A Pearly Dilemma

January 20, 2016

by Gracia Ventus

El Nido
Wearing: Issey Miyake trousers; Marni sandals; Swim suit via

Island life calls for island clothes.

I made the mistake of wearing languid Ann Demeulemeester on my first day, as billowy and cooling as it is, and so settled for more appropriate attire I do not mind getting dirty.

El Nido

El Nido

Frivolous clothing considerations aside, there was something that I have been pondering about since my stay in El Nido. It's tough to approach this topic without sounding privileged but it is a dilemma I have faced on several occasions. The island of Palawan is famous for their pearls, and many of them made their way up north to El Nido. Everyday, you would come across about twenty or so sellers peddling various pearl trinkets, walking up and down the beaches in the hot sun. Anyone sitting for more than thirty minutes would have been approached by three different sellers. And then the same ones would come back again the next hour. I don't have a problem with the act of selling pearls, everyone has the right to make a living as long as it does not impinge on the welfare of others. The act of selling becomes problematic when these sellers get pushy, adamant and even borders on begging by showing hand gestures of food and hunger. I am by no means putting the blame of the situation on the sellers, but rather the market and business model of the entire operation.

From one's observation it is quite clear that the supply of pearl overwhelms the demand. I have personally had two sellers sat next to me for some time despite my refusal in hopes of me giving in to their persistence. One of them had a child in her tow - I can only hope it was because she had noone else to look after her child, and not because she was using him as an accessory to alleviate the portrayal of someone in need of money. Neither of us could speak each others' language beyond the vocabulary of buying and selling, unfortunately. On another instance I saw a Caucasian man who raised his voice at a seller, telling him repeatedly that he did not want to buy anything. A part of me could relate to the frustration the man felt, but it was also disheartening to see the other frail-looking man who was doing his best to eke out a living, only to be told off rudely.

For an industry to sustain itself, the supply must meet the demand, which either grows organically or is engineered with the use of marketing strategies. Before the advent of sophisticated marketing strategy in early 20th century, producers of the industrial revolution era churned out undifferentiated goods at the highest capacity a factory could operate in without accounting for the consumers' tastes and needs. For example, an early car model would be produced en masse in one single model and colour. This was the mass production tactic that all producers knew how to do. Some time around the Great Depression, the producers began to worry that the over production of goods would eventually surpass the slowing pace of consumption, as everyone pretty much had what they needed, like a car, or pairs of stockings, or a cupboard. That was when Edward Bernays - known as the father of Public Relations - came up with some of the most brilliant yet terrifying tactics that are used in modern marketing strategy. By utilising various channels such as the news media and 'influencers' and mixing psychoanalytical ideas, he stirred up emotions of the general public to consume goods from the industries he represented. A hundred years ago, goods were advertised based purely on their functional basis. Today, they tap into our emotions and desires, which is why sex sells, that and the concept of keeping up with the Joneses. Know what the consumers wants, otherwise create the desire within them.

Which brings me back to the pearl peddlers. Tourists took the arduous journey to El Nido to experience a beach holiday, and if there are pearls to be had, the desire to have them is secondary to the sun and the sea. I can only surmise from the persistency of the sellers that business was tough despite the peak season, and they might not be selling enough to pay for their living expenses. The overwhelming number of sellers, from young teenagers to frail grandmothers, was a telltale sign that the market was not in balance. There seems to be an assumption that consumers will purchase the pearls simply because they were available, which is no different from the producers of the Industrial Revolution. I couldn't help but to wonder what compels these sellers to take part in this business. Are they independent sellers who buy from a wholesaler, or members of a larger operation who are paid a fixed salary with extra sales commission?

This situation is not unique to El Nido. The popular beaches of Bali have their own peddlers too, though I don't remember them to be as numerous nor pushy. Whenever one of them approached me, an internal conflict would occur. I have no need for pearls, I have never desired for pearls. To buy one would be construed as an act of charity, especially when the prices are higher than ones in the Puerto Princessa, a town five hours away. Within the capability that I have, I voted with my wallet not to support an unsustainable market, with the hope that some of these peddlers would seek out other legitimate sources of income. However, the disparity in which the tourists were able to squander away money for drinks and the struggle these peddlers had to endure to make ends meet left me feeling like a heartless miser. Damned if I do, damned if I don't.

At the end of all this, I still do not know what the best course of action should be. Knowing their reasons for going down the path of selling pearls - instead of working in a restaurant or on the lucrative boat tours - would have been a great start. It is rather unfortunate that the language barrier exists.

El Nido


5 thoughts on “A Pearly Dilemma

  • Linda B

    by Linda B on January 21, 2016 at 7:44 am

    Gracia, your musings are actually deep questions that plague many of us, i am sure. I have had that same sort of experience in Mexico, though not as saturated with quite as many vendors as you speak of encountering on your trip. I wish I knew the answer. It’s not right to support such a flawed marketing situation, especially if we are trying to reduce consumption; yet who are we to judge when people are starving? There is no right answer, it seems. Or at least it is bloody hard to discern. Our world is definitely out of balance.

    Raising the questions is a start. So good for you!

  • Andrea

    by Andrea on January 21, 2016 at 11:11 pm

    Well said Gracia! I deal with the “heartless miser” feeling by giving a monthly donation to several charities of my choice. We have to come to terms with the fact that we can’t support everyone that needs help in this world, no matter how bad it makes us feel. Sad but true. That is, unless we have endless piles of $$.

    • Gracia Ventus

      by Gracia Ventus on January 22, 2016 at 7:48 am

      Even if we do have piles of $$, I think I would still not want to give false encouragement. I feel the same way with beggars. I can never tell who’s legitimately in need of help, or who is part of a larger illegal syndicate. The question I’ve always asked myself is whether giving money to beggars/begging peddlers is the right way to solve the overall plight of the community. I think if I have an (almost) infinite supply of money I’d like to give financial support to a region/community, perhaps build a school/hospital. That will come with an entirely new set of questions altogether.

  • Andrea

    by Andrea on January 23, 2016 at 12:05 am

    Yes, I agree with you on this. The answer to this problem is not a simple one. And you have to do what allows you to feel

  • LBG

    by LBG on January 23, 2016 at 10:23 am

    A very thoughtful considered post, Grazia.


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