Hard lessons from paradise

The six-month forced closure of Boracay was a clear lesson in sustainable tourism management for the Philippines. Now, six months since its reopening, Boracay’s comeback also brings up pointed questions about what was done right and issues that remain unresolved

Boracay has reclaimed its pristine allure six months after it reopened to tourists, its cesspool tag a thing of the past as tourists rave over the island’s clear waters and clean white beaches.

Even Simon Ang, managing director – operations of Celebrate TLC, who shunned Boracay for years as it became desecrated by mass tourism, began bringing in domestic tourists to the popular island.

Large improvements have been made to Boracay

“I will start sending my international clients once the rehabilitation is completed,” Ang shared.

Road and sewerage construction are expected to complete in December. The first phase of the rehabilitation, which forced Boracay’s half-year shutdown from April 26 to October 26 last year, focussed mainly on the clean-up of waters and beaches and enforcing strict compliance with the environmental and related regulations.

Now, six months since its reopening, Boracay boasts a cleaner beachfront and waters, while illegal establishments including West Cove Resort were demolished. Accommodations with 50 rooms or more are required to have their own sewerage treatment plants (STP), while those with 49 rooms and below can use a clustered STP or separate STP. Setback regulations call for the implementation of establishments’ 25m+5m easement from the shore and 6m easement from centre of the road.

On March 20, the Boracay Inter-Agency Task Force reported that 326 hotels with combined 11,943 rooms have complied with rules and regulations, and are now able to accept bookings and reservations. They are part of the estimated 15,000 rooms in over 500 hotels and other accommodations.

With the carrying capacity for Boracay now set  at 19,215 tourists at any time, it also brings to issue the implementation of the carrying capacity given the room oversupply on the island.

Was the rehabilitation a success?
Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) research fellow Mark Francis Quimba isn’t sure if Boracay’s closure is considered a success, as evaluation is difficult without a proper study or analysis launched.

In his presentation during Rajah Travel’s Travel Talk forum last month, he said: “If you look at just pictures and anecdotal evidence, perhaps there are big improvements in how the beach looks now but we have to look deeper in terms of income of those living in the area and the types of business (allowed)”.

The costs of the six-month closure were enormous and the chain reaction long. PIDS reported that in closing Boracay, the economy lost up to 83.2 billion pesos (roughly US$1.6 billion) in business revenue and 27.9 billion pesos ($530 million) in compensation to displaced workers.

Narzalina Lim, founder of tourism and hospitality consultants Asia Pacific Projects, noted the “enormous social cost” of the shutdown, including “the displacement of many people who lost their jobs and livelihood and whose families were dislocated (children had to leave school, etc)”.

Lim, the Philippines’ tourism undersecretary for planning, policy and development for six years before becoming the tourism secretary, said she would have handled Boracay’s rehabilitation differently.

“I would have held several town hall meetings to show the local government officials, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the private sector stakeholders what went wrong with the environment and presented a phased approach to rehabilitation,” said Lim.

“A consensus should have been reached amongst all stakeholders on how the rehabilitation was going to be done and time given for people to prepare alternatives if their establishments were going to be affected by the rehabilitation”, she pointed out.

And more could be done regarding waste disposal and street flooding, Lim maintained, as the open dumpsite up the hill on the island’s north is still operating and causes groundwater contamination when it rains, while garbage barged to the mainland sometimes falls into the sea.

“This is an unsustainable system,” she remarked. Most critically, the importance of educating the people was overlooked in the rehabilitation of Boracay, insisted Lim.

“You have to rehabilitate people’s values, attitudes and outlook too to make any physical rehabilitation sustainable. As long as people are just strong-armed into following orders without understanding and appreciating why things have to be done a certain way,  they will go back to their old ways,” she remarked.

“An essential component to the rehabilitation should be an ongoing educational drive amongst school children, youth and adults on the importance of their natural resources and their role in preserving these resources,” she emphasised.

What lies ahead
Boracay faces several challenges in the short run and long term. It did not lack redevelopment plans including three master plans by the Department of Tourism, although rules and regulations were either not implemented or followed by establishments, said industry watchers.

Apart from difficulties with enforcement, allegations of corruption have also been left unaddressed, with Lim claiming misdoings involving government officials and profiteering developers and investors.

Lim did not mince words: “I am disappointed that no official from the DENR has been jailed so far. They issued environmental compliance certificates and permits to build on wetlands and forest land. Cases should have been filed against them. Instead, they were just transferred to other posts. This is a case of selective justice which does not make the political will of this administration credible.”

In spite of calls to limit the number of cruise ships that call on the island over concerns of low tourist expenditure and environmental impact, a 1,001-room mega hotel and construction of casinos were earlier approved for the island.

C9 Hotelworks managing director Bill Barnett noted: “It’s hypocrisy to say no to cruising and yes to large casino-led developments on the island which will impact environment.

“Boracay remains a mixed message as the government has said they want a sustainable approach, yet they have approved mega hotel projects. There is no yin and yang, but an absolute disconnect,” Barnett observed.

“As global population continues to grow, and now at seven billion, the reality is that Boracay like Bali, Phuket and other mainstream Asian resort destinations are feeling the impact of urbanisation and overtourism.”

Barnett said: “The Boracay of 2030 will be an urban resort and not an island getaway. How it plans for that future will be the basis of success.”

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