The Philippine island of Boracay is symbolic of an endemic problem of modern times. “Ecotourism” is one of the newer trending terms as tourism continues to increase around the world. For some, it helps to make them feel better about the impact that they may be having on the area that they go to, while for others it serves to give them the feeling that they are enjoying nature. However, the term can be deceiving, as the Filipino government came to find as new task forces under the guidance of President Rodrigo Duterte began to investigate the most popular tourist destinations around the country.
The Problem of Boracay
More than 2 million tourists visited the Philippines in 2019, a 7% increase from the year before. While a good thing perhaps for the overall economy, the once thriving and healthy tropical ecosystem on and around the islands has started to suffer. Tourism really started trending up in the early 2000’s when some of the islands in the Philippines were featured on popular “must visit” tourist destinations around the world. Then, Tripadvisor claimed Boracay’s White Beach as the second best beach in the world and tourism exploded.
Due to the massive and rather sudden increase in tourism in the area, it quickly earned a reputation as a hotspot for corruption and businesses began to flock to the once pristine shores. Flouting regulations and restrictions, bars and hotels began to build too close to the water and to hook their drainage pipes up illegally to the island’s drainage system instead of to the sewage system. In the end, it was found that over 2,000 homes and businesses were illegally rerouting their drainage. This meant that, for years, sewage, kitchen water and oils were being dumped right into the sea, only100’s of meters from the shoreline. All of this pure sewage and raw wasteled to large algal blooms, turning the water a murky green from the crystal blue for which it had been known. Corruption in the local and national government allowed this to go on for almost a decade.
Enter President Rodrigo Duterte.
Duterte was elected to office in June of 2016. He is most famous for his war on drugs in the Philippines. However, once shown a clip of pure sewage being dumped into the waters surrounding Boracay, Duterte declared the island a cesspool and made it clear he would be following up with some extreme measures to start cleaning the island, and the beach.
Although thought to be impossible, Duterte did accomplish the measures that he had wanted to impose and shut the island down. He completely stopped all tourism for six months and cost the island an estimated $1 billion dollars in tourism revenue. However, many still hold firmly that it was for the greater good of the people and the island as the area slowly saw the return of the life that had been driven away by years of poor management.
After six months of cleaning and rehabilitation, the White Beach was reopened to tourism. This time, though, the government is striving to instill a new reputation for the area. Instead of a free for all and “what happens in Boracay stays in Boracay” type of mentality, they are working for a more peaceful and environmentally friendly outlook.
The clean up wasn’t the only thing to change with the island shut down. The government put new programs into place to start repairing roads around the island as well as almost entirely revamping the drainage and sewage systems.
But, will it last?
Some wonder, though: Can this change last? And where will the Philippines go from here? The government and local citizens are doing what they can, for the most part, to make sure that the return of tourists to Boracay doesn’t mean the return of cultural and environmental degradation. They have imposed a number of very serious restrictions on the beach and the surrounding area. After studying the constituent components of the trash and litter that was found in the water and around the local area, signs were posted with lists of items not allowed on the beach. Some of these include restrictions against smoking as well as drinking. Vendors will no longer be allowed to sell their wares right on the beach and umbrellas and beach chairs are not allowed on the beach anymore either. Single use plastic has now been completely banned from the area, as this was found to be a major part of the problem. Even on sea, there are restrictions banning participation in water sports within 100 meters from the shoreline.
Many of the people who have lived on the island for most of their lives had watched the degradation occur swiftly in the last decade with sad eyes. They never expected the damage to begin to reverse, for the shores of Boracay to return to their gleaming white. The biggest change that has been seen is with the quality of the water. Evidence of that can not only be found in the restored healthy coloration in the waves, but also with the return of some sea life to the area. Sea turtles have since been spotted closer to the shore, and even baby sharks have been seen in the tides. These are all sure signs of success, for the time being at least.
However, for every win that there might be for the masses, there will always be those who are not happy with the changes. Many small businesses on Boracay have really taken a hit, especially during the six month tourism sabbatical. Beyond even that time period, the government has put further restrictions on the amount of tourists that are allowed to come to the island at a certain time. They restrict entry to some and, upon coming in by ferry, tourists are each checked for evidence of which hotel they are staying at and for how many days to keep a cap on the overall amount. If a hotel has not met the new standards the government has imposed, it is not allowed to open for tourists.
At the outset of reopening of White Beach, only approximately 70 of 600 establishments had been able to get up to code and be open for the new influx of tourists. Since then, many hotels and bars have either had to agree to the new terms or shut down. Some of the establishments that had initially violated the laws back in the mid-2000’s are even being brought to court.
However, as the island of Boracay begins to find its new balance and regain a steadier reputation, vibrancy is coming back into the culture and the ecosystem. It has become a blueprint for rehabilitation projects around the Philippines, and governmental groups are looking into other popular areas that may need similar treatment. It isn’t just an example for the Philippines though. It functions as an example for tourist destinations around the world where tourists are making “holiday decisions” that negatively impact the culture and environment. It also serves as a lesson for us as tourists. Although traveling isn’t wrong, it can become a bad thing when decisions are made that damage our home, the world we live in. It is something to remember the next time we are laying on a beach or hiking up a mountain, a call to action for us all.