Boracay: The Philippines has opened the doors to a spruced up and newly regulated Boracay, its famous holiday island that was shuttered to mend decades of harm caused by unchecked tourism.
The white sand idyll was closed to visitors in April after President Rodrigo Duterte called it a “cesspool” tainted by raw sewage flowing from hotels and restaurants straight into the sea.
But the re-christened resort has a slew of new rules that restrict boozing on the beach and limit the number of tourists and hotels, all while a renovation spree is ongoing.
Years of overdevelopment on the tiny island – along with some two million tourists per year – had left it soiled, crowded and pushed to its limits.
“Even if there are many renovations and it’s not yet perfect, when you go to the beach you realise that closing it for six months was worth it,” said 30-year-old tourist Roan Tadle from Manila.
Under the new regime, the beachfront is cleared of the masseuses, vendors, bonfires and even the builders of its famous photo-op sandcastles it was once crowded with.
Buildings were bulldozed and businesses pushed back to create a 30m buffer zone from the waterline.
All water sports save for swimming are also banned for the time being, while Boracay’s three casinos have been permanently shut down in line with Duterte’s wishes.
Boracay, which major tourist magazines consistently rate as among the world’s best beaches, measures a mere 1,000ha.
Yet it was seeing up to 40,000 sun worshippers at peak times, with tourists spending US$1bil (RM4.1bil) a year but also leaving mountains of garbage and an overflowing sewer system.
The new rules say only 19,200 tourists will be allowed on the island at any one time, with the government aiming to enforce that by controlling the number of available hotel rooms.
Nearly 400 hotels and restaurants deemed to violate local environmental laws have already been ordered closed, and airlines as well as ferries were told to restrict service to the area.
Drinking and smoking are banned on the beach and the huge multi-day beach parties dubbed LaBoracay, which drew tens of thousands of tourists during the May 1 Labour Day weekend, will be a thing of the past.
Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat expressed her hope last week that the new Boracay would be the start of a “culture of sustainable tourism” in the Philippines, adding that other tourist destinations would be next.
The Boracay Foundation, the main business industry group on the island, has not commented on the restrictions but welcomed the return of tourists.
“Everyone, big and small, has sacrificed a lot during the six-month (closure),” its executive director Pia Miraflores said.
Tens of thousands of workers were left unemployed when the island’s tourism machine was deprived of visitors.
“Life will go back to normal. We will have money and work again,” said Jorge Flores, a 45-year-old hotel worker.
“In the past six months, hotels here were like ... a ghost town.”
Other places in the region strained by mass tourism have also used closures as a tactic to protect the sites from destruction.
Thai authorities announced earlier this month that the glittering bay immortalised in the movie The Beach would be closed indefinitely to allow it to recover from the impact of hordes of tourists. — AFP
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