'Surprise' fee allegations hound ‘New 7 Wonders’ contest

(Updated 11:54 p.m.) The New Seven Wonders of Nature contest, which placed the Puerto Princesa Underground River on the global tourism map, is now embroiled in a controversy involving millions of dollars in allegedly “surprise" fees.

Maldives and Indonesia withdrew their respective entries from the contest and accused organizers of forcing them to pay “surprise" fees of up to $500,000 or P21.6 million, the United Kingdom’s “The Guardian" reported.

In e-mail to GMA News Online, New7Wonders Foundation spokesperson Eamonn Fitzgerald denounced the allegations as baseless. “The key word here is ‘allegedly,’" he pointed out.

Fitzgerald also directed readers to an opinion piece he wrote for the Maldives news outlet “Minivan News," wherein he noted that New7Wonders “got caught up in the politics of both countries.

Sought for comment, Interior and Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo, who led the task force campaigning for the Palawan tourist attraction, said the allegations are “ridiculous."

“No funds for it, nor will [we] be willing to raise it just to join [the] contest, especially if it’s ‘a few million dollars,’" Robredo said in a text message to GMA News Online.

Last Saturday, the Zurich-based foundation announced that the Puerto Princesa Underground River in Palawan was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, based on the provisional voting results via text messaging and the Internet.

'Unexpected demands for money'

As early as last May, the allegations against the New7Wonders Foundation surfaced in Maldives after the country’s State Minister for Tourism Thoyyib Mohamed announced that Maldives was withdrawing from the contest “because of the unexpected demands for large sums of money from the New7Wonders organizers."

“Requests have so far included ‘sponsorship fees’ (‘platinum’ at $350,000, or two ‘gold’ at $210,000 each), and funding of a ‘World Tour’ event whereby Maldives would pay for a delegation of people to visit the country, provide hot air balloon rides, press trips, flights, accommodation, and communications," Maldives news outlet “Minivan News" reported last May.

Months later, the Indonesian government also withdrew its entry, Komodo National Park, and questioned the organizers’ credibility, “The Jakarta Post" reported.

The Indonesian news agency said disagreements stemmed from supposedly earlier statements by the New7Wonders Foundation that it might drop Komodo National Park from its list of finalists “after the government declined to pay a $10-million licensing fee and $35-million declaration fee to host a ceremony declaring the contest’s winners."

New status to boost tourism

In any case, the Philippine government expects the new status of the Puerto Princesa Underground River to boost tourism, with President Aquino himself having spearheaded the campaign.

Known for its unique and outstanding scientific, biological, and geological features, the river became was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization or UNESCO in December 1999.

It was also named a National Geological Monument in December 2003. — VS, GMA News

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