As Philippines Shuts Down A Popular Tourist Island, Residents Fear For Their Future

Apr 25, 2018
Originally published on April 27, 2018 6:26 am

The Philippine island of Boracay is a tourist magnet, with its beaches regularly appearing on lists of the world's best. It's easy to see why.

"I think this is an amazing beach," says Frida Roemer from Copenhagen, lounging on the island's White Beach. "The clear water, the white sand ... I extended my ticket because I just liked it so much."

Her Swedish friend Erika Havskot agrees. She's been here five times in as many years. The only caveat, Havskot says, is this: It's become overcrowded — with tourists like her — since she first started coming.

Boracay received some 2 million visitors last year, according to the Philippine government, mostly Chinese and South Koreans. Tourism brought an estimated $1 billion to the local economy last year alone.

But Boracay, with a population of 45,000, has fallen victim to its own popularity, its infrastructure unable to accommodate the influx of visitors and the new hotels being built to host them. The island's sewage system in particular can't cope, which has left many of the island's streets and alleys in a constant state of repair as maintenance crews desperately try to clear clogged pipes.

Duterte's decision to close Boracay was sudden. The first inkling came in February, when he threatened to close the island to tourism after seeing a video of raw sewage spewing out of a pipe on Bulabog Beach, a popular area with wind and kite surfers.

"I will close Boracay," he declared, adding that it had become a "cesspool" — he threw in a few more colorful words. In March, his decision became official. The island will be closed to tourists for six months beginning Thursday. Residents will need a special ID to gain access as the government tries to address Boracay's issues. Tourist Erika Havskot understands why Boracay needs to be closed, but says "I feel so sad for the local people" who'll lose their jobs.

Municipal workers try to clear sewage from one of the alleys leading to White Beach before it overflows. The scene is repeated all over the island as residents try to cope with overbuilding and often illegal connections to the sewage system.
Michael Sullivan for NPR

And there are a lot of them — as many as 36,000 working in the formal and informal sectors. They include 29-year-old Carlos Losantas.

"I have two kids. Six months, no food, problem," says Losantas, as he unloads scuba tanks from a dive boat. "It's hard to find another job. It's good work here in Boracay. Good money here, but in our province, salary much lower than here." He says he earns 300 pesos (a little under $5.75) a day here plus room and board, far more than he could make back home in the eastern province of Bicol.

Losantos doesn't know what he'll do come Thursday, he says. The government has promised some assistance, but it's not clear how much or for how long. And even if it's allocated, he doubts the money will reach the workers. "Too much corruption," he says.

Bags of raw sewage line an alley on Boracay island.
Michael Sullivan for NPR

Jona Cadiang works at Southwest Tours, which she says normally brings 3,000 to 4,000 tourists to the island by bus and boat from the mainland airport. She's worried, too. With the closure looming, she says, there are just a few hundred visitors a day. And she's not sure what will happen next.

"If we have no job, where are we going to find our basic needs, our food to help our families?" she says.

Residents don't deny there's a problem. They just wish they had more time to make plans.

"It's long overdue that the attention of the national government is on us, because we've been asking for help for so many years to look at the problems in Boracay," says Nanette Graf, the owner of the Boracay Beach Resort and president of the Boracay Foundation, an umbrella group of local businesses.

She likes the idea of cleaning up the island but says the government should have given business owners and residents more warning. "They should have given us time to prepare," she says.

"I agree with that," says Rowen Aguirre, the executive assistant to Boracay's Mayor Ciceron Cawaling. "Right now, [the government is] scrambling to formulate a workable plan. I think they have some general plan. What they lack are the details. What we need are the details to back up those statements."

And the government's island cleanup plan may be too ambitious, given the six-month time frame. A walk from White Beach to Bulabog Beach on the other side of the island offers a stark reminder of the challenges ahead. In street after street, sanitation workers in hip waders haul up buckets of sewage from overflowing pipes. Streets are clogged with tourists on their way to Starbucks and McDonald's that sprang up in the development boom.

Aguirre says it's more than just sewage that needs addressing.

"We have to fix the roads, the traffic, the setbacks, all those things need to be done during this period," he says.

Can all that be done in half a year, as the government has suggested? "No," he says flatly. "But if we are really serious about doing it, we could make some substantial inroads, no? The thing is, Boracay needs to be fixed. And it has to be done now rather than wait a few years when the problems are irreversible."

