Following its six-month closure for a major cleanup and sweeping infrastructure upgrades, the Philippines’ most celebrated beach destination is finally back in business.
Standing early one morning on a spotless, near-empty stretch of White Beach, the fabled four-kilometer-strand running down the western coast of Boracay, I can scarcely believe that this tiny Philippine island welcomed two million tourists in 2017. Or that the shoreline here was tainted with algal blooms just six months ago.
Three days after Boracay’s much-anticipated reopening in October, I have come to see how the Philippine government’s push for sustainable tourism has changed the face of the island. New rules mandating the installation of sewage treatment plants in all beachfront hotels, and in all properties with at least 50 rooms, have paid off. “The government did a good job with the overall cleanliness, and the water quality has improved a lot,” says Peter Tay, the Singaporean general manager of Boracay Adventures Travel & Tours. “Before this, they did not have the proper infrastructure, in terms of waste management, to support the increase in tourist numbers.”
But it has been a painful process to arrive at this point. Tay is on the board of directors of the Boracay Foundation (BFI)—a non-profit stakeholders’ group led by local windsurfing champion and environmental advocate Nenette Aguirre-Graf—and he explains how BFI persistently lobbied the authorities for help to deal with the island’s wastewater woes, a result of the uncontrolled development that had taken root over the past two decades. “By 2016 and 2017 we realized that the water conditions in Bulabog were getting from bad to worse. We sent letters to the government and nothing happened. Our appeal was not heard. We were frustrated, so someone from the group made a video about the true state of Boracay.” That clip showed untreated effluent being pumped straight into the sea off Bulabog Beach, the hub of the island’s thriving water sports scene. It eventually went viral. Then in February 2018, several months after the relevant government departments finally took notice, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte infamously branded the entire island a “cesspool.”
Tay notes that the term had an immediate impact on tourist arrivals and misrepresented the bigger picture. “It’s not the whole of Boracay that was a cesspool—it was only the eastern side of the island, and that I will admit.” BFI members were then given the message that Boracay’s closure would take place if the island was not cleaned up over a coming six-month period. But contrary recommendations from government departments won out, and in the end the president ordered an immediate shutdown from April 26.
While Tay was not against the closure, he says its broad scope and sudden enforcement—with stakeholders given only three weeks’ notice—effectively sabotaged the local economy. “They could have closed the island in phases. Everything was not properly coordinated and now you see the repercussions. Many businesses had to shut down—we have had six months of no income. And anyone who comes here will see that the rehabilitation is not finished.”
Indeed, Boracay’s overhaul remains a work in progress on several fronts. The chaotic tourist verification process at Caticlan Jetty Port on neighboring Panay Island (no visitor can enter Boracay without an advance booking) represents an extra hurdle for holidaymakers as well as hotels. On my visit, I wait in constantly shifting lines for 20 minutes to complete a form, have my booking checked against a list of government-accredited lodgings, and receive a stamp on the back of my hand. It adds to an already complicated arrival experience that involves two security checks, the purchase of a ferry ticket, terminal fee, and an environmental surcharge given on different sheets of paper, plus a passenger data slip that must be filled out before boarding.
Michayla Cordero, director of communications at Shangri-La’s Boracay Resort & Spa, tells me how the property has adapted to the new measure. “We have an exclusive lounge at the port in Caticlan called Mabuhay Center,” she says. “Local government representatives are stationed there to make the verification process smoother for our guests.” Others have resorted to sending out an online version of the form, which one hotelier describes as being “more detailed than those required by immigration.”
Perhaps the biggest inconveniences, though, are the dust and traffic snarls due to the ongoing road-widening project, which isn’t due to be finished until late 2019. Plans are also afoot to make getting around the island a more pleasant and eco-friendly experience. So far, the Philippines’ departments of transportation and energy have donated 200 electric tricycles, while the Filipino division of ride-hailing giant Grab is investing US$1.9 million to provide 50 electric hop-on, hop-off buses (christened “e-jeepneys”) and build at least 20 bus shelters across the island. Come January, it is hoped that passengers will be able to pay for each ride with a card or electronic wristband.
But for now, with the roads still being widened and public transportation not quite in place, the most common way to get around is by motorized tricycles and habal-habal motorcycle taxis driven by people like Kevin Obiso, a 26-year-old who hails from the city of Kalibo farther down the coast of Panay. Obiso is one of the more than 30,000 local workers who lost their livelihoods overnight due to the shutdown. “Actually,” he says, “I’m a waiter at a restaurant in D’Mall. Then the island was closed, so I went to Manila to work, to sell street food. I came back for my job but the restaurant is still not open.”
