As far as places to be stuck in during a pandemic go, you can do a lot worse than El Nido, Palawan, the best island in the world for 2020. While there is the requisite roller coaster of emotions — anxiety, optimism and everything in between — The Birdhouse owners Mark-Anthony and Camille Villaflor have been enjoying the quiet, deserted beaches and taking daily walks with their son, Aguila, discovering hidden bird’s nests and having close encounters with the endemic wildlife. They’ve been staying away from town for the most part, holed up in the Mother Nest, the main house at their boutique glamping hotel located on Maremegmeg Beach.
Mark, an international school teacher who was previously based in Shanghai, and Camille, an interior designer, moved to El Nido in 2015 after a 16-month-long honeymoon around the world. They initially planned to build a house on a hill and the development grew organically from there. They started out with three tents on platforms, riding on the rising popularity of glamping and promising a different kind of experience for travelers. They have since added two more “nests,” all scattered across the hilly terrain, surrounded by lush greenery and interconnected by bamboo stairs. They also opened a restaurant called The Nesting Table, which boasts an unparalleled view that attracts even non-guests, and host sunset yoga sessions over at the Mother Nest.
But all this is available only to those who are willing to work for it: guests first have to walk 700m along the beach, about 200m up a trail and then 200 steps up a staircase. “We want them to feel their breath, their body, their heartbeat,” says Mark. “They’re usually looking down as they go up, they’re not seeing their surroundings. But when they go out on the terrace at the restaurant, they get blown away by this view of Bacuit Bay.” It’s all part of their philosophy of slow travel. “Some people want the elevator — that’s not our clientele,” adds Mark.
And while the place is definitely one for the Instagram feed, that’s not their clientele either. The Birdhouse is for those who are more intent on keeping their eyes on their surroundings rather than on their phones. (Mark is tempted to take down a hammock at the restaurant because photo ops tend to disrupt other guests’ meals.) Their philosophy of slow travel also goes hand in hand with two other pillars: eco sustainability — they’ve developed a water management system and are working towards becoming more climate resilient — and experiential tourism, borne out of the meaningful experiences they themselves had on their year-and-a-half-long sojourn. All this seems to resonate with their guests — The Birdhouse consistently ranks at the top of Specialty Lodgings on Tripadvisor while The Nesting Table ranks #1 in Restaurants.
Mark says they’re taking a wait-and-see approach when it comes to reopening, taking their cue from local government and bigger establishments. In the meantime, they’re beefing up their training manuals and are aiming to exceed health and safety protocols once formal guidelines are issued. (It’s worth noting that physical distancing isn’t a problem at The Birdhouse, as nests have plenty of space between them.)
The pandemic hasn’t made them rethink the way they do business; if anything, it has shown them that they’re on the right track. Other businesses may soon follow suit. “Certain businesses are shifting towards something similar to the whole idea of climate resiliency,” says Mark. “Climate resiliency probably wouldn’t have covered a pandemic but it would have covered a lot of other stuff because we would have had our own food, we would have had our own water managed, we would have had our own waste managed.” By moving to a more climate-resilient model, El Nido would have a circular economy and would be more self-sufficient, reducing their reliance on goods and services outside of the islands — especially important during times of crises.
While The Birdhouse already has its own water management system and practices composting, other small and medium businesses now have the time to take a long look at their systems and reevaluate the way things are done. “There’s just kind of a reorientation of what tourism should look like, what El Nido town should look like. I think people are having a new mindset for the future.”
As El Nido relies heavily on tourism, many people have lost their jobs. “The private sector has picked up a lot of the slack in terms of helping people who would have been working,” says Mark. “[There] is a small restaurant-bar and they’ve got a daily thing where they’re feeding a bunch of families. A lot of the private sector, small and medium-sized businesses, are donating and it’s called The Communal Pot… It was already happening before but now there’s more urgency.”
The Communal Pot raises funds and distributes daily home-cooked meals to locals in need. You can find out more about the initiative here.