By The Arts & Leisure Cluster
LAST year, one of the more pressing questions posed to the current Philippine government was, “How do you solve a problem like Boracay?” with President Rodrigo R. Duterte calling the country’s top tourist destination — it attracted 2.2 million tourists in 2017 — a “cesspool” in February. The solution? Close down the entire island for six months of rehab.
The shutdown affected businesses, disrupted the lives of the island’s inhabitants, and led to a drop in the country’s over-all tourist numbers.
Now that the island has been reopened — although rehabilitation is still ongoing as six months was not enough to do all the civil works needed — the question arises: What will happen to the other major tourism areas which are feared to be approaching Boracay-dirty levels, and what can be done to safeguard the up-and-coming areas from similar problems?
After years of nearly unchecked development, the discovery that inadequate sewage systems led to the pollution of the island’s waters (the waters, especially in Bulabog beach had 47,460 most probable number of coliform or bacteria from feces per 100 ml [mpm/ml] when the standard for water for swimming is 1,000 mpm/100ml), the entire island was closed down on April 26 for six months of rehabilitation. The drastic move led to the displacement of close to 20,000 workers employed in the tourism industry and huge losses for the closed resorts and other tourism-related businesses.
The shut-down of the island also affected tourism numbers considerably, with Department of Tourism (DoT) secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat reporting that the number of international tourist arrivals for 2018 will fall short of the 7.4 million target and she sees only 7.2 million arrivals by year-end — this is despite a 7.43% increase in tourist arrivals from January to October.
“In Boracay’s case, the President ordered for its closure based on reports which revealed a ‘failed’ water quality in the island. It means that the water of Boracay was no longer fit for recreational purposes such as swimming. President Duterte even called it a ‘cesspool’,” said the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ (DENR) Jonas Leones, Undersecretary for Policy, Planning, and International Affairs, in an e-mail to BusinessWorld in December.
Mr. Leones said there are parameters and the steps taken by the government office before taking such drastic measures as a shut-down. “[The] DENR does not close any tourist spot or any island for no apparent reason,” he said.
Parameters include evaluation of the present state of the environment and enforcement of pertinent laws within the area: easement laws as prescribed by the Reformed Forestry Code of the Philippines (PD 705) and the Water Code of the Philippines (PD 1067), and other environmental laws such as proper liquid and solid waste management (RA 9003 or Ecological Solid Waste Management Act), Hazardous Wastes Act (RA 6969), and RA 8749 Clean Air Act (RA 8749).
This is in light of the fact that several island destinations in the Philippines are now under the spotlight, in the fear that these islands, which provide a strong core for the country’s tourism business (and by extension, provide a face to the nation), might be in a state similar to that of the island of Boracay.
El Nido town is one such example as the Palawan destination was dubbed by DoT’s Ms. Romulo-Puyat as “overcrowded” and steps for rehabilitation have been started, although government officials don’t see the need to shut it down like Boracay, and will only shut down establishments found to be violating the rules.
To date, the DENR has closed around 20 establishments in El Nido for violations.
“In my personal opinion, it was long overdue,” Erwin Lopez, hotel manager of Discovery Shores Boracay resort, told reporters in December upon the launch of its newest suite of rooms.
Mr. Lopez, who has been working in Boracay for more than a decade, said it was fortunate that there was someone with “political will” who made changes in the island.
He said this in spite of the huge losses the resort accrued during the closure (the island “soft-opened” on Oct. 26), losses he said might take them a year or more to recover.
“I’m really not seeing a strong comeback, I think it will take about — the quickest — 12 months for us to be able to [recover] because the wholesalers and people who travel from China and Korea, their first quarter is already planned out so it will take a while. Hopefully the local market will take up the slack,” he said.
“We can take several lessons from what happened to Boracay,” DENR’s Mr. Leones said. “We can agree that there was indeed over-development in the island. Admittedly, that was a shortcoming on our part which we also share with the LGUs (local government units) of Boracay. We have not prevented these big businesses from coming in and putting up a number of infrastructures leading to the generation of too much waste and the deterioration of water quality, among others.
The recreational areas, which include the beach and swimming areas, can only accommodate so many persons on a daily basis,” he said.
The lessons of Boracay, according to Benito C. Bengzon, Jr., a tourism department undersecretary, is now “going to be the overarching approach of the Department of Tourism for next year, and the years to come.
“I think what is important here is that with the experience in Boracay, the other destinations are beginning to see the importance of ensuring that we maintain an optimum balance between certain levels of tourism activities, and making sure that we preserve the environment,” he said in a press conference last month.
Other tourism destinations in the Philippines are taking notes from Boracay’s experience including Bohol, known for its Chocolate Hills and Panglao Island beaches and for welcoming more than a million tourists in 2017, 700,000 of whom were international travellers.
