When someone mentions BORACAY, what comes to your mind? Powdery white sand beach, swimming with your family and friends in the clear waters, partying at Station 21, picture-taking at Willy’s Rock2, having a massage at the beach front, getting a tattoo, enjoying a beautiful sunset with beer/cocktails among family/friends along the beach, savoring Jonah’s3 fruitshakes, indulging in Halomango4 treats, shopping at D’Mall5?
Personally, I think it is a combination of all of the above, and then some. This prompted me to revisit Boracay on November 2017, 5 months before it was closed. Sad to say, I was so unsatisfied: with the traffic and easy flooding of the narrow main street due to clogged waterways, even with just a brief rainy spell; maneuvering my way through lots of persistent peddlers, massage stations, and tattoo artists along the beach; and, with the endless number of people almost everywhere we went. Garbage disposal and contaminated water remained serious problems, among others. I just wanted a quiet and peaceful island getaway with loved ones. Is that too much to ask?
But Boracay was like a magnet to local and foreign tourists! I cannot blame them! It was ranked second out of 25 beaches in Asia and the 24th in the world in TripAdvisor’s 2018 Travellers’ Choice Awards. It was also named the best island resort by Conde Nast in 2016.6
There were 3.72 million people who went to Boracay in 2017, according to the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines.7 The Region VI – Western Visayas Regional Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council showed that the number of tourists in the island in a day was 18,082, and the tourist arrival increased by more than 160% from 2012-2017.8
So, why was it closed for six months, i.e., from April 26 till October 25, 2018? It is the first time ever in the history of Philippine tourism that an island was closed for rehabilitation!
What really happened? Here is a chronology, somehow, with information which I gathered from various sources:
There were news and exposés in the past involving garbage, sanitation and zoning issues in the island but they all did not last long. Waters along the beaches have experienced algal bloom which environmentalists and some long-time residents claim to be an indicator of pollution and deteriorating water conditions. The local government of Malay (the municipality where Boracay belongs to) and some Malay business operators and residents, on the other hand, insisted that the algal bloom is a natural seasonal phenomenon that usually happens annually in the summer, that it occurred in Boracay even before the island became developed, and said that two major Philippine television networks used photos of algal bloom in the island to “sensationalize” the natural algal phenomenon.
President Duterte called the island a “cesspool” in a business forum held in February 9, 2018, before all executive agencies. Following President Rodrigo Duterte’s comment on the situation in Boracay, the local government of Malay issued a statement in February 19, 2018 accepting the remarks of the president as “constructive criticism” and acknowledged the environmental issues affecting the island. It pointed out that the municipal government entered into a partnership with an architectural firm, Palafox Associates, to formulate a tourism municipal master plan which will involve decongesting Boracay and will implement building regulations in the island.
There were repeated calls for a partial closure of Boracay instead of a total closure. 1-Pacman party-list, a Philippine political party-list advocating for the marginalized and displaced sector of the country, proposed the closure of areas identified as medium to high risk, based primarily on environmental and sanitary standards, but with low risk areas still being able to operate, while the rest of the island will be rehabilitated.
However, it was just a matter of time for the government to temporarily close the beautiful island of Boracay not only because the President himself call the island a “cesspool” but also because a government study revealed that Boracay will be a “dead island” in less than a decade if it will not be rehabilitated soonest.6 These prompted the various government agencies to get their act together – FINALLY!
