PAR­ADISE RE­OPENS

THE PHILIP­PINES HAS FI­NALLY OPENED BO­RA­CAY IS­LAND TO TOURISTS AF­TER SIX MONTHS OF CLEAN­ING UP. SO WHY ISN’T EV­ERY­ONE HAPPY?

The Nation - - INSIGHT - SHIBANI MAHTANI, KAELA MALIG

HO­TEL OWNER Leonard Tirol, 63, had watched his na­tive is­land of Bo­ra­cay pros­per from tourism, but also pay a price as crowds and un­fet­tered devel­op­ment soiled their slice of par­adise.

So he al­most could not be­lieve it when he heard that sea tur­tles – and even a baby shark – had re­turned this past month to wa­ters close to the pow­dery white-sand shores.

“It is like the sea has be­come alive again,” Tirol said.

That is what gov­ern­ment plan­ners in the Philip­pines had hoped for. They are in the midst of an un­prece­dented over­haul of the is­land – cart­ing away tonnes of rub­bish and up­grad­ing old sewage and drainage sys­tems – that closed one of the world’s most famed beach des­ti­na­tions for six months.

The bold move has won some praise for Philip­pine Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte, more known for killings of sus­pected drug deal­ers than as a cham­pion of the en­vi­ron­ment.

But ex­perts won­der if the clo­sure – which put 17,000 jobs on six-month fur­lough and cost an es­ti­mated US$1 bil­lion (Bt32.8 bil­lion) in lost tourism rev­enue – has been any­thing more than a feel-good stop­gap in a place that was packed with more than 2 mil­lion tourists last year.

Since it was re­opened late Oc­to­ber, trav­ellers have started to re­turn to the palm-fringed is­land, just three times the size of Man­hat­tan’s Cen­tral Park, in the cen­tre of the Philip­pines ar­chi­pel­ago.

But the re­turn of ve­hi­cles and tour vans has com­pli­cated ef­forts to fin­ish a new drainage and road net­work.

Mean­while, busi­nesses have lost mil­lions and com­plain about some of the new re­stric­tions, par­tic­u­larly on clubs and bars, im­posed as Bo­ra­cay tries to exchange its party-is­land rep­u­ta­tion for some­thing qui­eter and more eco-friendly. Some have sim­ply packed up and left for other tourism hot spots across the coun­try, mov­ing the tourist strain to other small is­lands.

Bo­ra­cay, ex­perts pre­dict, will be­come a test-case in whether in­creas­ingly crowded get­aways across the world, from Mal­lorca in Spain to Thai­land’s Sim­i­lan Is­lands, can re­cover from decades of over-tourism and en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age.

The is­sue is in­creas­ingly ur­gent as tourism grows world­wide, fu­elled in part by ris­ing in­comes in places such as China.

“The ques­tion for gov­ern­ments is how do you de­cide when to re­open these places? And when you re­open them, do you have sys­tems in place to make sure the re­cov­ery con­tin­ues?” asked Su­sanne Becken, direc­tor of the Aus­tralian Grif­fith In­sti­tute of Tourism and an ex­pert on sus­tain­able tourism.

“If those sys­tems are not in place, it will go back to what it was be­fore,” she added.

The push to turn Bo­ra­cay around, of­fi­cials say, was launched when Duterte saw videos of un­treated waste and sewage be­ing dumped into the open wa­ter. He in­sisted on seal­ing the is­land off to­tally, de­cry­ing it as a “cesspool”, ac­cord­ing to the ac­counts.

“He did it. No­body com­pre­hended that it could be done,” said Jonas Leones, the un­der­sec­re­tary for pol­icy and plan­ning at the Philip­pine Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­ment and Nat­u­ral Re­sources. “But be­cause of the pres­i­dent’s de­sire to re­ha­bil­i­tate the is­land, and to be an ex­am­ple to other tourists des­ti­na­tions ... he de­clared it closed.”

Bo­ra­cay re­opened on Oc­to­ber 26 with a smaller num­ber of ho­tels op­er­at­ing and lim­its on the num­ber of tourists al­lowed to visit. New rules banned drink­ing and smok­ing on the beach, and even build­ing sand cas­tles.

But the is­land still has the look of a work in progress.

In mid-Novem­ber, chaos reigned on the road lead­ing from a ferry ter­mi­nal, the ac­cess point for tourists, to 4-kilo­me­tre strip of beach where most re­sorts and restau­rants are lo­cated.

Road­work has caused snaking, bumper-to-bumper traf­fic. A total over­haul of the sewage sys­tem means un­der­ground pipes are ex­posed. At an area near the shop­ping hub, D’Mall, there is the un­mis­tak­able smell of sewage.

