Bo­ra­cay is­land re­opens

The Guardian Weekly - - Inside - By Han­nah Ellis-Petersen BO­RA­CAY

The Philip­pines has re­opened its fa­mous hol­i­day is­land of Bo­ra­cay – spruced up and newly reg­u­lated after it was closed to mend decades of harm caused by unchecked tourism.

The sandy 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 re­named re­sort has a slew of new rules that re­strict drink­ing on the beach and limit the num­ber of tourists and ho­tels, all while ren­o­va­tions con­tinue. Un­der the new regime, the beach­front has been cleared of the masseuses, ven­dors, bon­fires and even the builders of its fa­mous pho­toop sand­cas­tles. Build­ings have been bull­dozed and busi­nesses pushed back to cre­ate a 30-me­tre buf­fer zone from the wa­ter­line.

All wa­ter sports, in­clud­ing scuba div­ing, jet ski­ing and kit-board­ing, re­main banned for now while a marine as­sess­ment is car­ried out by divers and marine bi­ol­o­gists. Bo­ra­cay’s three casi­nos have been per­ma­nently closed, in line with Duterte’s wishes.

Years of overde­vel­op­ment on the tiny is­land – which han­dled 2 mil­lion tourists a year – had left it soiled, crowded and pushed to its lim­its.

Cabi­net and lo­cal gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials un­veiled a bill­board-size im­age of Bo­ra­cay’s Puka Beach last Fri­day, be­fore declar­ing the is­land “of­fi­cially open to all”.

Michael A Mar­tillano, the pres­i­dent of the is­land’s div­ing as­so­ci­a­tion, who took part in the marine as­sess­ment of Bo­ra­cay, said the wa­ter qual­ity, corals and marine life had “re­ally im­proved” in the past six months.

But he ad­mit­ted some of the new re­stric­tions, par­tic­u­larly on par­ties, would be a “big ad­just­ment”.

Drink­ing and smok­ing are banned on the beach and the huge multi-day beach par­ties dubbed “LaBo­ra­cay” that drew tens of thou­sands of tourists dur­ing the 1 May labour day week­end will be a thing of the past.

“Bo­ra­cay has been known as one of the best des­ti­na­tions for a laid­back is­land where you could party any time you want, of­ten on the beach, but now that won’t hap­pen in the same way,” said Mar­tillano. “It’s still go­ing to be fun but the old habits of do­ing what­ever you want, when­ever you want to party, that will be the big­gest change and prob­a­bly tough for some peo­ple.”

The fact that div­ing and wa­ter sports re­mained sus­pended was “a bit of a bum­mer for us, very frus­trat­ing”, said Mar­tillano, but over­all he was op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture of Bo­ra­cay.

“It’s now go­ing to be a dif­fer­ent men­tal­ity for ev­ery­one who will en­ter Bo­ra­cay, whether you are a tourist, or a lo­cal or a worker on the is­land,” he said. “Have a good time but also take care of mother na­ture.”

Bo­ra­cay, which ma­jor tourist mag­a­zines con­sis­tently rate as among the world’s best beaches, mea­sures a mere 1,000 hectares. At peak times there would be 40,000 vis­i­tors, spend­ing $1bn a year but also leav­ing moun­tains of garbage and an over­flow­ing sewer sys­tem. The new rules say 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 have been told to re­strict ser­vices.

Tourist Roan Ta­dle from Manila said: “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.”

Tourism sec­re­tary Ber­nadette Ro­mulo-Puyat says she hopes the new Bo­ra­cay will be the start of a “cul­ture of sus­tain­able tourism” in the Philip­pines, adding other tourist des­ti­na­tions will 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.

“Life will go back to nor­mal. We will have money and work again,” said Jorge Flores, 45, a ho­tel worker. HAN­NAH ELLIS-PETERSEN IS THE GUARDIAN’S SOUTH-EAST ASIA COR­RE­SPON­DENT

JO HARESH TANODRA/ EPA

▼ Back in bath Tourists on the is­land of Bo­ra­cay, which has re­opened after six months

XIN­HUA / BARCROFT

Tide force The Philip­pine Na­tional Po­lice’s mar­itime unit stages a show of se­cu­rity ca­pa­bil­ity

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