Most of the information in this section was obtained from the Wikipedia page, “2018 Boracay closure and redevelopment”.9
Eventually, three government departments recommended the island’s closure – the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the Department of Tourism (DoT), and the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), based on the following findings/validation8:
1.There was a high concentration of fecal coliform in the Bulabog beaches located in the eastern side of Boracay Island due to insufficient sewer lines and illegal discharge of untreated waste water into the beach, with daily tests conducted from March 6-10, 2018, revealing consistent failure in compliance with acceptable water standards, with an average result of 18,000 most probable number (MPN)/100 ml, exceeding the standard level of 400 MPN/100ml. Furthermore, the increase in coliform bacteria level (which is indicative of fecal contamination and can cause diarrhea) and longer episodes of algal bloom definitely affected the quality of water for tourists to swim.6
2. Most commercial establishments and residences were not connected to the sewerage infrastructure of the island, and waste products were not being disposed through the proper sewerage infrastructures in violation of environmental laws, rules, and regulations. Excavation revealed that sewage was directly dumped into the sea by at least 300 hotels, resorts, and inns that ignored an ordinance requiring them to build their own sewage and wastewater treatment facilities.6 Waste was dumped into canals meant only for rainwater and surface overflow, or worse, into installed pipes that led directly to the sea. Renovation work in the sewerage system was badly needed.
Boracay Island Water Co., a unit of Ayala-led Manila Water Co. Inc., operates the sewerage network of Boracay which accommodates only 61% of the island. It has two central sewerage plants with a total capacity of only 11.5 million liters/day, one in Barangay Balabag and another in Barangay Manoc-Manoc.16 Alas, only 58% of the treatment plant’s capacity has been utilized since many establishments were not connected to the sewerage systems.
3. Only 14, out of 51 establishments, near the shores of the island were compliant with the provisions of Republic Act (RA) No. 9275, or the Philippine Clean Water Act of 2004. Dirty water resulted in the degradation of the coral reefs and coral cover of the island, which declined by approximately 70.5% from 1988 to 2011, with the highest decrease taking place between 2008 and 2011 during a period of increased tourist arrivals.
4. The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) revealed that:
a. beach erosion was prevalent in the island, particularly along the west beach, where much of the 40 meters of erosion took place in the past 20 years from 1993-2003 (due to storms and extraction of sand along the beach to construct properties and structures along the foreshore), and where discharge of waste water near the shore caused degradation of coral reefs and sea grass meadows that supply the beach with sediments and serve as buffer to wave action;
b. based on the 2010-2015 Coastal Ecosystem Conservation and Adaptive Management Study of the Japan Cooperation Agency, direct discharge of waste water near the shore resulted in frequent algal bloom and coral deterioration, which reduced the source of sand and caused erosion.
5. Solid waste within the island was at a generation rate of 90-115 tons per day, while the hauling capacity of the local government was only 30 tons per day, thus, approximately 85 tons of waste were left in the island daily.
6. Only four, out of nine, wetlands in the island remained due to the illegal encroachment of structures, including 937 identified illegal structures constructed on forestlands and wetlands, 102 illegal structures constructed on areas already classified as easements, and the disappearance of the wetlands, which act as natural catchments, enhanced flooding in the area.
Four of the missing wetlands were said to have been occupied by a shopping mall, a hotel, and around 100 illegal settlers.6
(So this is the reason why, during my November 2017 visit, the roads easily flooded even with light and short rains. I hope they recover and rehabilitate the 5 missing wetlands!)
7. There were problems regarding zoning, construction and environmental regulations. There were encroachments in the beach land, including the easement of 25+5 meters from the shore. Buildings were constructed too close to the shore, on top of the water, and the forest trees and terrain were leveled off to give way to new buildings. Authorities found almost a thousand illegal structures.6 Structures were built in no-build zones, like in West Cove, near the mountain.11 The government already issued notices to a hundred establishments.12
(I was relieved to see on television that some establishments self-demolished illegal structures even before the closure date.)
8. There was overcrowding, i.e., the number of people in the island was beyond the carrying capacity of the island, i.e., 3.7 million visitors in 2017 with 36,000 residents.
(Definitely, there should be a cap on the number of daily visitors to the island! See related posts: Short and Simple: WHAT IS THE TOURIST CARRYING CAPACITY FOR BORACAY’S 2018 RE-OPENING?
9. The continuous rise of tourist arrivals, the insufficient sewer and waste management system, pollution from boats, and environmental violations of establishments aggravated the environmental degradation and destroyed the very fragile ecological balance of the island, resulting in major damage to property and natural resources, as well as the disruption of the normal way of life of the people therein.
