by Felipe Villamor
A Philippine island that became famous for the white sand beaches and coral reefs that made it a haven for travelers, and then for the rapid development and pollution that threatened its idyllic shores, has been ordered closed to tourists for six months.
President Rodrigo Duterte — who has said that inadequate sewage treatment on the island, Boracay, has turned its beaches into a “cesspool” — directed that it be closed to tourism starting April 26, his spokesman, Harry Roque, said Wednesday.
That decision threatens the livelihoods of thousands of people on Boracay, a speck of an island in the central Philippines that has become a travel destination to rival Phuket, in Thailand, and Bali, in Indonesia.
Duterte has said Boracay must be cleaned up, but officials have given no indication there is a plan to do so. Yet last month, the government signed an agreement with Galaxy Entertainment, a Macau-based casino operator, and a Philippine partner to begin construction next year on a $500 million beachfront casino that would add to the burdens on the island’s infrastructure.
“Maybe the timing was just coincidence, but I can say that it is very odd,” said Nenette Graf, president of an alliance of Boracay’s hotels, restaurants and other businesses. “You want to close the island, but at the same time allow a casino operator in?”
Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, who recently met with Boracay business owners, acknowledged the contradiction, a local newspaper reported, but noted that the new casino would need to secure an environmental clearance certificate from his agency before opening.
Most of the roughly 40,000 residents on the 4-square-mile island are dependent on tourism, and even before Duterte’s order, some were struggling.
“Right now, there should be twice the number of tourists here,” said Alfred Abuloc, 29, who works in a tiny restaurant. He wondered aloud whether the president’s harsh words about the island “have caused others to cancel.”
In 2010, The New York Times described Boracay, previously known for its laid-back party culture, as Asia’s next tourism hot spot, and since then it has landed on the covers and “best” lists of travel magazines. Foreigners, most of them Chinese or South Korean, crowd its beaches and shops, and local officials say the island drew 2 million visitors last year.
The race for tourist dollars fueled rapid development. Bamboo huts and modest, wood-framed inns gave way to modern hotels, primarily along the 4-mile-long White Beach on the island’s western side. A mall features American chains like Starbucks, KFC and McDonald’s, and Caticlan Airport, 15 minutes away by ferry, recently expanded to handle the flow of tourists.
The boom brought jobs and money, but overtaxed the island’s water and garbage disposal systems and, crucially, its sewers and storm drains.
Resort owners say the government promised a system that would treat waste and runoff, and pump it far out to sea. What they got instead, they say, was an inadequate treatment system, with many properties illegally tapped into it, that dumps wastewater just off the island’s eastern shore, at Bulabog Beach, an area famed for its wind- and kite-surfing.
Video of black water gushing out of a pipe there, while a kite surfer passed in the background, drew widespread attention this year. Duterte seized on it to begin a series of blistering verbal attacks on development on Boracay.
Saying the water “smells,” and employing other, more colorful words, Duterte ordered officials in the environment, tourism and interior departments to undertake a cleanup. So far, the government has not signaled what it will do to fix the problem, or when.
“We want the government to help us,” said Graf, who operates the Boracay Beach Resort on the western side of the island. But closing the island, she said, “is another matter altogether. We don’t want that.”
“Closure means the end of jobs,” she said, asking how local workers were “going to eat in the next six months.” She predicted that it would have ripple effects across the entire Philippine economy.
“You close us down, and we will likely not recover from it,” she added. “Tourism in Asia is very competitive.”
Boracay’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry has asked Duterte to reconsider, arguing that not all businesses are violators, and that those found to be polluting should instead be cut off from the water supply.
The proposed casino site is on the less developed, eastern side of the island, and to make way for the project, local landowners say they were forced to sell their property at below-market prices. Some of the houses there have already been torn down, and a “no trespassing” sign warns away visitors.
Many local people moved to Boracay from the country’s crowded cities to find work, including Abuloc, the restaurant worker, who arrived five years ago from Manila, the capital. He and his wife, whom he met while they both worked their way up in the tourism industry, now have a 2-year-old boy.
“Maybe I’ll move elsewhere and go work as a construction laborer,” he said.
The closing of the island, while drastic, is not the first time that a government in the region has sacrificed tourist revenue in the name of environmental protection. More than a decade ago, the Malaysian island of Sipadan, famed for its diving, was closed to tourists to allow its reefs to rehabilitate.
Jaana Laht, 44, of Estonia, who visited Boracay recently with her husband, Aadu, said she understood the logic.
“This is such a beautiful island, it’s a shame to close it down to tourists,” Laht said as she posed for pictures on White Beach. “It’s a shame, but if it is to save the environment, maybe it will be worth it in the long run.”