Thinking out of the box, young developer Paloma Urquijo Zobel is presenting a different side of El Nido, Palawan, by fostering community life and culture. Likewise, she is helping to stimulate the local economy.
Kalye Artisano is a Filipino, mixed-use center at the Lio Tourism Estate, a 325-hectare sustainable, beachside development by Ayala Land. Within some 2,780 square meters stands three structures for retail, a school of international standards and a 921-sq-m building for coworking spaces and lodging.
While El Nido is associated with luxury resorts and outdoor sports, Kalye Artisano offers a more down-home feel. The plan purports such lofty goals as developing a genuine cultural landscape, fostering sustainable living and strengthening the community spirit.
In an interview via Zoom, Zobel explained, “Visitors to El Nido would not know how it would fit into the Philippine context. There are limestone cliffs and the sea is beautiful, but what else makes up the Philippines? What is our culture? In Colombia and Mexico, every corner is full of their culture. They are playing the music or eating Mexican food.”
Culture in the blood
On the community’s raison d’etre, she said, “When I’m traveling, I look for more than just the typical tourist activities. I want to immerse myself with the locals and do and feel what it’s like to live in the country for a short time. People think El Nido is just island-hopping and tour A,B,C we want to change that and enhance the experience of El Nido. In Kalye Artisano, we offer immersive inland experiences, build spaces with purpose and foster the local community to give people a sense of place and a different way to experience beautiful El Nido .”
The enthusiasm for nurturing Filipino culture is in her blood, she said. Her grandmother, philanthropist Bea Zobel de Ayala, assisted the Mangyan community in Mindoro and has been selling their baskets and crafts for decades. Her mother, Bea Jr., has been active in the heritage preservation of Bohol, where she lived for a few years.
Before the pandemic, Zobel and her mother went to El Nido, befriended the locals and asked how they could lend a hand. “We spent a good 4 years before the pandemic living in El Nido getting to know the local community and learning their needs and wants and we saw the opportunity to create a local commercial and cultural hub for the local community .” she said. “This is where I’m following in my mom’s footsteps. She wants to help better the places that she falls in love with. For me, it’s showcasing the wonders of El Nido and what the local community has to offer.”
“If they get to know us and see that we are good people who want to help, then that’s what would carry us through,” she said. “This is where I’m following in my mom’s footsteps. She wants to help better the place that she falls in love with. For me, it’s El Nido.”
The 31-year-old developer had lived most of her life outside the country. At 9 years old, she was sent to boarding school in England. She took up design and business at Parsons School of Design in New York and her masters in strategic marketing at the Imperial College in London.
Coming home in 2016, Zobel launched Piopio, a Palawan-based clothing line, infused with local weaves. The venture enabled her to learn more about the Philippines through her trips to weaving communities, particularly in Northern Luzon.
Contrary to reports that Piopio had closed shop last year due to the impact of the pandemic, she clarified that the operations were suspended.
“I decided to pause until things were relaxed, and I focused on El Nido. I will bring Piopio back, starting December, in a smaller capacity by doing pop-ups,” she said.
Zobel drew flak for letting the weavers go during a critical time. “People didn’t understand that I was working with artisans who are servicing different brands and other companies,” she explained. The entrepreneur has since been connecting her suppliers and weavers with other businesses.
Meanwhile, she and her mother were exploring El Nido’s potentials. As tourism arrivals surged in Palawan, she noticed a gap. “Many businesses were owned by expats. We saw the need to promote local enterprises and to be in a good setting,” she said.
Investing in a modest-sized property in Lio Tourism Estate, she envisioned an artist’s village as her passion project. Escaping pandemic restrictions, urban dwellers migrated to the island and became her tenants. “The community moved over and set up shop. All businesses are owned by Filipinos. You get a sense of local community.”
Kalye Artisano is now anchored by businesses such as The Earth School founded by David Esteban, which provides a holistic international corriculum centered around innovation and sustainability for children from preschool to grade 12. The Living Library, a zero waste sari sari store and local pantry founded by June Marieezy. El Nudols, a dinning experience that uses local ingredients for different noodle dishes, Islas Makinas a motorbike and coffee shop, Studio MCA a beauty studio founded by Mica Mitra and various local artist workshops and souvenir shops.
Retail collectives highlight unique gift items and functional art from junk and found objects. Then there are a beauty and wellness place, a custom bike shop/coffee place, a bakery, a farm, a green area and a playground.
The tenants are a balance of creatives on rental concession and entrepreneurs who pay the full rent. “I want them to give back to the community and to sustain a good ecosystem wherein they complement each other. A consulting company and a multimedia company help businesses of Kalye Artisano to promote themselves and teach strategic marketing tools. They consult around the area,” she added.
An Airbnb, Bahay Artisano will be the newest accommodation for long-staying guests at Kalye Artisano. Zobel also revealed that she teamed up with Spanish entrepreneur, Nani Montoro who is married to a Filipina to open the Mambo Beach Club, a family-oriented destination on Lio Beach set to open in the next few weeks.
Inspired by Kalye Artisano’s success, Zobel wants to duplicate the model in other tourism places in the Philippines. She credits the realization of her vision to the community. “You just can’t say, ‘I’m going to build this,’ and hope that people come. It’s important that you gain the respect of the local community, involve the locals and strengthen those ties. Kalye Artisano is successful because it is a place for Filipinos to set up shop, to send their kids to school, to sell their art, relax and have a nice place to hang out. On top of that, visitors can go where locals go.”
Frequently asked why she invests her time and energy in the Philippines, she replied, “The Philippines is undervalued, and Filipinos lack confidence in themselves. I’ve seen the potential in this country and I want to see it fulfilled, especially with artisans and local business owners. Somebody should tell them, ‘You can do this!’” — CONTRIBUTED