The natural habitats of Puka shells, nesting grounds of marine turtles, and roosting grounds of flying foxes, or fruit bats, were damaged and/or destroyed.
It is necessary to implement urgent measures to address the aforementioned human-induced hazards, to protect and promote the health and well-being of its residents, workers and tourists, and to rehabilitate the island in order to ensure the sustainability of the area and prevent further degradation of its rich ecosystem.
10. There was no master plan for sustainable eco-friendly tourism for Boracay.
11. The island is classified into 377.68 hectares of reserved forest land for protection purposes and 628.96 hectares of agricultural land as alienable and disposable land, according to Proclamation No. 1064 (s. 2006).
(So, why were there structures on such classified lands? Who approved their construction?)
12. The Environmental Management Bureau-Western Visayas (EMB 6) issued a total of 478 notices of violation to establishments in the island for violating environmental laws; 157 were already endorsed to the Pollution Adjudication Board (PAB) and 35 have been slapped with penalties ranging from PHP60,000 to 80,000.13
13. Boracay’s degradation was blamed on the failure of the local government to enforce ordinances on marine conservation, garbage and sanitation, and zoning and construction, among others.6
All these revealed obvious corruption of local government entities so the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) needs to investigate appropriate local officials.
RESULT: A PRESIDENTIAL DECREE TO CLOSE BORACAY AND THE DECLARATION OF A STATE OF CALAMITY TO FAST-TRACT REHABILITATION
Pursuant to the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010 (R.A. No. 10121), the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council recommended the declaration of a State of Calamity in the island and its temporary closure as a tourist destination to ensure public safety and public health, and to assist the government in its expeditious rehabilitation, as well as address the evolving socio-economic needs of affected communities.14
On April 4, 2018, the Philippine government announced that Boracay would be closed for 6 months, starting April 26, with checkpoints manned by police officers and soldiers to be set up at piers to turn away visitors from the island and passes would be given to local residents.
Subsequently, on April 26, 2018, the President signed Proclamation No. 475 declaring a state of calamity in the barangays of Balabag, Manoc-Manoc and Yapak (Island of Boracay) in the municipality of Malay, province of Aklan, and the temporary closure of Boracay as a tourist destination to protect the health of the people, promote a healthy ecology, and take care of the nation’s marine wealth. It formalized the six-moth closure of the island to arrest the “human-induced hazards”, to protect and promote the health and well-being of its residents, workers, and tourists, massive cleanup, to fast track its rehabilitation in order to ensure the sustainability of the area, and to prevent further degradation of its rich ecosystem. A state of calamity in three barangays of Boracay (Balabag, Manoc-Manoc, and Yapak) was declared, notwithstanding the lapse of the six-month closure period.7 An estimated PHP1.9 billion will be spent for the 6 month-closure.11
Thereafter, Republic Act 9275 took effect, which required the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to act on problems of pollution and water quality, as well as the formation of the inter-agency task force to reveal problems and violations against environmental and health laws. Specifically, the DENR, through RA No. 9275:8
- shall designate water bodies, or portions thereof, where specific pollutants from either natural or man-made source have already exceeded water quality guidelines as non-attainment areas for the exceeded pollutants and shall prepare and implement a program that will not allow new sources of exceeded water pollutant in non-attainment areas without a corresponding reduction in discharges from existing sources; and,
- is mandated to coordinate with other concerned agencies and the private sectors, to take such measures as may be necessary to upgrade the quality of such waters in non-attainment areas to meet the standards under which it has been classified, and the local government units to prepare and implement contingency plans and other measures including relocation, whenever necessary, for the protection of the health and welfare of the residents within potentially affected areas.
In June 27, 2018, the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) filed a complaint against 17 executive officials, including Aklan Governor Florencio Miraflores and Malay Municipal Mayor Ciceron Cawaling on neglect over Boracay. The officials were alleged to have been lax in issuing building permits and to have failed to sufficiently handle illegal development activities on the island.
