The Philippine island of Boracay reopened Friday, six months after the government ordered it closed to visitors for a clean-up following President Rodrigo Duterte’s complaint its beaches had turned into a “cesspool.”
Amid strict regulations and tight security, officials allowed only up to 6,000 tourists with confirmed bookings to enter the island famed for its stretches of white-sand beaches. The closure of Boracay, a top tourism draw and important source of revenue, displaced thousands of workers.
Duterte said he was pleased with the clean-up effort.
Estimates of how big the losses were have not been disclosed, but the Boracay tourism sector last year pulled in about 56 billion pesos (about U.S. $1 billion).
“Boracay is a lesson of political will as exhibited by the president and yet, it is also a lesson of neglect and misfeasance and malfeasance in office,” Duterte spokesman Salvador Panelo said in a statement.
Panelo said Duterte wouldn’t have ordered the closure had local tour officials “operated following the law and the rules and regulations.”
“He stated that it has to take a President Duterte to put things in order and I think that we should all learn from these lessons so Boracay will become the attraction not only in this country but in the world,” Panelo said from the island as it opened again to the world.
Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo Puyat said she hoped the new Boracay would be the start of a “culture of sustainable tourism,” adding that other destinations have been put on notice that they should clean up or face a similar shut down.
“It means taking account of the repercussions of our actions on current and future situations of the environment,” she said.
“Our efforts have proven once again that change is indeed possible with a strong political will as our dear President Duterte has exhibited an eagerness to work together for love of country,” Puyat said.
She had told the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (Focap) that written warnings have been given to the beach resort destinations of El Nido in Palawan island, Panglao island and La Union in the north. Similar warnings were issued to whale shark watching destination in Oslob in central Philippines and the mountain resort town of Baguio city.
Previously, Duterte described the beaches around Boracay as a “cesspool” and a danger to human health. He made the statement even though the island has been touted as the upcoming Southeast Asian tourism hotspot to rival Phuket in Thailand and Bali in Indonesia.
Parties, fire dancers, masseuses, vendors, stray dogs, bonfires and even sand castle building have been banned from the beachfront, according to Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, head of the government group overseeing the rehabilitation of the island.
“I will immediately report to President Duterte how much we have accomplished in six months,” Cimatu said, adding the island’s three casinos were closed permanently in line with the President’s order.
The justice department also issued a legal opinion last week, agreeing that the president can impose a no-casino policy without needing congressional action.
“The state possesses police power to prohibit gambling in the Philippines or any part of it and this power was validly delegated by law to PAGCOR, a government corporation, which is subject to control by the president,” the department order said, referring to the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp.
Police said more than 6,000 officers have been deployed to guard the island.
“Since this becomes now an attractive area for the Islamic state militants. We do not want to be alarmists, but we are preparing for possible incidents involving terrorism,” regional police commander Chief Superintendent John Bulalacao said.
“With the influx of tourists, we will be expecting more human activities and therefore we expect the crime incidence will increase,” he added.
In 2017, members of a militant group from the Abu Sayyaf tried to kidnap foreigners in Bohol island, southeast of Manila, but authorities killed five of the militants before they could carry out their plan.
In 2001, 23 people including three U.S. citizens in the Dos Palmas resort in Honda Bay, Palawan, were kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf Group.
Mark Navales in Davao contributed to this report.