The Philippines sought Thursday to allay growing public fears of economic dislocation for thousands of people after President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the closure of Boracay island, the country’s top tourist draw famous for its white-sand beaches, over environmental safety concerns.
Following a cabinet meeting that stretched late into Wednesday, Duterte ordered the island in the central Philippines closed for business for six months, beginning April 26, the presidential palace said.
Duterte had acted on the recommendation of the tourism, environment and interior departments to close Boracay over concerns about raw sewage seeping into sea water near the island’s beaches, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Thursday.
The agencies made the recommendation two months after Duterte, in a series of public speeches, blasted unchecked development on the island that had turned its waters, he said, into a virtual “cesspool.”
“Now, at the end of the meeting, the president, though, clarified that one of the first things that will be done upon closure of Boracay is validation on which resorts are complying with the existing environmental rules and regulations,” Roque told a nationally televised news conference Thursday.
He said Duterte had promised resorts complying with the rules that the “validation will be done quickly” amid concerns that it could slow down the economy, displace at least 40,000 workers and lead to losses of up to a billion pesos.
“And, of course, the six-month period is by way of a maximum period as recommended by the three departments,” Roque said.
On Thursday, flag carrier Philippine Airlines (PAL) said it would scale down its flights to Boracay, which has been touted as the country’s hottest tourism destination that could rival Phuket in Thailand.
PAL said it would add flights to other tourist destinations to compensate for projected losses in the domestic tourism industry.
“Boracay is a national treasure. We fully support the government’s intention to make Boracay fully safe and environmentally friendly,” PAL president Jaime Bautista said.
“Sustainable development is of critical concern, and we are one with the laudable goal to revert the island to a balanced eco-tourism paradise,” he added.
He said a “safe and revitalized Boracay” would benefit the tourism sector in the long run.
However, Jose Clemente, head of the Tourism Congress of the Philippines, said the government’s decision surprised the tourist trade group.
The announcement came shortly after the state-run casino firm Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. said it had signed an agreement with Macau-based Galaxy Entertainment to construct a U.S. $500-million casino on a 23-hectare (56.8-acre) plot on Boracay.
Duterte’s government had refrained from publicly commenting on the deal in the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s announcement.
“We were expecting some sort of compromise between a partial or total closure or at least given more time to adjust to a closure, but I guess the president made up his mind and we’re taken aback by it,” Clemente said. “We’re a bit depressed right now in the industry.”
He said the resort owners in Boracay were not given a “face-to-face dialogue” with Duterte, who had admitted to having been to the island only twice to campaign for the 2016 presidential election.
“If given the opportunity, yes, we would like to present our case,” Clemente said. “Unfortunately, I guess this (the closure) is the result of the recommendations of those agencies.”
Yet, in public speeches since February, the president said he would place the island under a state of calamity and warned resort owners against seeking court injunctions.
At a distance Boracay was a sight to behold, the president said, but seen up close it had become a “cesspool.” If one began to swim there “you’ll smell like shit,” Duterte told a gathering of local officials in February, referring to water contaminated by untreated waste.
Boracay residents claim the president may have seen internet footage of a drainage pipe that emptied black, untreated waste water on Bulabog beach. The sandy strip is popular to wind and kite surfers on the eastern side of the bone-shaped island, but it is less touristy than stretches of white-sand beaches on its western shores.
Residents had long complained about the island’s poor planning. Videos of the pipe had recently made the rounds on the internet.
‘Life will be difficult’
The bad publicity had already forced many tour cancellations, Chris Vellete, the tourism department’s representative in Boracay, told reporters.
Almost 4 million people flew to the island last year, according to records of the Philippines Civil Aviation Authority. And while actual figures had yet to be released, it was noticeable that fewer tourists had traveled to the island during last week’s long Easter break – the peak beach season here – Vellete said.
“Bad publicity of Boracay in social and mainstream media are seen as the reason for the decline in tourist arrivals,” he said.
An environmental conservation group, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) – Philippines, said sustainable tourism could only be achieved if there was a balance among environmental protection, community benefits and visitor satisfaction.
“In the case of Boracay, the issue of environmental protection has been compromised,” WWF-Philippines said in a statement.
It added that the closure should deal with “the issue of restoring the natural systems and mitigating tourism or domestic activities that cause damage to the environment.”
But Terry Ridon, convenor of the think tank InfraWatchPH, said the government should have focused more on the displacement of thousands of skilled workers who would lose their jobs once the island closed down.
“Life will be difficult for our Boracay-based workers if we cannot provide them the same level of income during this interim period,” Ridon said.