Going back to nature: Ecotourism in the Makiling Botanic Gardens in the face of the new normal

by Ellanie Marie Mallen

The tourism industry took a sharp turn towards closing their doors to visitors when restrictions were implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This included ecotourism spots such as the Makiling Botanic Gardens (MBG) in Los Baños.

“Malaki ‘yung naging effects nito sa ating local economy in Laguna. Malaki din ‘yung naging effect nito sa income namin na nasa Tourism [sector],” says Dr. Rogelio Andrada, Deputy Director of the Makiling Center for Mountain Ecosystems (MCME).

(“This greatly affected the local economy in Laguna. It has also greatly affected the income of those who are in the Tourism sector.”)

More than a year after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Makiling Botanic Gardens once again opens to reconnect the public with nature.

MBG During the Pandemic

“Ang pinaka-main challenge namin is how to keep people from losing their jobs because wala kaming income,” says Dr. Andrada.

(The main challenge for us was how to keep people from losing their jobs because we did not have any income.)

In 2020, MBG immediately closed to the public following the suspension of classes and the temporary closure of the university. Although a skeletal work system was implemented for MBG, transportation, the maintenance of the gardens, the reduction of their onsite workforce to 50%, assisting employees who contracted COVID-19, and providing income to those in contracts of services proved to be challenging on their part.

“The nature of work here is talagang sa field. Naging challenge talaga sa workforce namin ‘yung transportation ng employees papunta rito. Hindi naman kasi pwedeng itigil ‘yung pagme-maintain ng gardens because we have a lot of landscapes… So, with a reduced number of people, mas marami ‘yung load noong mga pumapasok,” says Dr. Andrada in sharing his sentiments about the challenges they have encountered in the gardens during the pandemic.

(The nature of work here is really more on the field. Transportation was a challenge to our workforce. The maintenance of the gardens could not be put off since we have a lot of landscapes… So, with a reduced number of people, the workload for those onsite also increased.)

Cooperation, pooling of resources, a rotation system, and reducing their employees’ workload to that of essential tasks became their anchor to overcome these challenges.

As An ASEAN Heritage Park

Mount Makiling is 300 hectares of protected land— that is, 7% of the entire UPLB area, due to it being a recognized ASEAN Heritage Park since 2013, with MBG occupying 5 hectares of said land. Mount Makiling is home to: 

  • 2038 species of flowering plants and ferns;
  • 211 species of moss;
  • 45 species of mammals;  
  • 181 species of birds;
  • 65 species of reptiles;
  • 22 species of amphibians; and
  • hundreds of species of invertebrates (e.g. arthropods and annelids)

Makiling Botanic Gardens’ Location Map showing its 5-hectare occupancy of Mount Makiling.

Before the pandemic, hiking, picnics, and field trips were among the most popular activities in the gardens. They had an average number of 50 tour buses a week, mostly for educational field trips. However, due to the pandemic, the average number of visitors per day was reduced to an average of two to five individuals per day.

Picnic area in the Makiling Botanic Gardens.

Re-opening of MBG to the Public

As restrictions gradually toned down, MCME decided to re-open the MBG on November 20, 2021 in celebration of its anniversary. Hiking, leisure walking, jogging, bird watching, photo and video shoots, picnics, and scheduled social events are among the activities that are now allowed in the gardens.

One of the major challenges they have encountered in re-opening the gardens are walk-in visitors. In compliance with the university’s protocols, individuals and groups may visit the gardens only by securing a slot through MBG’s online booking system a day before the intended visit. 

Dr. Andrada calls for the patience and understanding of visitors toward their implemented protocols, “Even though we really need income and nagagalit na sa amin yung mga sumusubok magwalk-in, we need to keep our staff safe.”

(Even though we really need income and those who try to visit through walk-in get mad at us, we need to keep our staff safe). 

Another challenge encountered by MBG is the monitoring of their online booking system. Dr. Andrada mentioned that they are still on the learning curve of this new system where mistakes cannot always be avoided. However, they take comments on their shortcomings in stride and improve their system as they go along with the situations they encounter in the new normal setup.

The regular entrance fee to the gardens is 50.00 PHP per individual and the discounted fee for students, senior citizen, and PWDs are priced at 40.00 PHP.

Makiling Botanic Gardens’ reminder board for visitors.

MBG Health Protocols in Different Alert Levels

Alert Level 3

MBG is closed to the public and only their staff and authorized visitors who coordinated with the Office of the Chancellor are allowed inside MBG’s premises.

Alert Level 2

The carrying capacity of MBG in alert level 2 is a maximum of 175 a day. Visitors will have to secure a slot via MBG’s online booking system 2 days before the intended date of visit; and select between the available timeslots of 8:00 AM to 10:00 AM, 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM, and 2:00 PM to 4:00 PM. Visitors can stay for a maximum of 2 hours. The intervals between timeslots are used to disinfect the area, prepare for the next set of visitors, and ensure social distancing in-between visits.

Individuals 17 years old and below are not allowed to visit the gardens. Adult visitors are required to wear face masks, bring their vaccination cards, follow health protocols upon entry (i.e., temperature check and hand sanitizing), and accomplish a health declaration form. 

Alert Level 1

The maximum capacity of MBG in alert level 1 is increased to 200 a day. Visitors are still required to secure a slot via MBG’s online booking system 1 day prior to their visit. Timeslots are waived and guests may visit the gardens from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM.

Visitors are still required to wear face masks, bring their vaccination cards, and follow health protocols upon entry (i.e., temperature check and hand sanitizing). As of April 1, 2022, visitors 17 years old and below are allowed to visit the gardens following the same protocols as adults, with the exception of having to bring a vaccination card.

Signages emphasizing MBG’s No Walk-in Policy.

Future Plans for MBG

With the current setup of the tourism sector in the ongoing pandemic, MBG’s short-term plans focus on maintenance and enriching their themed gardens’ collections.

Their long-term plans include the renovation and further beautification of their facilities and the possibility of offering new services and activities for visitors such as tour programs. The current focus of their renovations are the boardwalks, café, and restrooms.

Ongoing renovations in MBG. MCME staff (right) repainting side benches.

To encourage individuals and groups to visit the gardens, MBG have engagement mechanisms in their Facebook page and YouTube channel, where they post about their “Plant of the Month” as well as virtual tours of the gardens.

WE HOPE TO SEE YOU IN THE GARDENS SOON. Dr. Rogelio Andrada (center) encouraging individuals to visit the Makiling Botanic Gardens.

Dr. Andrada encourages individuals and groups to visit MBG and reminds visitors to stay patient, kind, and understanding as ecotourism in MBG transitions towards the new normal.

For individuals and groups interested in visiting the Makiling Botanic Gardens, you may book your visit via this link: https://bit.ly/MakilingOnlineBookingV2. Visitors are also encouraged to visit MBG’s Facebook page for visitation requirements, protocols, and other inquiries.

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