by Hugh Morris, The Telegraph, September 14, 2018
Boracay, a tiny island once considered among the world’s most idyllic – but closed to visitors earlier this year due to the effects of overtourism, is in a race against the clock to be ready for its reopening date next month.
The tiny outcrop in the Philippines has been off-limits since April, when a six-month period of repair and restoration was announced after the country’s president described it as a “cesspool”. But now, with the reopening date just six weeks away, tourism experts say the island is still recovering.
What is Boracay and why was it shut?
The Philippines has experienced a surge in tourists in recent years. Just over one million went there in 1990 – last year it was 6.6m. And almost a third of those tourists - more than two million - visited Boracay, which measures just 3.98 square miles and has a resident population of just 30,000. That’s all the more remarkable when you consider that the Philippines has 7,640 other islands to choose from, according to the most recent estimate from the country’s National Mapping and Resource Information Authority.
A decade ago, Boracay certainly was worth visiting. The magazine Travel+Leisure declared it the best island in the world back in 2012, thanks largely to the powder soft sand of White Beach. But back in April Rodrigo Duterte called it a “cesspool”. His verdict came after a video showing sewage flowing directly into Boracay’s blue waters went viral. The controversial leader castigated local authorities for permitting unchecked development and dispatched an emergency government taskforce to save the island from an ecological catastrophe. Inspectors found over 800 environmental violations. Figures showed that rubbish generated per person on Boracay was more than three times higher than in the capital, Manila.
Is the island ready to be reopened?
Not according to some accounts.
“We have not yet accepted bookings until now because rehabilitation is just 50 per cent,” Jose Clemente, president of the Tourism Congress of the Philippines, told the Philippine Star. “It might be useless to go there because a lot of work is still ongoing.
“If [tourists] insist on visiting, don’t expect a fully restored Boracay as it is still a work in progress.”
He said that the island was in a good condition for locals but not yet for tourists, and that he would not recommend a visit. A soft reopening is planned for October 15.
Tourism secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat told the paper that Boracay will reopen in three phases, with the first next month. A further soft reopening will follow in April next year before a full opening next December.
In April the country’s environment ministry recommended that the island be shut for a year to allow for a fuller rehabilitation, rather than the six months announced.
Will there be a cap on visitors?
That’s the plan. Previously, as many tourists as could make it to Boracay were allowed to visit, but the Boracay Inter-Agency Task Force says a limit should be set at 6,405 a day.
This is based on a calculation that the island as a whole could only handle 19,215 people, with a third allocated to tourists.
Even with a cap, the limit would mean as many as 2.3m people visiting a year, a figure still likely to test the island’s infrastructure.
In a bid to retain the island’s tourism potential, the country’s environmental ministry has instead turned its attention to encouraging more than 15,000 staff at Boracay’s beach resorts, restaurants and hotels to live off the island.
Environmental secretary Roy Cimatu told reporters mainland Aklan could be suitable for workers.
“We will look for a place, an area that is accessible [and] private investors to put up dormitory for workers to stay,” he said.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said this week that there was currently “an excess in existing population, non-tourists [on] the island”.
“There’s an excess in existing hotels and available rooms, and there’s an excess in solid waste generated. There is sufficient water supply; there is however, insufficient wastewater treatment facilities,” he added.
Will anything change on the island?
A number of recommendations by the task force will be adopted by the island, tourism secretary Romulo-Puyat has said, including a ban on “LaBoracay” parties that used to attract as many as 70,000 tourists. Last year’s LaBoracay party left 10,000kg of rubbish, authorities said.
Drinking and smoking on White Beach and other public places will also be strictly prohibited, she told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
“[Boracay] is a public beach. You want your children, your family to walk around without stepping on broken glass and cigarette butts,” she said.
She added that airlines would be told to reduce their flights schedule to the nearby Godofredo Airport on the mainland to keep to the new tourist caps.
Single-use plastics will also be banned from the island, with any hotel, resort or restaurant caught breaching the policy three times to lose its licence. Visitors have been told to “bring your own straw”, and that plastic bags will be prohibited.
Is Koh Phi Phi still closed?
Maya Bay, the Thai beach made famous by the 2000 Danny Boyle film, The Beach, was also shut earlier this year to give it a chance to recover from mass tourism.
It was originally scheduled to reopen on September 30 but authorities have pushed the date back to November 1.
Head of the region’s national park Woraphot Lomlim said the decision had come under criticism as it might have a negative impact tourism but that the natural environment of the island had to be prioritised.
“Since its formal opening for public access in 1999, Maya Bay had, until now, never been allowed a chance to recover from the impact of increasing tourism. It is a natural resource of the world – not just exclusively for Krabi people – that nature has created,” he said.
Where should you go alternatively in the Philippines?
Our expert Trisha Andres suggests three alternatives to Boracay.
El Nido is often in the spotlight but neighbouring municipality Coron in Palawan has equally awe-inspiring white sand beaches and volcanic limestone cliffs that hunker over lagoons. The photos you see on postcards of darting cliffs encasing the Twin Lagoons are actually of Coron and not of El Nido.
This is a good base from where to island-hop around the Calamian Group of Islands’ beautiful beaches, lakes and lagoons. Stop at Kayangan, the country’s cleanest lake encircled by huge granite rock formations; Twin Lagoons, where access to the second lagoon is through a small crevice underneath a rock; Maquinit, one of the few saltwater hot springs in the world; snorkelling site Siete Pecados; and Coron Town. Stay at Club Paradise, an island-resort surrounded by limestone karst scenery and tropical jungle.
This long and narrow island is at the heart of the Visayan Islands and plays a central role in the region’s economy. It’s no surprise then that it is easy to get to, with dozens of daily domestic flights from Manila and several flights from Asian hubs that fly directly into the capital, Cebu City. Just off the coast are a number of upscale, family-focused hotels. The beaches here are rather underwhelming, so best hire a boat to take you out to the islands in the Bohol Strait, where powder-white sand and coconut trees decorate the beaches. If you’re feeling adventurous, travel four hours by car to the port of Maya, where small boats make the 10-minute journey to Malapascua Island, which abounds with beautiful sandy bays, including dazzlingly white Bounty Beach and, for divers, thresher sharks.
The teardrop-shaped island is considered the country’s best surf spot, but there’s more to the island than world-famous surf breaks. If you’re not a keen surfer, give the right-breaking reef wave Cloud 9 a miss and book an island-hopping excursion instead. Stops include Dako, a large island where coconut palms back a crescent of white sand on its southernmost tip; Guyam Island, a small uninhibited islet which you can have all to yourself for the day; and Naked Island, a stunning expanse of white sand that’s devoid of any vegetation save for a few baby palm trees. Base yourself at Dedon Island ( dedonisland.com ), a private resort made up of nine Filipino-style villas decorated with covetable hand-woven rattan furniture.