There are plans for the construction of a third sewerage plant in Barangay Yapak with a capacity of 5 million liters/day. This addition will allow more establishments in the Balabag area to connect to the sewer system.
Despite Boracay’s soft opening to tourism on October 26, 2018, rehabilitation works will continue on the island with its first phase to complete within October 2018. The second phase of rehabilitation is projected to last until mid-2019, and the third phase until the end of 2019.
The Department of Tourism (DoT) will prohibit smoking and drinking of alcohol in public places and the beaches of Boracay, though these activities would be allowed in designated areas, in an effort to reduce cigarette butts and shards from broken alcohol bottles in beaches. Large scale parties, such as “Laboracay”, which draws 60,000-70,000 tourists in 3 days, would no longer be allowed in the island.
Most of the information in this section were obtained from the Wikipedia page, “2018 Boracay closure and redevelopment”.9
THE BITTER PILL: THE DISADVANTAGES OF CLOSING BORACAY
The disadvantages of closing Boracay were:
1. Job loss for 36,000 employees – 19,000 in the formal sector (hotels, resorts, restaurants, dive shops, souvenir shops, tour activity centers, transport providers, etc.) and 17,000 in the informal sector (massage therapists, tattoo artists, vendors in the beach, etc.).7 Imagine, seven out of ten workers in Western Visayas are in Boracay!6
2. Loss of PHP56 billion tourism revenue, or about 20% of the country’s total tourism receipts7,9– There were 3.72 million people who went to Boracay in 2017, according to the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines.7
The government projected that there will be about PHP18-20 billion loss of potential gross receipts as a result of the 6 month-closure of Boracay. Tourist stakeholders in the island projected a loss of PHP30 billion as they estimated that 700,000 bookings by foreign tourists were cancelled in anticipation of the closure, according to the Wikipedia page, “2018 Boracay closure and redevelopment”.9
Airlines going to Boracay have cancelled flights, advised their passengers to rebook, or reroute affected flights, and anticipate losses for the next six months.6 These airlines mounted additional flights to other island destinations.
Almost 2,000 businesses in Boracay were definitely affected as well. Eleven hotels have stated that their combined losses can run up to PHP550 million a year.6
3. The island’s closure will also hit the economy of Aklan province since the large amount of produce and meat products brought to Boracay island usually come from the mainland.16
4. The government’s economic planners said the six-month closure will barely have an impact on tourism-driven growth.6 The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) claims that the revenues from Boracay account for 0.1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP)1to6 so it is estimated that the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will decline by PHP1.96 billion.11
5. The closure of the island was indeed bad publicity for the Philippines. The Department of Tourism (DoT) ceased marketing Boracay and instead promoted alternative destinations in Western Visayas.6
The DoT needed to fast-track efforts to market alternative tourist destinations immediately after the announcement of the island’s closure. It also needed to have an aggressive marketing strategy when the island re-opens.
This is a challenge for DoT’s new Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat who assumed office on May 2018.
SO, WHAT HAPPENED IN BORACAY FROM APRIL 26 TILL OCTOBER 26, 2018?16
1. The island was totally closed for tourists. No tourists, whether domestic or foreign, were allowed to enter the island. They were stopped at the jetty port on Malay.
2. Residents, workers, and owners of commercial establishments were allowed entry to the island, subject to the presentation of identification cards with specific addresses in any of the three barangays affected by the closure.
3. All government-issued IDs were acceptable as long as they were accompanied with a barangay certification of residence.
4. Cavan Port was the only entry and exit point.11
5. No visitors of Boracay residents were allowed entry, except under emergency situations with the proper clearance of the Boracay Security Committee composed of representatives from the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), Philippine National Police (PNP), and the local government unit.
6. Foreign residents were revalidated by the Bureau of Immigration, and media were allowed entry, subject to prior approval from the Department of Tourism (DoT), with a definite duration and limited movement.
