Twenty-seven years ago Boracay had no airport, no Internet connection, no big hotels, no crowds. It had a solitary bar along White Beach that served San Miguels for 50 cents a pop, accompanied by soothing sounds from the 80s. It was bliss.
We’ve not been to Boracay since then, so we can’t smell the cesspool that the Philippine president spoke of recently but it does look like things have gotten very nasty indeed.
Like Bali in Indonesia, Phi Phi in Thailand and many other resort islands around the world, Boracay is plagued not just by plastics but by parasitic peripatetics. The photos of Boracay in its current condition paint a sorry state of affairs. Can the proposed six months of zero tourism fix it?
The airlines that fly into Boracay Airport (also known as Caticlan Airport or by its code MHP) are undoubtedly feeling the brunt of President Duterte’s edict.
The affected carriers include Air Juan, AirSWIFT, Cebu Pacific, Philippine Airlines (PAL Express), Philippine AirAsia and Skyjet.
Air Juan said the Boracay/Caticlan routes account for some 15% of its business.
Cebu Pacific, the airline majority-owned by the JG Summit conglomerate, operates 180 weekly flights to the said routes. It has about 140,000 passengers confirmed for scheduled flights to Caticlan and Kalibo from April 26 to June 25.
PAL Express has five flights a day to the resort island from Manila, Clark and Cebu. Philippine AirAsia has some 100 flights a week to Boracay.
To puts things into perspective, Boracay contributes PHP56 billion (just over USD1 billion) to the Philippine economy. It is, by a long distance, the most popular destination in the Philippines.
The Philippine government has estimated a loss of up to PHP20 billion (USD385 million) for the six months closure. Some 35,000 workers, mostly on Boracay itself, will be affected.
President Duterte has said the displaced workers will receive payments from a PHP2 billion (USD38.5 million) fund. Whilst money and losses from tourist receipts will be severe, Boracay is in serious need of repair.
When we first visited in late January in 1991, the number of tourists that traveled to the archipelago the year before was a mere million. Last year (2017) the Philippines played host to almost 7 million visitors and a third of those (over 2 million) came to Boracay.
The island is tiny, just 4 square miles. Bali by comparison, is 2,200 square miles! Boracay has a resident population of just 30,000.
Access to Boracay in 1991 wasn’t easy. One had to fly from Manila to Kalibo (about an hour), take a bumpy 2-hour ride on a jeepney to Caticlan port and then hop onto an outrigger (known locally as bangka) for about 15 minutes, before arriving on the island (one has to wade in seawater to get ashore as there wasn’t a jetty).
Fridays Boracay, where we stayed for two nights almost three decades ago, sits on the exquisite White Beach, with its fine, almost salt-like sand.
In 1991 Fridays was a row of simple, elegant chalets with hardly any tourists. Today, Fridays boasts of an outdoor pool, beachfront bar and of course, free wifi. TripAdvisor reckons it is worth four stars.
Despite its serenity and splendour, Fridays hides a dark secret. One of its founding owners was found murdered in Manila in a case that has yet to be resolved.
And in 2004 three high profiled, wealthy Europeans and their domestic helper were stabbed to death at a luxury villa in Boracay, purportedly by robbers.
How to save Boracay then? Like Bali and Phi Phi, ecological disaster awaits Boracay, if it hadn’t arrived already. Sustainable tourism is the way to go but that’s unlikely to be practised in these once pristine islands.
There are 7,600 other islands in the Philippines, perhaps tourists can be enticed to go to some of them? Part of Boracay’s many problems is partly self-inflicted, too.
Earlier this year a Macau-based company, Galaxy Entertainment, inked a USD500 million deal with the Philippine government to build a casino along the beach.
Ironically the boss of the gaming firm met with President Duterte in December 2017 to discuss and get approval for the project.