Palaweños on Saturday greeted with fireworks the news that the Puerto Princesa Underground River (PPUR) has been named among the world’s new seven wonders of nature in a global poll.
The minute the provisional winners were announced at dawn Saturday, fireworks exploded around the city to signal that the Underground River had successfully made it in the vote for the final seven.
Hundreds of students and government employees marched early Saturday morning from the cathedral in downtown Puerto Princesa to the city coliseum to celebrate the event. City officials are planning a major celebratory event in the coming week.
While the list of winners is provisional and could still change by the time a final announcement is made in early 2012, Mayor Edward Hagedorn said he and other Palawan officials are confident that the Philippines’ entry will stay in the final seven.
Environment Secretary Ramon Paje, who was the national campaign manager for the government’s push for the PPUR, said the Underground River has now moved from being a “local to a global jewel.”
Paje hailed the victory as a “collective accomplishment of Filipinos all over the world.”
“The Almighty wrought this masterpiece of nature, but we thank our people for its election as one of the seven best among the many wonders that nature has scattered all over our planet,” he said.
Filipinos are lucky despite the country’s many problems because they are blessed with unique and rich natural resources, Paje said.
Winners only provisional
The list of winners is considered provisional because the votes are still being checked, validated and independently verified, according to the Swiss-based New7Wonders Foundation, which organized the globalsurvey.
“It is possible that there will be changes between the provisional winners and the eventual finally confirmed winners,” the group said in its announcement on http://www.new7wonders.com.
The other six crowned as the world’s natural wonders are Argentina’s Iguazu Falls, South Korea’s Jeju Island, Indonesia’s Komodo Island, Vietnam’s Halong Bay, South America’s Amazon rainforest and South Africa’s Table Mountain.
Sites that have failed to make the cut include Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, Israel’s Dead Sea and the US Grand Canyon.
Hagedorn said he had no idea what the PPUR’s ranking was or how many votes it racked up as these were not announced by the organizers, but he was sure the Underground River was among the top performers in the Internet- and text-based voting.
The results were listed in alphabetical order, and no ranking was given.
“We are confident we are among the top performers, judging from the impact of SMS (text) votes alone,” Hagedorn said.
According to Hagedorn, the Palawan government knows how many SMS votes the Underground River got, but is not allowed to disclose the figure by the rules of the New7Wonders Foundation.
A late entry when the survey kicked off in 2008, the Underground River managed to top the short list of 77, then moved on to be included in the final 24 candidates that competed for Internet and SMS votes.
Malacañang on Saturday welcomed the PPUR’s win and expressed the hope that the recognition would trigger a tourism boom for the country.
“With this, we sincerely hope that the rest of the world will stand up and notice the majesty not just of the Underground River but the rest of the Philippines,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte told a media forum on Saturday.
Valte advised those who supported the PPUR to save the text messages confirming their votes.
“In case we encounter a problem, we will have proof that we really sent text messages,” she said in Filipino.
Already, the city government of Puerto Princesa is anticipating a major boost in tourism for the capital and the rest of the province.
“We are up to the challenge. We view the Underground River’s recognition as a perfect opportunity to again showcase our commitment to preserve our natural environment as our legacy to the whole world,” Hagedorn said.
A welcome problem
City executives said the anticipated increase in tourist arrivals as a result of the Underground River’s success would be a “welcome problem.”
“This is a defining moment for Puerto Princesa. Tourism is going to be big and we will need to really plan this out so we can respond to the challenge,” Hagedorn said.
City tourism officer Rebecca Labit said the city already has its hands full managing the rapid increase in tourist arrivals since the search began three years ago.
“From just around 600 visitors a day three years ago, now we’re accommodating sometimes as many as 1,500 visitors to the cave a day,” Labit said.
The construction of new hotels and tourist accommodation facilities are ongoing, as are businesses in the downstream tourism sector such as restaurants and banking.
“Tourism is our way to go. It shows that we were right all along to commit our leadership to the policy of environmental preservation and sustainable development,” Hagedorn said, referring to the city’s firm stand against mining and its ban on live fish trading.
Paje said the inclusion of the PPUR in the new seven natural wonders showed how the environment can bring people together.
“Once again, it has been shown that environment can indeed be a unifying factor for the country, and that if we all unite, there is no reason to fail,” he said in a statement.
According to Paje, Filipinos can be proud of the campaign, with the government and the private sector joining together to promote the PPUR.
The government has been campaigning for votes for the PPUR throughout the year, and intensified its efforts during the homestretch.
President Aquino, after a visit to the river earlier this year, ordered national line agencies to launch a campaign urging Filipinos to channel their passion for texting and the Internet into promoting the Underground River.
Filipinos are avid users of the cellular phone service text messaging, and are known to send billions of texts a day. They are also savvy users of the World Wide Web.
Telecommunications giants Smart and Globe mounted a text voting campaign, offering cash prizes up to P25 million to lucky voters.
More than pretty sight
Believed to be the world’s longest, the 8.2-kilometer Underground River evokes awe from visitors with its unique features. It winds through a cave before flowing directly into the sea, and also features cathedral-like caverns and stalactites and stalagmites.
But it is more than just a pretty sight. According to environment officials, the subterranean river is a treasure trove of information for scientists studying how the Earth evolved.
At least 11 minerals have been found in the Underground River, stunning experts who said that only a few caves in the world have more than three or four minerals.
The Underground River features complex cave systems and limestones, and supports one of the major biodiversity areas in the country.
The New7Wonders poll attracted great interest, mobilizing celebrities, including Argentinian football star Lionel Messi, calling on fans to pick his home country’s Iguazu Falls.
The results come after a long consultation process lasting from December 2007 to July 2009, when world citizens were asked to put forward sites which they deemed were natural wonders.
More than a million votes were cast to trim the list of more than 440 contenders in over 220 countries down to a short list of 77. The group was then further cut to 28 finalists by a panel of experts.
Anyone in the world was then able to vote for the final seven via telephone, text messages or Internet socialnetworks.
Founded in 2001 by filmmaker Bernard Weber in Zurich, the foundation New7Wonders is based on the same principle on which the seven ancient wonders of the world were established. That list of seven wonders was attributed to Philon of Byzantium in ancient Greece.
New7Wonders said its aim is to create a global memory by garnering participation worldwide.
But even as the natural wonders poll came to a close, the New7Wonders Foundation has set its eyes on a new survey—the top seven cities of the world. Participating cities will be announced on Jan. 1, 2012. With reports from Christian V. Esguerra and AFP