Other Southeast Asian destinations are experiencing similar issues. But no other countries are taking similar drastic measures. In the same speech where Duterte railed about Boracay becoming a cesspool, he warned that if it weren't fixed now, "The tourists will stop coming."

Boracay Beach Resort owner Graf doesn't disagree. But she worries what a six-month closure will mean over the long term for Boracay in the hyper-competitive Southeast Asian tourism market.

"I'm sure other countries like Thailand, Bali, Vietnam, are laughing and they're ready to accept our tourists that won't be coming here anymore," she says. "It's just scary, because we don't know if they will come back once we reopen."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, is about to shut down the country's biggest tourist draw. So if you had been planning a visit to the island of Boracay, think again. Michael Sullivan reports on how the shutdown is affecting that community.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Here's the thing - Boracay is a tourist magnet. Twenty-year-old Frida Roemer from Copenhagen got here back in February, and she can't seem to leave.

FRIDA ROEMER: I think this is an amazing beach. Like, it's so beautiful. And like, the palm trees, the white sand, clear water. I think Boracay is amazing, and the Philippines is amazing.

SULLIVAN: She's not alone. More than 2 million people visited the tiny island last year, worth more than a billion dollars in income, which helps explain why they just keep building and building. And the island's infrastructure can't keep up. This is Bulabog Beach on the eastern side of Boracay, and I'm sitting literally on a sewage pipe, about 16 inches in diameter. And there was a video of this pipe spewing raw sewage into the bay while a windsurfer went by. That enraged the president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: I will close Boracay. Boracay is a cesspool. There will be a time that no more foreigner will go there. We give you six months. Clean the [expletive] thing.

SULLIVAN: So for the next six months, that's what they'll try to do. But that means thousands of jobs are about to go out the window, for now at least.

JONA CADIANG: Yes, I'm worried. Actually, a month ago, we were already asking, what will be our status here?

SULLIVAN: Jona Cadiang works at Southwest Tours, which pretty much has a lock on bringing tourists to the island by bus and by boat.

CADIANG: For our regular day basis, sir, usually we accommodate at least 3,000 or 4,000 a day.

SULLIVAN: With the closure looming, it's about a tenth of that now, she says. She's hoping her company reassigns her during the closure but says waiting six months for Boracay to reopen isn't an option.

CADIANG: If we don't have a job, where are we going to find our daily basic needs - our food and help out our family?

SULLIVAN: Her coworker, Zenny Retulin, agrees.

ZENNY RETULIN: I will look for another job, sir. Six months is too long to wait.

SULLIVAN: But here's the thing - almost everyone here agrees that Boracay needs fixing.

NANNETTE GRAF: It's long overdue that the attention of the national government is on us because we've been asking for help for so many years to look at the problems in Boracay.

SULLIVAN: Nannette Graf is the owner of the Boracay Beach Resort and is president of the Boracay Foundation, an umbrella group of local businesses. She likes the idea of cleaning up Boracay but says the government should have given them more warning.

ROWEN AGUIERRE: I agree with that.

SULLIVAN: That's Rowen Aguierre, executive assistant to the mayor here.

AGUIERRE: Right now, they're scrambling to formulate a workable plan.

SULLIVAN: You don't think they have one yet?

AGUIERRE: Well, what they're making are general statements. What we need are the details to back up those statements.

SULLIVAN: Aguierre says there's lots to be done in terms of improving infrastructure, starting with - but not limited to - improving the sewage system.

AGUIERRE: We have to fix the roads, traffic, setbacks. All those things have to be addressed within this period.

SULLIVAN: Can that actually be done in six months' time?

AGUIERRE: No, but if we are really serious about doing it, we could make substantial inroads into it, no?

SULLIVAN: Tell that to 29-year-old Carlos Losantas, who's unloading scuba tanks from a dive boat on White Beach.

CARLOS LOSANTAS: I have two kids. Six months, no food? Problem. It's good work here in Boracay, but in our province, salary there is much lower than here.

SULLIVAN: The government says it will provide assistance to those who can't find other work in the interim, but it's not clear how much or for how long. Losantas says the money might be allocated but doubts it will reach workers like him - corruption, he explains. But it's still a good idea, he says, to fix Boracay. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Boracay. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.