The Sangguniang Panlalawigan (SP) committee report delving into the gory diving accident that claimed the life of a Dallas police officer and injuries sustained by his diving buddy unveiled a grim picture of the tourism industry in the municipality of Panglao.
Board Member (BM) Kristine Alexie Tutor, Chairperson of the committee on tourism of the SP who presided over a two hour joint committee hearing on Thursday, August 11, 2016 at the SP conference was Â stunned by the revelations of their resource persons on the apparent apathetic manner business is ran in what is considered as Â the crown jewel of the tourism industry in Bohol.
But Vice Governor Dionisio Balite called for the continuance of the hearing to focus on the open defiance of habal-habal or unregistered sea vessels proliferating in Panglao and the status of foreign workers employed by tourism establishments also allegedly owned by foreigners.
The Chronicle recalled the tearful appeal of Chriselyn Bedolido, now the widow of Hans Adrian Campbell, a Dallas police officer in an exclusive interview when she said “I hope that the death of my husband will not be meaningless but will serve as a call for all concerned to strengthen safeguards on the lives of divers”.
The death of Campbell who came all the way from the United States with his fiancee and their respective families for their wedding and celebrate Campbell’s birthday turned into tragedy caused by an accident that was Â “waiting to happen”.
The SP joint committee hearing was triggered by an emotional privilege speech delivered by Tutor during the regular session last week where she narrated the details of the freak diving accident in Panglao and expressed her condolences to the families of the victims.
Meanwhile, Department of Tourism (DOT) – 7 Regional Director Rowena Montecillo expressed her dismay over the diving incident and castigated so called dive operators who flagrantly disregarded existing laws and regulations on diving.
In a meeting hastily convened on August 4, 2016Â a day after Campbell died at the Ramiro Community Hospital due to severe head and body injuries, Montecillo did not hide her disappointment and disgust over the “horrible incident”
“A life has been taken because of irresponsible operators that have smeared the marketing and promotion efforts of tourism officials pushing for Bohol and Cebu as priority areas in Central Visayas for watersports and diving”.
Montecillo also rebuked the management Oceanholic who was represented during the meeting “by a secretary who does not know anything”, according to excerpts of the minutes furnished to the Chronicle.
Also, Provincial Administrator Alfonso Damalerio urged Panglao Mayor Leonila Montero to conduct an inventory of all dive shop and boat operators in close coordination of the Philippine National Police (PNP).
Business permits of erring operators shall be immediately revoked if found violating laws, ordinances and rules and regulations.
Oceanholic, who is reportedly owned by Koreans, operated the speedboat that crossed the area where the accident occurred and was later found outÂ by the Â authorities that the speedboat was unregistered.
Appalled by the chaotic stateÂ that is steadily eroding the once pristine beauty of Panglao, BM Abeleon Damalerio said ” the lapses of all stakeholders in the industry, taken altogether has contributed to a tragic accident that is a rude awakening for everybody”.
Hans Holger, president of the Panglao Association of Dive Operators (PADO) and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Philippine Fun Divers, Inc. located in Alona Beach, Panglao said “this was an accident waiting to happen”.
Horn appealed to the Local Government Unit (LGU) of Panglao to identify three diving confined areas in the seawaters of Alona Beach with permanent marker buoys to serve as navigational lanes to avoid sea vessels from straying into the designated diving areas.
Holger also pointed out the proliferation of “habal-habal seacrafts” or unregistered sea taxis ferrying tourists to destinations that are apparently tolerated by local authorities.
But Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) Lieutenant Commander Benjie Quinisio of the PCG Bohol District admitted that even as they are undermanned, the assistance of the LGU is needed to police these unregistered seacrafts which continue to operate despite the issuance of violation tickets.
Quinisio pointed to the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) for the slow processing of applications for sea vessel operation as the major reason for the increase in the number of habal-habal vessels.
