Boracay may reopen in 4 months but with limited tourists: Teo

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The Philippines is looking to shorten the closure period for its most popular holiday hotspot Boracay to four months from six, but the number of visitors allowed when it reopens will be slashed, the tourism secretary said on Wednesday.

A masterplan to redevelop Boracay, which has turned into a “cesspool” due to pollution according to President Rodrigo R. Duterte, into a livable and greener community will be finalized after its rehabilitation, Tourism Secretary Wanda T. Teo said.

“I think we can do it (cleanup) in four months. That’s why we wanted it (to be) total closure, for us to do it fast,” she said in an interview with ANC news channel.

Boracay, which will be closed to local and foreign tourists from April 26, has joined other beach resorts across Southeast Asia facing growing pressure due to a surge in visitors.

The government wants to save the tiny island that generated 56 billion pesos, or over $1 billion, last year but cannot cope under the strain of two million tourists a year.

When it is reopened, Ms. Teo said the number of visitors to Boracay, which a decade ago was found to be capable of accommodating only about 25,000, will be limited. The number of people on the island now tops as high as 75,000, she said.

The rehabilitation involves the demolition of more than 900 illegal structures, improvement of waste management, and expansion of drainage and sewage systems.

Boracay, on the northern tip of the central Panay island, is home to more than 30,000 people and about 1,800 businesses, including global hotel chains like Shangri-La and Movenpick, and locally listed companies Megaworld Corp and Manila Water Co. Inc.

Boracay is popular for its sugary white sand and lively night scene, but some 195 businesses there were found to be discharging untreated waste water into the sea, resulting in increased concentration of human feces along the beaches.

Boracay generates 90 to 115 tons of trash a day, of which only 30 tons are shipped out regularly to a landfill on a nearby island, Ms. Teo said.

She expects foregone revenues from the shutdown to be at “around P7 billion,” or even lower if the closure period is shortened to four months, she said.

For its part, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is looking at declaring next week identified critical habitats where business and tourism activities will be restricted, even hinting at the possibility of closing down establishments that interfere in the survival of species that thrive in the island.

Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) Director Mundita S. Lim said the agency is set to issue an Administrative Order (AO) that seeks to mark certain forest and coastal lands as critical habitats which will be subjected to limited business and tourism activities.

The proposed critical habitat area will cover about 750.96 hectares – 119.85 hectares will cover forest land, while the rest, coastal marine areas.

The areas span portions of some of the island’s biggest and upscale resorts like Shangri-La Boracay, Movenpick Resort and Spa, Alta Vista de Boracay of the Consuji family, and Costa Vista Boracay of the Villar Group.

The area also includes the Boracay West Cove, Filinvest’s Crimson Resort and Spa, San Miguel Corp., Seven Seas Water Park and Resort, among others.

Asked if the agency will order the closure of establishments deemed damaging to these habitats, Ms. Lim said: “Possibly. If they are in the way.”

Activities that are not allowed in critical habitat include dumping of waste products, mineral exploration or extraction, burning, logging, and quarrying, among others.

Under the AO, the DENR will assess these resort operators to evaluate whether their existing businesses pose threats to the critical habitat after which it will craft a management plan to resolve these issues.

“Stakeholders will be part in the crafting of management plan,” Ms. Lim said in a public hearing on Wednesday.

“As part of the stakeholders, we need their commitment that they will not disturb the critical habitat area,” she added.

Environment Secretary Roy A. Cimatu said the AO can be signed next week.

“This undertaking may entail an arduous process but we are compelled to ensure it will be done, under my watch, and hopefully with your cooperation and support,” the chief said in a press briefing on Wednesday.

The measure is in line with the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act of 2001, and was taken into consideration after BMB conducted a rapid biodiversity assessment of the terrestrial, coastal and marine, and wetlands ecosystem of the island on Feb. 28 to March 2.

Results of the assessment will be used in developing strategic measures to protect the island.

Also on Wednesday, the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR) issued a statement which sought to explain the provisional license granted to Boracay Philippines Resort and Leisure Corporation (BPRLC) to operate a casino in Boracay, with Galaxy Entertainment Group (GEG) in charge of the development and operation of the resort and casino project.

“BPRLC’s application was favorably considered since Boracay falls under the Greenfield zone category, which refers to an area within rural provinces, cities or municipalities with high potential for tourism development with no existing casino,” PAGCOR said, adding:

“The provisional gaming license granted to BPRLC was issued after it met all initial documentary requirements, including a Certificate of No Objection and a minimum investment commitment of not less than USD300 million.”

PAGCOR noted that the provisional license to BPRLC “is only the start of a very long and tedious process of compliance,” before the issuance of a Notice to Commence Casino Operations and a regular casino gaming license.

“In the case of BPRLC, they have yet to submit a proof of ownership or lease of the land wherein the casino-resort will be built, a detailed Project Implementation and Development Plan, an escrow account, performance assurance, surety bond, financial statement, documentary requirements, among others,” the statement said.

“PAGCOR, being a government entity under the Office of the President, abides by the laws and orders of the land. As regulator, it ensures that its licensees comply with pertinent laws, rules, regulations and ordinances promulgated by authorities relative to the establishment and operation of casinos.”

Meanwhile, Bayan Muna Party-list Rep. Carlos Isagani T. Zarate, has filed a resolution directing the House committees on natural tesources and on ecology to conduct a joint investigation on the Boracay closure and on the planned casino ventures in the island. — reports by Reuters, Janina C. Lim, and Charmaine A. Tadalan