7. Swimming was not allowed anywhere in the island. However, residents were allowed to swim only at Angol Beach in Station 321, from 6am till 5 pm.
8. No floating structures were allowed up to 15 kilometers from the shoreline, including boats and personal water crafts (jet skis).11
9. Priority projects were building drainage, sewerage lines and water treatment facilities which could handle up to 115 tons of waste a day, 30 tons of which should be taken off the island. It was revealed that only 47% of the almost 2,000 commercial establishments in Boracay were connected to existing sewerage lines.
10. The State of Calamity fast tracked the island’s 6-month rehabilitation project – the demolition of illegal structures, proper waste disposal, widening of roads, reaccreditation of business establishments and strict implementation of sewerage treatment plants (STPs), pinpointing wetlands and their preservation, ensuring clean water to swim at the safe level of 400 MPN (most probable number) per 100 ml (milliliters)13, finding solutions for hauling garbage from the island and possible recycling strategies, etc.
11. The local government, and/or designated entity/entities were created and, henceforth, strictly enforced ordinances on marine conservation, garbage and sanitation, zoning and construction, climate change, sustainable tourism and sustainable transportation.
12. Two billion pesos in “calamity funds” was targeted to help displaced workers. Government agencies, like the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), set-up measures/programs to aid displaced workers for six months.
According to DOLE, the Tulong Pangkabuhayan program was launched and provided the jobless 36,000 displaced employees with some financial assistance. The members of the 19,000 formal sector were given PHP24,000 for 6 months or PHP4,200 a month, while the members of the 17,000 informal sector were given PHP9,500 per month under a cash-for-work program.11
OTHER CONCERNS OF BORACAY ISLAND THAT NEED TO BE ADDRESSED ASAP:
1. GAMING IN BORACAY– GO OR NO GO? It was announced that AB Leisure Global Incorporated, a subsidiary of Leisure & Resorts World, formally applied for a license to operate a casino in Boracay as early as 2017. Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR)15, then signed an agreement with Galaxy Entertainment, a Macao-based casino operator, in partnership with Leisure & Resorts World Corporation, for a beachfront casino to be built on the island of Boracay, and was given a provisional gaming license, six days before President Duterte ordered the closure of the island.11
However, the President was quoted to say: “I will not allow gambling, I will not even give it to big business.”11
I saw in a television news program Malacañang’s announcement: “No casinos in Boracay, period.” Let us see if this project will push through or not.
2. BORACAY IS STATE-OWNED! Yes, dear Seniors! Pursuant to the Regalian Doctrine, and as emphasized in recent jurisprudence, all lands not privately owned belong to the State.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo signed Presidential Proclamation No. 1064 in 2006 which classified Boracay Island as a “forestland and agricultural land”.15 President Rodrigo Duterte said that the island has never been open to any “commercial exploitation” and remains as a “forestland and agricultural land”. No president has declared the island as a commercial area. Thus, a committee to facilitate the land distribution in Boracay, after the rehabilitation of the island, will be created. Definitely, ownership issues will arise once the government is done with its clean-up of the island.11 But President Duterte vowed to bring Boracay back to its original inhabitants.16
So, the entire island of Boracay is state-owned, except for lands already covered by existing valid titles.8 Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque announced that the Supreme Court has ruled that Boracay is state-owned on a 2008 ruling.11 President Duterte stressed that Boracay belongs to the Filipino people and he will be ready to declare the island as a land reform area once rehabilitated. He also warned businesses in Boracay not to derail efforts to rehabilitate the island. However, he said he would leave it to Congress to determine whether the island would be reclassified for commercial use, but wants Congress to restore Boracay “as a jewel of a destination for tourism”, restore its original beauty, and allow only a strip of commercial area.17
3. ANCESTRAL LAND – President Duterte also added that he would allow ancestral land occupants to benefit from the island.11
The government, in June 2018, announced that it will develop the Ati people’s 2 hectare (4.9 acres) ancestral land in Boracay into an agri-tourism area in an effort to integrate the Ati in the island’s tourism industry. The development will be part of the Department of Agriculture’s Kabuhayan at Kaunlaran ng Kababayang Katutubo (lit. Livelihood and Progress of Filipino Indigenous Peoples; 4Ks) program which was conceptualized by the department’s secretary Emmanuel Piñol. A greenhouse will be set up for vegetable cultivation and a goat farm for the production of milk. An organic restaurant, serving Ati cuisine, and a hostel, will also be set-up along the beach area to be run by members of the Ati people, according to the Wikipedia page, “2018 Boracay closure and redevelopment”.9
“Cleaning Boracay is a ‘moral obligation’ because the island is deemed the ‘crown jewel’ of Philippine tourist destinations.” – President Rodrigo Duterte.11
“Tourism is important, but we need to preserve these spaces for our future generations, for future livelihoods.” –ThonThamrongnawasawat, a marine expert in Bangkok.18
The Boracay closure is a bitter pill for all stakeholders, even for just 6 months, but it is the only way for nature to heal somehow. This, however, does not mean that healing is complete, so rehabilitation will definitely be an on-going and sustainable effort!
