It is portrayed as a tropical paradise in holiday brochures and is the Philippines’ top tourism hotspot, but Boracay hit the news for all the wrong reasons earlier this year.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte described the island as a ‘cesspool’ because raw sewage was being illegally drained from homes and businesses onto its famous White Beach. The government ordered its closure to tourists for six months from late April to undertake a comprehensive environmental rehabilitation programme.
Boracay’s problems went deeper than sewage. Many properties had been unlawfully built on the island’s protected wetlands, polluting the water. Others had encroached onto traffic-choked roads.
The response of the task force formed by three government departments has certainly been robust. Radar was used to hunt down illegal sewers. More than 40 were discovered in the White Beach area alone and destroyed by soldiers.
Houses in illegal wetlands settlements are being demolished and inhabitants resettled on the main island of Luzon. Roads are also being widened and extended, with goods vehicles routed away from the main coastal road. There have also been beach clean-ups by the military and volunteers.
Meanwhile, all tourism businesses have had their environmental compliance certificates suspended pending a review.
As remedial work continues, Boracay is on course to reopen to tourists as planned on October 26. Beyond that, Department of Environment and Natural Resources satellite offices will open on Boracay and in other key tourist areas to ensure environmental controls are properly policed.
The 600-room Fairways and Bluewater resort, the island’s largest hotel, was the first on Boracay to have its own sewage treatment plant and this has allowed its golf course to be self-sustaining. The hotel has been using the closure to carry out renovations. It has had to cancel bookings but says clients understood and many opted to rebook for later.
The full effect of the Boracay closure on tourism won’t be seen for some time. However, early indications show that it has held up remarkably well, given that the island’s visitor numbers reached two million for the first time in 2017 – half of those international – out of a total 6.6 million overseas visitors to the country as a whole.
Despite Boracay’s closure on April 26, the following month saw visitor arrivals to the Philippines register a marginal increase (0.94%) while the 2.9 million arrivals total for the first five months of 2018 were more than 10% up on the same period of 2017. All of its top 12 international markets except seventh-placed Taiwan saw numbers rise, with Korea, China, the USA, Japan, Australia, Canada and the UK leading the way.
The Philippines’ resilience is backed up by Intrepid Travel, which operates out of several countries. Tara Kennaway, Intrepid’s Asia product manager, says: “We are actually seeing great growth from the Philippines this year, with trip sales up 30% globally year-on-year. It is most popular with the Australian and British markets, with these audiences making up over 30% of our travellers to the destination.”
Kennaway added: “As part of Intrepid’s commitment to responsible tourism, we try to help curb overtourism where we can, and even before its closure we chose to focus on alternative destinations to Boracay.
“The island of Palawan, for example, is less developed and has lots to offer in terms of natural beauty, white-sand beaches and fascinating culture. Our tours visit the region of El Nido, which charges an eco-tourism development fee for all visitors. Proceeds go towards activity such as management and recycling, a Reef Watch programme and mooring buoys to prevent damage to coral.”
Arnold Gonzales, officer-in-charge of the Philippines Tourism Promotions Board, says the marketing focus has switched beyond Borocay. “We’re very keen on promoting Palawan, Cebu, Camiguin, Ilocos, Bohol, Siargao and many other beach and activities destinations in the Philippines. Aside from these, we have a lot of emerging beach destinations and some are still untapped.”
Connie Mamaril, owner of inbound tour operator Regent Travel, says the private sector is very optimistic: “When Boracay was closed, it opened a window of opportunity to promote other island destinations and it was a success.”
Expanding tourist offerings
The TPB has also embarked on a five-year strategy to increase sports tourism. Golf has been identified as a pillar of that and in April Manila welcomed 214 specialist tour operators from 33 countries for the seventh annual Asia Golf Tourism Convention, with pre- and post-fam trips to many of the Philippines’ 100 courses.
The event was held at the Manila Marriott Hotel, part of multi-brand development Resorts World Manila. Two major hotel brands – Hilton and Sheraton – are returning to the Philippines with hotels to open at Resorts World within the year. Hotel Okura, a Philippine first, will follow next year.
Resorts World Manila chief operating officer Stephen Reilly explains the new confidence: “Tourist arrivals have been steadily growing and our government has responded by improving infrastructure and developing programmes throughout the islands to keep up with the demand in a sustainable manner. This, combined with our own study, has spurred us to increase our hotel keys considerably.”
How other destinations are tackling overtourism
Some see Boracay’s problems as resulting from excessive numbers of tourists putting pressure on the island’s infrastructure. Other destinations have come up with their own solutions to tackle similar issues. Among them are:
- Koh Phi Phi Leh, Thailand The island’s Maya Beach, made famous in the movie The Beach, will reopen in October following a four-month closure to allow its marine life and coral reefs to recover.
- Machu Picchu Authorities introduced time limits because of overcrowding, issuing morning or afternoon tickets for a maximum of four hours at the Unesco World Heritage Site.
- Rwanda In 2017, the cost of gorilla trekking permits was doubled to $1,500 after visitor numbers almost doubled in 10 years. The move has cut numbers.
- Venice Cruise ships over 55,000 tonnes were banned from docking in the city’s historic centre in 2017 and now use the mainland. The mayor has also proposed tourists be diverted along alternative routes around popular sites to ease congestion.