Fol­low­ing its six-month clo­sure for a ma­jor cleanup, the Philip­pines’ most cel­e­brated beach des­ti­na­tion is fi­nally back in busi­ness.

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 six­month 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 rep-

Over on Bu­la­bog Beach, the much­needed cleanup has been a ma­jor suc­cess, with Aguirre-Graf declar­ing that she had “never seen it so pris­tine since the ’90s.”

re­sen­ta­tives 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 road­widen­ing 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 “ejeep­neys”) 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 fiveme­ter 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 handin-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.”

Pho­to­graphs by James Louie Head­ing out for a dip on White Beach, the stretch of pow­derfine sand that made Bo­ra­cay fa­mous.

Above: In­side Ital­ian restau­rant Forno Os­te­ria, part of a brand-new all­suite wing at Dis­cov­ery Shores Bo­ra­cay.

Below: An elec­tric tri­cy­cle ply­ing the road to Bu­la­bog Beach. Op­po­site, from left: En­joy­ing an early morn­ing stroll on the sands of Bu­la­bog; a life­guard on duty at White Beach.

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