This is a wake-up call to other island-destinations in the Philippines. Better get your act together since the government will definitely go, visit, inspect, and check on the status of your destinations! It is just a matter of time.
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1Station 2 is the central part of White Beach19 in the island of Boracay. The water is less shallow than Station120. It offers an active night life (bars and clubs that may offer live music), mid-range priced accommodations, and is known as the shopping area of the island, what with D’Mall5 and D’Talipapa (an area which offers local souvenir items, plusa seafood wet market with nearby restaurants to cook your picks).
2Willy’s Rock is a natural volcanic rock formation along Station 120 of Boracay which is considered an iconic landmark of the island and is popular especially among Catholic tourists since it has a statue of the Virgin Mary carved from the rock several steps up. Its name comes from nearby Willy’s Beach Club Hotel.
Senior tourists, the steps might be slippery so be sure of your footing and wear non-slip footwear. Expect it to be crowded during peak season with non-stop picture taking all around.
3Jonah’s Fruit Shake is a popular beachfront snack house in Barangay Balabag, Boracay, for more than 2 decades, and offers, among others, rich and refreshing fruit shakes. It is dubbed as “The Best Fruit Shake in the Island”.
4Halomango is an ice cream and halo-halo house in D’Mall5, Balabag, Boracay, open from 9 am till 12 am. Good news, loyal customers, they just opened a branch in Panglao, Bohol.22
5D’Mall is the original open-air shopping area located in Station 21,Boracay, which offers various shops and restaurants.
9”2018 Boracay closure and redevelopment,” accessed September 8, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boracay_closure_and_redevelopment
10”Boracay,” accessed August 8, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boracay
15The Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR) is the government- owned/controlled corporation mandated to generate revenues for the government’s socio-civic programs, to operate and regulate games of chance in the country, and to help boost the tourism industry, according to the Wikipedia page “Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation”.23
19The White Beachof Boracay refers to the main, biggest, and most popular beach area of island. It is divided into Stations 1, 2 and 3.19, 1, 20
20Station 1 is the north end of White Beach19 of Boracay which is where the luxurious resorts are located. This station’s beach front is wider, the sand seems whiter, and the water is shallower, compared to the two other stations. It is a quiet station at night, although it has clubs within walking distance. Willy’s Rock2, a natural rock formation and an iconic Boracay landmark, is located in this station. The sand castle designed with “Boracay” and the current date, where one can pose for a picture, for a fee, is also found along the shore in this station. City Mall Boracay, which opened on February 25, 201716, is likewise located here.
21Station 3, located at the opposite end of Station 120 of Boracay’s White Beach19, is known to offer budget accommodations, but also features boutique and other secluded/high-end accommodations. The water here becomes suddenly deep. It is a quiet station, compared to the first 2 stations, although it offers some bars and clubs too.
23 “Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation”, accessed September 8, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philippine_Amusement_and_Gaming_Corporation