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By Teddy Y. Montelibano

BORACAY — A few days before the closure, the mood in Boracay was, understandably, subdued, if not totally gloomy.

“This is the island’s darkest hour,” is how Randy Salvador, manager of the two-year-old Coast, a boutique hotel on the island’s Station 2, put it.

When he first heard talk that the government would be closing Boracay for rehabilitation, he felt dread over what would happen to Coast’s workers, particularly those working on a contractual basis. Resort management has since assured the workers they would be taken care of during the closure period.

“Now, my thoughts are with the informal workers on the island, the tricycle drivers, the taho (tofu) and ice cream vendors, the masajistas (masseuses) on the beach with grade school children — how will they now be able to send their kids to school? How many out-of-school-youths will there be on the island,” wondered Mr. Salvador.

Yesterday authorities shut down Boracay, widely regarded as the crown jewel of Philippine tourism, to all tourists, whether foreign or local. For the next six months at least, the national government hopes to address what President Rodrigo Duterte, in reaction to a report on the state of the island’s environment submitted by Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Roy Cimatu in February, described as a “cesspool.”

There seems to be a general view among people here that the expletive spewed by Mr. Duterte was provoked by that part of Cimatu’s report on a specific spot in Boracay — the 2.5 kilometer-long less-developed Bulabog beach area on the island’s east side where coliform levels, thanks to a drainage system that empties into the sea, have been found to have exceeded safety standards.

That drainage system, or “storm drain,” according to long-time Boracay resident, restaurateur Jose Carlos Remedios, was meant to expel excess rainwater into the sea. “But they found that a lot of illegal connections to the drainage system were made by establishments wanting to get rid of their wastes. Thus, what was being expelled out into the sea in Bulabog beach wasn’t just rainwater, but waste as well,” he said.

There is a local government ordinance issued in 2012 which mandates businesses and residents to connect to the sewerage system of Boracay, or, if they are located too far from the lines or for other reasons cannot connect to the system, are required to build and maintain sewerage treatment plants and septic tanks. Despite the ordinance, according to the DENR, “Boracay has been hounded with the issue of untreated wastewater being dumped into the drainage system of the island, instead of the sewerage system. This untreated wastewater, which contains harmful bacteria and other substances, eventually reaches the open waters in and around Boracay.”

Not much swimming happens in Bulabog. Also known as Boracay’s “back beach,” this is where windsurfing, kiteboarding, and jetski enthusiasts go.

In contrast to Bulabog is Boracay’s famed White Beach, on the island’s west side, where the concentration of resorts and other establishments catering to tourists is located along 4.5 kilometers of silken smooth white sand lapped by clear turquoise waters.

Luxe resorts and restaurants offering all sorts of varied cuisines, and stunning sunsets which signal the start of a vibrant nightlife all played a part in Boracay’s getting luxury travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Award for Top Island in the World in 2016.

Mr. Remedios said that indeed, since he came to the island 23 years ago in 1995 to put up the first ice plant on Boracay, then opening the popular Spanish Filipino restaurant Dos Mestizos in 1998, progress and unrestrained tourism activity has had adverse impacts on the island’s fragile ecosystem.

But, he stressed, most of the pollution on the island is concentrated on Bulabog, not on White Beach, “and the national government could’ve done the rehabilitation of the island by phases, starting with the Bulabog beach area while allowing stakeholders on White Beach to prepare and make provisions for their workers for the closure.”

“Whether the island is closed or not, the damage has been done; when the President declared Boracay a ‘cesspool,’ the whole world picked that up, and what not too long ago was regarded by tourists as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world is now just a dirty place,” Mr. Remedios stressed.

“There’s a chance government might consider reopening the island in three, four months, but now Boracay has been given such bad publicity that the harm has been done,” said Mr. Remedios, who had worked with Philippine Airlines overseas for eight years. “Airlines are pulling out, travel agencies have to refund packages, and it will take time for Boracay to be included again in these packages and airline routes. With no tourists and no business for us, of course we will lose money. And when the island reopens, I’d be happy if we can just break even in the next two years.”

