Unchecked development and too many tourists had turned a popular destination into a “cesspool.”
It was paradise lost on Boracay Island, a top tourist destination known for its white-sand beaches just off the tip of Panay Island in the central Philippines. Unchecked development and too many tourists had turned its waters and shorelines into what President Rodrigo Duterte bluntly called a cesspool.
Duterte vowed to shut it down, despite the outcry of resort hotel owners, restaurants and other tourism stakeholders. He did just that in April, with his government promising to clean it up in six months and create a new, more sustainable path moving forward. Boracay reopened on October 26, and now the island’s experience may prove a model for other coastal communities seeking to rein in the environmental damage caused by the very tourism industry they depend on.
Boracay is about 10 square kilometers in size and home to 34,000 full-time residents living in 7,000 households. It was named the Best Island in the World by Conde Nast in October 2017, and saw 1.6 million visitors through that same month last year. The accolades almost proved the island’s undoing.
The island had been a popular destination for decades, but water quality problems date back nearly 20 years. The influx of tourists meant that by 2015, Boracay was home to 300 hotels and resorts, 107 restaurants and bars, 34 coffee shops and Internet cafés, diving rentals, souvenir shops and more. Yet only 50 to 60 percent of them ever connected to a sewer system, and just a quarter of all residents did.
Raw sewage was pumped directly into the sea, eventually turning the tourist experience toxic. Visitors complained about the aesthetics and worse still, their illnesses. The pollution was made worse by poor sanitation practices that left only one-third of the trash on the island picked up, while the population created 90 tons per day. Sea level rise caused more flooding, toxic algae blooms became common, and coral reefs were harmed.
Federal officials worked with local offices to shut it all down, and Boracay has been a ghost town since April. As people return the first rule is a limit: No more than 19,200 tourists are allowed on any given day and that’s confirmed by proof of accommodations. Some 400 hotels and restaurants that failed to comply with environmental regulations are closed, and the ferries and airlines offer restricted service.
Wetland restoration and biodiversity protection is a priority, and 200 electric tricycles are on the way. A 30-meter buffer zone was created from the water line, pushing back businesses that lived on the edge. Single-use plastics are banned, and the party’s over on the beach for drinking alcoholic beverages or smoking. The biggest party – the annual LaBoracay celebration each May, which attracted nearly 70,000 people in 2017 – also is a thing of the past as the Philippines figures out how to keep Boracay greener.
“We encourage everyone who sets foot in Boracay to be the best and most responsible tourist that you can be,” said Bernadette Romulo-Puyat, the country’s tourism minister. “Practice sustainable tourism and respect the island, and you’ll just keep it more fun for the generations to come.”