Other workers were lucky. Global hotel chains like Shangri-La and Mövenpick had the means to offset financial losses and move staff around; Cordero says that some of her colleagues were given the opportunity to transfer to other properties in the Philippines and beyond. And at Subo Boracay, a nostalgic Filipino restaurant running a limited menu at the time of my visit, a waitress who introduces herself as Rosalie tells me she retained her job even as the tourists vanished. Thankfully, business has swiftly picked up since the island’s reopening. “Last night we were so busy,” she says. “We had Chinese, Koreans, people from Manila… every table was full.”
It’s a similar story at Discovery Shores Boracay, a five-star resort on the northern end of White Beach that was booked out on reopening day. Hotel manager Erwin Lopez says that despite the island’s runaway development since his arrival in 2007, “its vibe has never changed. Boracay has always been a fun place where people come to party and relax.”
And yet, it is precisely the local predilection for wild outdoor parties—especially the annual Labor Day extravaganza dubbed “Laboracay”—that the authorities seem keen to stamp out. Smoking and alcohol are now banned on the beach, as are the famous fire dancers, who must now perform with LEDs. “It won’t really be a party place anymore,” Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat said in an interview with the ABS-CBN News Channel. “We want it to be as it is, more peaceful, and we want to promote sustainable tourism.” To that end, Boracay’s gambling venues were closed down, and the authorities shelved plans for a US$500 million casino-resort development.
Then there’s the beachfront “25+5 meter rule,” which dictates a no-build zone stretching 25 meters inland from the high-tide mark with an added five-meter buffer. Oddly, the regulation applies not just to permanent structures, but also to portable furniture including umbrellas, tables, and sun loungers—a measure that hoteliers like Lopez are not entirely happy with. “The government also has to think about guest comfort. How can we offer a world-class experience—and I mean the beach in general—if we have to tell people, ‘Sorry, here’s a towel to put on the sand’ and let them roast in the sun?” he says half-jokingly. “Beach beds and sun loungers are something we must have.”
Nor is he convinced about the prohibition of unauthorized sand sculptures or the blanket ban on beach fireworks after 9 p.m., which would put a damper on New Year’s Eve celebrations. Lopez stresses that the new rules aren’t set in stone. “I think what they are doing now is testing things out and seeing what works and what doesn’t. My hope is that as time goes by, the government will relax some of those regulations.”
Over on Bulabog Beach, the much-needed cleanup has been a major success, with Aguirre-Graf declaring on social media that she’d “never seen it so pristine since the ’90s.” That has come hand-in-hand with improved accessibility: a new stretch of the coast road sports smooth concrete surfaces, terracotta-paved sidewalks, and a Grab bus shelter above the beach. But that progress has been a blow to the area’s long-established kitesurfing schools and beachside lodgings. Opposite the bus shelter, all that remains of Hangin Kite Center & Resort is a small, two-storied structure where builders are laying down new cement floors.
“The government didn’t give us or the landlord any compensation,” explains its German-born manager Stefan Hund. “We have to pay for everything out of our own pockets. Now we have some more land at the back of the lot from the landlord, but that’s it.” Hund adds that if any school wants to teach kitesurfing, they will need a certification. “Some will not yet have it—first they need to be demolished to follow the 25+5 meter rule. Because of the new road, our school is already 30 meters from the water, so that’s why we can operate.”
How Boracay maintains a happy medium between reaping the economic benefits of tourism and safeguarding its natural beauty will be a lesson for other Southeast Asian destinations. To Tay, it boils down to the question of access via the airports at nearby Caticlan and Kalibo. “It’s very simple. The government should just work closely with the airlines to plan and limit the number of flights.”
As for the stated capacity of 6,400 daily tourist arrivals, a number previously surpassed over the three busiest months of the year (with April reaching an average of 8,300), Tay is nonchalant. “If you multiply 6,000 by 365 days, you’re still going to get more than two million. What I am more concerned about is if they are going to go after mass tourism—backpackers who come and just lie on the beach, not spending anything. I would rather they concentrate on those who contribute to the island’s economy by booking with local operators and spending more.
I will be happier with that kind of tourist.”
Where to Stay
What to Do
Boracay Adventures Travel & Tours can arrange activities such as island-hopping tours, helicopter flights, and paraw sailboat cruises.
This article originally appeared in the December 2018/January 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Boracay Reborn”).