Tourism Congress of the Philippines president Jose Clemente III estimates that nearly 700,000 or so bookings to Boracay within the six month that the island will be closed will be canceled, resulting in some P30 billion in losses in terms of tourist receipts.

“There’s one owner of a property I’ve talked to here who says he’s already lost some P46 million worth of bookings,” says Mr. Clemente, whose family owns the nearly 40-year-old Rajah Travel Corp.

“There’s 430 resorts and similar establishments on the island, and the property I’m talking about is not one of the big hotels,” said Mr. Clemente. “So you can just imagine how much losses will be incurred by the big ones like Discovery Shores and Shangri-la.”

Not hiding the irritation in his voice, Mr. Clemente added, “That’s why I don’t like it when I hear Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo say that the closure of Boracay will have minimal effect on overall tourism. She also said that there have been no cancellations in Europe. And her sources are our tourism attaches. But bookings are not done through attaches, they’re done through tour operators and hotels!”

For his part, White House Beach Resort owner Leonard A. Tirol says he believes the prime agencies involved in closing and rehabilitating Boracay “do not seem to be aware of the full impact of Boracay’s closing.”

“People here will be losing their jobs, farmers supplying Boracay hotel and resort establishments won’t be able to sell their produce, workers sending children to school now won’t have enough money to enroll their kids next month, some 19,000 workers whose employment status are in limbo will have to think very hard about how to take care of family members dependent on them for their daily sustenance,” he said, adding that “if each of these 19,000 workers have, say, three other family members dependent on them, that’s 57,000 people who will go hungry.”

At the same time, Mr. Tirol said he is concerned with stakeholders on the island who have incurred hefty loans. “I know of establishment owners here who have loans as much as P250 million. How they’ll be able to pay that loan when they have no operations, no business coming in, I really don’t know.”

This writer chanced upon an overflow of people at the Operations Center at the office of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) on Boracay and asked what they were there for. One young man, Ed Baringao, said he was there to ask for transport fare so he could go back home to his parent’s house in Cebu.

A waiter in one of the smaller resorts on the island, he along with some 10 other contractual workers in the establishment were laid off. So he intends to go back home and look for another job in Cebu.

In the local dialect, Mr. Baringao said, “it’s a pity because we came to Boracay thinking there would be a lot of work here as normally, April is the height of the summer season. Well, I came here (in late March) and there was plenty of work. Then all of a sudden, no more.”

Informal workers, like, say the masseuses providing massage services to tourists under makeshift tents along White Beach, will be particularly affected by the closure.

Rowen Aguirre, Mayor Ciceron Cawaling’s spokesman and municipal executive assistant for Boracay affairs said, “the informal workers here on the island are basically dependent on tourists. But since no tourists will be allowed entry for six months, then that means they would lose their means of livelihood. The DSWD has its Cash-for-Work program, but that’s for those who will provide manual labor during the rehabilitation period. So if you’re a masajista who’s already past 60, I don’t know if you’d be able to qualify.”

So what’s going to happen to them? “Well, perhaps if there’s a younger member of their family who could do manual labor under the DSWD program then he or she could do that and help provide for other family members who can’t work.”

What if the elderly masseuse has no one to depend on? Mr. Aguirre couldn’t say.

I asked Mr. Aguirre if it was true that the basis for Mr. Duterte’s ire was on account of conditions in Bulabog? He said, “Yes, it’s not the whole island.”

“It’s like the last option — closure — became the only option. The President said he will follow the recommendation of the three agencies (DoT, DILG, and DENR). They recommended closure. So therefore, he we are,” he said.

Just exactly what kind of a dent to the economy in Western Visayas and the country as a whole would the closure of Boracay be? Consider this: in 2017, reports say the third biggest contribution to Philippine GDP came from tourism, with at least some 20% coming from receipts derived from some two million local and international tourists who visited Boracay.

