Closure of Top Philippine Resort Island Would Shake up Business to Cut Pollution

The possible closure of a major coastal tourism magnet in the Philippines for environmental cleanup will hurt business, but for a cause that helps everyone longer term, experts say.

President Rodrigo Duterte said via the presidential website in March he would place Boracay Island under a “state of calamity.” The island may be shut down for two to 12 months, Philippine media reports say, citing other statements from Duterte and cabinet members.

The government is “addressing wastewater issues through an improved sewerage system,” the country’s environment minister Roy Cimatu said in a March 27 statement.

Boracay, a 10.3-square-kilometer feature in the central Philippines, has been compared to Bali and other Asian beach resort hot spots. Its main white sand beach runs four kilometers, paralleled by a strip of at least 100 hotels.

“The Philippines has been very aggressive in its campaign to attract tourists… and Boracay is actually the No. 1 selling point of the tourism business in the Philippines,” said Maria Ela Atienza, political science professor at University of the Philippines Diliman.

“So it will really be a big blow to the tourism industry and we don’t know what will happen to these industries depending on Boracay, if they will continue if they can return to operation,” Atienza said.

Fear of closure

Government agencies have not finalized any closure of Boracay Island but dropped enough hints to prompt flight and hotel cancellations, analysts and operators report. Domestic media say arrivals in March were normal but expected a fall for this month.

Tourists who read “negative news” about Boracay are cancelling mid-year reservations, said a manager with Boracay Pito Huts, a 10-year-old group of villas for tourist groups on the island. Villa staff people may be asked to “take a vacation” if bookings don’t pick up, she said.

“As a preparation, of course we have to tighten our belts,” said the manager, who did not want to be named. “We are in the toilet. For June bookings or June tourists it’s nothing. That’s how we got affected.”

The Boracay Foundation, a business association with an environmental focus, declined comment for this report. A Department of Tourism representative said her office could make no statements on the possible closure.

Suspension of business would hurt a network of common Filipinos who sell souvenirs, prepare meals or drive tourists around the island, Atienza added.

Boracay generated $1.076 billion in tourism receipts last year, the local provincial tourism office said, as cited by the Philippine Information Agency, an increase of about 15 percent over 2016. Tourism was 8.6 percent of the Philippine GDP in 2016.

People and waste

Boracay has an ideal capacity of about half a million tourists per year, compared to its 2017 total of 2 million, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources said in an online video. More than 300,000 tourists reached the island in January and February this year, it said.

Travelers often visit Boracay during the northern hemisphere winter to escape the cold in spots such as China, Russia and South Korea.

The island should review its “carrying capacity,” said Alicia Lustica, a coastal ecosystems cluster head with a department research Center. “We need also to assist also the volume of waste that has been generated and likewise how people are doing their activities on Boracay Island,” Lustica said in the video.

Sewage became an issue because some resorts treat their own inadequately or dump it into the sea, the domestic news website said in January. It cites overbuilding and inadequate infrastructure as additional problems for Boracay.

The nongovernmental organization Global Coral Reef Alliance said more than 10 years ago sewage “from uncontrolled development” was hurting Boracay’s coral and fisheries.

The environment ministry also plans to do a “massive replanting” of trees on Boracay, the minister said in the March 27 statement.

Boracay renewal

A temporary closure would let Boracay clean itself up to become better for tourists, said Jonathan Ravelas, chief market strategist with Banco de Oro UniBank in Metro Manila.

“It’s going to hurt us, but I think moving forward we will probably see a lot of pent-up demand for Boracay — just like in any business a temporary renovation — and I think that’s how you should probably see what’s happening in Boracay,” he said.

Travelers would rather see a cleaner island, he added. Today Boracay-bound tourists must pay an environmental impact fee at a boat pier before stepping onto the island.

A cleaner Boracay would motivate other Philippine beach resort areas to protect their environments before they too face shutdown, Ravelas said. “You need the one example, and everybody will follow,” he said.

Duterte called Boracay a “cesspool” and ordered his government to fix problems in six months, the presidential office website says. The state of calamity, Duterte said, would let the government offer aid to people facing business losses.

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