But the white beach it­self is pris­tine – and quiet. No­tice­ably ab­sent is the blar­ing mu­sic from the bars and night­clubs that had trans­formed Bo­ra­cay into a party spot in re­cent years.

“You hear that? It is the ocean. I can fi­nally hear the ocean again,” Willy Berger, a French div­ing in­struc­tor who has been on the is­land for 21 years, said. “The pub crawls, the bars, that’s not what we need here.”

The is­land, res­i­dents and busi­ness own­ers say, was once a sim­ple place, with an indige­nous pop­u­la­tion happy to live off nat­u­ral veg­e­ta­tion, grow rice and travel the is­land largely on foot.

“It was par­adise,” said Triol, the ho­tel owner, who is pres­i­dent of the Bo­ra­cay Foun­da­tion, an as­so­ci­a­tion for busi­nesses. “There were no ve­hi­cles, not even mo­tor­cy­cles, and we just made it by walk­ing from end to end.”

Bo­ra­cay started open­ing up to tourists in the 1970s, but most busi­ness op­er­a­tors say things re­ally got out of hand in the early 2000s. The is­land landed on mul­ti­ple “must visit” lists, and in 2012 was named by the travel re­view web­site TripAd­vi­sor as the world’s sec­ond-best beach, af­ter a small is­land in the Turks and Caicos.

As hordes of tourists ar­rived, dozens of ho­tels cropped up, vi­o­lat­ing laws and lo­cal reg­u­la­tions by build­ing struc­tures too close to the beach, fail­ing to in­stall their own waste­water treat­ment tanks and con­nect­ing their sewage pipes il­le­gally into the drainage sys­tem.

The waste – in­clud­ing kitchen wa­ter and cook­ing oil – was flow­ing out to Bu­la­bog Beach, a pop­u­lar spot for wind- and kite-surf­ing. Busi­ness own­ers in­ter­viewed by The Washington

Post brought up wide­spread cor­rup­tion that kept this sys­tem run­ning, al­low­ing some to flout the rules and de­grade the en­vi­ron­ment while mak­ing a tidy profit.

“It would seem that there was a fail­ure of gov­ern­ment on the part of the lo­cal gov­ern­ment,” said Leones.

More than 100 of these ho­tels re­main closed, and some are fac­ing le­gal ac­tion. Some will be de­mol­ished. The few that have casi­nos will have to wind down their gam­bling op­er­a­tions.

Strict pro­ce­dures are now in place to ensure that op­er­a­tional ho­tels com­ply with lo­cal laws, have their own waste-man­age­ment sys­tems and care­fully track tourists who ar­rive. Be­fore tak­ing a boat ride to Bo­ra­cay’s main jetty, all tourists en­ter­ing the is­land must reg­is­ter with au­thor­i­ties, who will ensure that they are stay­ing in an ac­cred­ited ho­tel for a pre­de­ter­mined and spec­i­fied num­ber of days – lim­it­ing the num­ber of back­pack­ers, but also pre­vent­ing well-heeled tourists from ex­tend­ing their va­ca­tions.

Au­thor­i­ties are also mulling lim­it­ing the num­ber of tourist ar­rivals by putting a cap on the num­ber of flights that ar­rive and the num­ber of ho­tel rooms avail­able.

Tourism au­thor­i­ties in the Philip­pines, mean­while, are scop­ing out other hot spots, like El Nido and Siar­gao, a famed des­ti­na­tion among surfers, to see if they need to be sim­i­larly re­ha­bil­i­tated.

In El Nido, on the is­land of Palawan, they have found that la­goons are get­ting dirty and pol­luted and have warned busi­nesses to abide by laws and get things un­der con­trol.

“We don’t want to close El Nido, just [have busi­nesses] com­ply with the en­vi­ron­men­tal laws,” said Ber­nadette Ro­mulo-Puyat, sec­re­tary of the Depart­ment of Tourism.

But ex­perts say other re­gional ex­am­ples of­fer a cau­tion­ary tale.

When Thai­land closed Maya Bay, made pop­u­lar by the Leonardo DiCaprio film “The Beach”, tour op­er­a­tors just started mov­ing else­where, bring­ing hun­dreds of new tourists to other is­lands.

“Dis­per­sal isn’t al­ways a good idea, be­cause you ex­pose even more places to tourism,” said Becken “At the end of the day, you just can’t have a bil­lion or more tourists hav­ing an eco-tourism ex­pe­ri­ence.”

The au­thor­i­ties closed Bo­ra­cay to clear out tonnes of garbage and over­haul the drainage sys­tem. It re­opened in Oc­to­ber, but the Philip­pine gov­ern­ment is lim­it­ing the num­ber of tourists, much to the cha­grin of ho­tel and restau­rant op­er­a­tors.

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