The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) estimates the six-month closure of Boracay will cost the economy close to P2 billion

NEDA Director General Ernesto M. Pernia sees a drop in the economic growth of Malay town which includes Boracay, Aklan province and the entire Western Visayas region whose gross regional domestic product would be cut by 5.7%.

Said Mr. Aguirre, “Unless the DoT (Department of Tourism) has enough substitutes to make up for the shortfall in income, for certain, there will be a dire negative impact on the P60 billion that we originally were expecting from tourists’ spending in Boracay this year.”

In a meeting with stakeholders on the island on April 17, Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) Assistant Secretary for Plans and Programs, Epimaco V. Densing III said Boracay could be reopened to tourists in four months if certain major milestones are met. 

“We could have a soft opening in August if certain standards regarding water discharge, solid waste management, drainage cleanup, full easement compliance, road widening, and wetlands recovery are met,” he said.

Specifically, he said, water discharge for 30 straight days in Bulabog Beach should be within DENR standards. By end of April or early May, the Bulabog drainage system must already be fully rehabilitated. Also by end July there should be a functioning sanitary landfill.

In the next three or four months, all intrusions of establishments violating the 25 plus 5-meter road and beach easement should already be demolished. Also, three of five identified wetlands in Boracay on which structures have been built should be reclaimed by government. 

At least 70% of the road widening project — which involves widening the road from Yapak, where Puka Beach is located in the north, to the Cagban jetty port in the southernmost tip of the island, to 12 meters — as well as completion of the Boracay Circumferential Road, must also have been completed.

“If those are done, the island could very well be reopened even before six months,” Mr. Densing said.

Mr. Tirol doubts that six months is enough time to rehabilitate Boracay fully.

A member of the Philippine Coast Guard Auxiliary’s elite Executive Squadron, Mr. Tirol said he fully supports efforts of the security force responsible for peace and order in the island during the six-month closure period. “I will just help implement whatever guidelines are given to the security force by the DoT, DILG, and DENR,” he said.

Retired from running his posh White House resort along White Beach on Station One, Mr. Tirol now preoccupies himself with community service. In 2009, he organized his Boracay Action Group (formerly the Boracay Fire Rescue and Ambulance Volunteers). He has some 40 personnel on call, and keeps a number of fire trucks and ambulances, including an ambulance speedboat on standby for emergency fire rescue and medical aid.  

Rehabilitating Boracay, Mr. Tirol says, “will be a long, tedious process. And I just wish everyone would cooperate, help government achieve what needs to be done in the fastest possible way so we can all go back to normal.”

Mr. Remedios, meanwhile, intends to keep his 25 employees, all regular employees, and pay them their usual wages for six months. “I will retain them all as it will take time and effort to train new ones when we reopen,” he said.

His restaurant will be closed and an al fresco eatery will be put up on a vacant portion of the lot on which his restaurant sits. This will cater to the locals who will be left on the island after it closes, serving bulalo (bone marrow soup), rice toppings, grilled barbecue items, and other simple, affordably priced home-cooked fare.

Also on offer will be sourdough and whole wheat bread, cheese and chocolate croissants, and other such specialty bread products churned out by Remedios’ bakers which are popular among the island’s European residents.

“My hard-earned savings, along with whatever we hope to generate from the eatery will be used to pay my workers’ wages,” Mr. Remedios said.

“No one will be laid off. We’re all in this together, through thick and thin. Most of my workers have been with me for a long time, and I will keep them all. I just don’t have the heart to let anyone go after all the years of service they’ve given the restaurant.” 

The author, former Businessday and BusinessWorld reporter Teodoro Y. Montelibano first visited Boracay in the late 1970s and has since been a regular visitor to the island. He is currently a freelance journalist and is in the process of writing a book on the ancien regime in Negros.