Despite having a less rowdy crowd than that of Boracay, Panglao is already seeing signs of the same sickness: loitering food vendors, and violations in no-build areas of the beach. This prompted former Panglao mayor and Dumaluan Beach Resort owner Doloreich A. Dumaluan to say that the industry should not “kill the hen that lays the golden eggs.”
He said, in an e-mail to BusinessWorld, that stakeholders should work together to “to determine the extent of which the benefits from tourism can be maintained, while sustaining the quality of the island’s social, economic and environmental aspects.”
The island’s governor Edgar M. Chatto, in an e-mail to BusinessWorld in November, said that “more sustainable tourism measures will be in place to regulate tourism development, with the administration’s thrust on strong environmental management, tourism players and investors will be on their toes, not violating laws and regulations given the Boracay experience.
“Closing the tourism industry in the province of Bohol, which is our prime economic driver, would greatly affect our economic development, and thus, as the governor of the province, I am in the frontline of closely monitoring the compliance of our environmental laws by our business sector,” he said. “We cannot afford and will not allow Bohol to become another Boracay. That is why we are closely coordinating with the relevant national government agencies and our University of the Philippines Advisory Council for their expert opinion on environmental concerns.”
Measures include the creation of a legislative oversight body in Panglao, the municipality of Dauis, and the City of Tagbilaran, a body that will work on the areas’ tourism and culture, environmental protection and conservation, and urban development.
The body has already conducted a “carrying capacity study” in Panglao and has urged water service providers in the area to provide wastewater treatment facilities as required by the Clean Water Act.
The local government also earmarked a one-hectare water treatment facility for the Bohol-Panglao International Airport, which will be able to handle 600 tons of wastewater per day.
While Panglao attracts a huge chunk of Bohol’s visitors, Mr. Chatto said that part of the tourism plans of the province include spreading tourism development across Bohol, “with the development of Tourism Clusters bringing tourists out of Panglao offering other tourism attractions all over the province.”
The province — and its famed 1,776 Chocolate Hills that change color depending on the weather — is aspiring to be the first geopark in the Philippines as inscribed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
For Palawan, an island cluster which boasts several destinations including El Nido and the up-and-coming San Vicente, environmental protection is paramount, especially in El Nido which is currently undergoing rehabilitation.
In November, the DoT, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), and the DENR proposed a six-month rehabilitation effort which began on Nov. 14 in El Nido’s urban barangays of Masagana, Maligaya, Buena Suerte, and Corong-Corong.
In the same month, El Nido municipal administrator RJ de la Calzada told BusinessWorld in a phone interview that the authorities closed 22 travel and tour operators alongside resorts and other establishments for various violations.
The introduction of more frequent flights to El Nido, Mr. De la Calzada said, is contributing to the island’s challenges — maintenance of solid waste management, sewage management, and carrying capacity pressure.
Tourism data showed that El Nido town had 144,257 overnight guests in 2017, a number expected to increase by 8% in 2018.
Although a test in March from four DENR monitoring stations showed that El Nido’s waters passed the department’s standard coliform levels, this doesn’t mean that the island can rest easy.
“We take note of waste water discharge since it is the contributor of [fecal] coliform [bacteria],” Mr. De la Calzada said.
To ensure water quality, the municipality plans to increase the number of water quality monitoring stations and “have it checked every 15 days,” he added.
Mr. De la Calzada also mentioned that they plan to address the island’s carrying capacity and spread out the visitors to other areas and introduce more island-hopping tours so tourists are “no longer congested in the Small and Big lagoon,” which are the most popular attractions in the area.
“We have a limit of tourists inside the lagoon and [allotted] a particular time so that it’s not simultaneous,” he said.
For San Vicente, in northwestern Palawan which is known for its 14-kilometer Long Beach (Boracay’s famed White Beach is only four kilometers), the focus is to introduce utilities first before the expected influx of tourists starts.
“What we’re trying to do right now is getting people to be more aware [of the lessons of Boracay]. It’s not an option anymore, it’s a necessity,” Pocholo Paragas, general manager and CEO of the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Authority (TIEZA), the infrastructure and investment arm of the DoT, told reporters in November when discussing San Vicente.
He explained that their flagship Tourism Enterprise Zone project was built around the concept of sustainability. In fact, the body has six infrastructure projects for the area including a water supply and distribution system which costs P254 million and a sewage treatment plant pegged at P101.2 million.
“Within the next two to four years there should already be a utility concept already emerging to sustain all these things,” Mr. Paragas said before pointing out that the late development of utilities contributed to the ills of tourist destinations like Bohol and Boracay and it’s something they don’t want to happen with San Vicente.
Early planning and strict implementation can keep San Vicente from ever becoming a Paradise Lost.