful Big Lagoon!

As I reflect on sustainable tourism as a tool for development, I am increasingly convinced that the secret to creating shared value is fostering shared sense of what exactly carries value in a society. This is of course only the beginning of building an industry that should be marked by excellence both in service to its clients and to its residents, but without a shared understanding who and what to protect, tourism as a tool for development will always be limited.

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