An officer of the PCG, on condition of anonymity told the Chronicle that the habal-habal sea taxis have turned arrogant that they “have the gall to verbally disrespect” officers of the PCG in the performance of their duties.
The officer suspects that local authorities are coddling or protecting the operators of these unregistered vessels even to the point of ignoring gale or typhoon signals from the weather bureau to stop operations.
Darwin Menorias, Panglao Tourism and Coastal Resource Management Officer (CRMO) called for an uncompromising enforcement and implementation covering the diving business in Panglao after finding that the dive operators involved in the tragic accident were “negligent” and clearly violated hiring laws of foreign dive masters.
Piratas Alona Divers admitted that there were no “diver below markers” to indicate and ongoing diving activity which could have warned sea vessels to navigate 60 meters away from the diving area.
Menorias revealed that Jullian Bonilla, a Spaniard who was the dive instructor of Campbell’s group is not a professional diver as his name does not appear in the roster of dive professionals of the CRM office.
Bonilla is not even registered as a dive professional working with Piratas Alona Divers and “is considered having no alien employment permit”, according to Menorias.
However, Atty. Lord “Popot” Marapao IV, counsel for Bonilla belied the claims of Menorias, in an interview with the Chronicle that his client was working as a diving instructor without the necessary permits.
Marapao said that Bonilla has an existing Alien Working Permit issued under his former employer, Sea Quest but was under process for transfer to Piratas Alona Divers when the unfortunate accident happened. Marapao also stressed that Bonilla was a licensed instructor of PADI.
The other diving instructor who was with the other group, Ivan Serreras, also a Spaniard has an existing Alien Working Permit which will expire next year and is also a licensed Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) instructor, according to Marapao.
Nineteen resource persons were present during the more than 2 hour SP meeting with almost everyone admitting their failure to strictly enforce and implement labor laws, municipal ordinances, diving rules and regulations and immigration procedures governing foreign nationals working in the municipality.
The lucrative diving business in Panglao is majority owned and financed by foreign nationals hiding behind local fronts to evade constitutional prohibition on doing business in the country.
Tutor’s findings established that Campbell and Norman Zheng, both US citizens together with family members were on a fun dive on August 2, 2016 near a transplantation rehabilitation site in a shallow part in the seawaters off Dulho Point, Barangay Dulho.
That Richie Cagandahan who was manning a speedboat owned by Oceanholic Dive Shop was on his way to deliver cooking oil to the crew of a dive boat when the speedboat sped past an unmarked diving area and plowed into Campbell and Zheng who were underwater at that time.
Campbell died of head and body injuries a day after the accident on August 3, 2016, his birthday, in the afternoon at the Ramiro Community Hospital while Zheng escaped with less life threatening injuries and reportedly left for the US last week.
Campbell was due to marry Bedolido, a Boholana whose parents are from Tagbilaran City on August 4, 2016 but the marriage pushed through after a wedding ceremony was held at the bedside by a Baptist minister hours before the victim expired.
In a related development,Â Oceanholic Dive Shop and Piratas Alona Divers, two dive shops operating in Panglao were directed to temporarily shut down by Gerry Guidaben, Officer in Charge of the Department of Labor – Bohol Office.
The cease order was revealed by Guidaben before the Sangguniang Panlalawigan (SP) committee of the whole hearing presided by the tourism committee chairperson Kristine Alexie Tutor on Thursday, August 11, 2016 at the SP conference room.
The temporary closure order from the DOLE stemmed from the discovery that two Spanish dive masters did not possess the necessary Alien Employment Permit (AEP) to work in the country.
Julian Bonilla and Ivan Serreras, both dive masters of Piratas Alona Divers were conducting a Discover Scuba Diving course in a shallow portion near a Coral Transplantation Rehabilitation site off the seawaters of Barangay Dulho.
Although the call of the day is the strict enforcement and implementation of all tourism laws and ordinances, Tutor is now reviewing all existing ordinances and is now in the process of crafting legislation to further strengthen the tourism industry in the province.Â (Chito M. Visarra)