The Philippines shut down its most-famous tourist destination, Boracay island, for a six-month cleanup amid heavy security beginning Thursday, months after President Rodrigo Duterte described the island’s beaches as a “cesspool.”
Tourists were asked to leave the bone-shaped island in the central Philippines, as a 600-strong armed team from the police, the military and the coast guard patrolled its world-famous white sand beaches.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the government respected the right of individuals to sue in a bid to keep the paradise isle open, but said he was confident the Supreme Court would uphold Boracay’s temporary closure.
“We do not see how individuals who cannot claim ownership over Boracay can suffer any irreparable injury that would warrant the issuance of a temporary restraining order or a permanent injunction,” Roque said.
Roque was referring to a petition filed by two Boracay residents at the Supreme Court on Wednesday that questioned the legality of Duterte’s order to shut down the island.
They asked the court to issue an order “to prevent the closure and eviction of businesses” in Boracay, which has an estimated 40,000 residents.
“It is, mainly, a constitutional challenge to the powers of the executive to arbitrary decision-making,” said the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), which has provided attorneys to aid in the lawsuit.
“The petitioners said they have been earning less and less ever since the government declared that it would close the island. If Boracay is closed to tourists, they will lose their source of income, and they would not be able to feed their families,” the group said.
The closure would mean millions dollars in lost revenue, with the municipality of Malay, which has jurisdiction over the island, estimating it could lose about 400 million pesos (U.S. $8 million) during each month of the closure.
“The closure is too oppressive to all people living and working in Boracay,” said Angelo Karlo Guillen of the NUPL.
“The island is heavily dependent on tourism. If you take that away from them, it would deprive the people there of their livelihood,” he said, adding that thousands of families will likely go hungry.
Earlier in the year, Duterte described the beaches around the tiny island as a cesspool and a danger to human health. He made the statement even though the island has been touted as the next Southeast Asian tourism hotspot that can rival Phuket in Thailand and Bali in Indonesia.
Duterte had subsequently ordered it shuttered, potentially losing much needed tourist dollars.
Last year, the Boracay tourism sector pulled in 56 billion pesos (about U.S. $1 billion) in revenue.
The Boracay Foundation, which represents hotels, restaurants and other businesses on the island, said it had been relentless in its cleanup efforts, and environmental-code violators had been ordered shut down.
Duterte’s comments came after a widely-shared online video showed fetid water gushing out of a runoff pipe that drains into the ocean on the eastern shore of the island, called Bulabog beach.
Restaurant operators say they have started feeling the pinch.
“Today, we only had two customers. This is going to be tough,” said an owner of a small shop on a beachfront strip mall.
On Thursday, foundation president Nanette Graf welcomed the influx of troops to the island, and said that while it looked like it had been garrisoned, it was necessary to keep criminality at bay while the island was closed.
“I feel more secure, to be honest,” Graf said. “We’ve never felt like this in Bulabog. This area was full of tourists who came here to kite and windsurf. They bring many gadgets and they get followed by criminals at night from the bars where they get drunk.”
She said she hoped that after the closure, she hoped Boracay tourists and locals “will be more aware and caring for the environment.”
Troops roam in full combat gear
By Thursday, it has become virtually impossible for residents without proper credentials to roam the island. Foreigners, many of whom have lived in Boracay as business owners, were also being asked to show permits, including proper immigration documents.
Officials in Manila have also questioned the government’s sending of troops in full combat gear to Boracay, which has never had a violent incident or security threat.
“Boracay island is a tourist destination with a long coastline of soft, white sand beach. It is not a conflict zone,” said opposition leader Sen. Francis Pangilinan. “There are no terrorists or invaders in Boracay.”
He said the only threat to Boracay at the moment was the closure and loss of jobs.
“It is ironic that the government can express so much love to China’s President Xi Jinping but can’t be bothered to provide jobs for the displaced Boracay workers,” Pangilinan said.
The statement was a slight dig at Duterte, who has denied reports that the closure was meant to pave the way for the entry of a Chinese-led consortium that will set up a casino on the island called the Galaxy Entertainment Group.
Galaxy’s Philippine partner, Leisure & Resorts World Corp., has denied local newspaper reports of having shelved the casino plan.