I WAS in Boracay in 2016 when I brought my students there for field immersion. I wanted my students to use the island as a template for applying contemporary political theories in the analysis of the issues and problems of a society that is at the forefront of consumerism. I wanted them to take a critical look into how modernity not only can damage the physicality of paradise, but also reshape, if not injure, the physical representations of those who inhabit it, whether as transient tourists, migrant workers and residents, or as indigenous inhabitants.
Before that, the last time I was in the island was in 1998, which was 18 years before. And the change was simply amazing, even horrifying. What used to be the ancestral domain of the indigenous Atis is now transformed into a theme park of naked consumerism. Half-naked foreign tourists now stroll the beach and the streets, overwhelming an island that is barely 10.32 square kilometers in size. Now, the Atis are confined to a village in the northeastern part of the island, effectively isolated from the landscape in which they used to roam freely. Coconut palms have given way to hotels, and open waterways are now paved to accommodate restaurants and bars. The beach has been invaded by concrete structures.
Since the 1970s, tourism in the island has grown rapidly, even exponentially. In 2016 alone, around 1,725,483 tourists descended on the island, 250,000 more than in 2015. And in the first 10 months of 2017, the tourist arrivals were already 1,669,751, which was 203,000 higher than the same 10-month period in 2016. It is estimated that the average number of tourists in the island per day is around 14,182. Added to the official resident population of the island of 33,109, this would translate to a population density of 4,583 persons per sq km. During peak months, that density can even soar to almost 10,000 persons.
And for an island this small, this would mean an enormous stress on water supply and sewage systems. Hotels and other infrastructures are being built without adequate water sources and sewage facilities. Without the latter, wastes are openly dumped into the ocean, effectively turning what used to be the pristine and world-class waters of Boracay into a world-class cesspool of human wastes that is evidenced by the profound algal blooms that feed on fecal organic matter.
And the island, with an average daily population of 47,291, is already on the brink of exceeding its carrying capacity. A study conducted by the Ecosystems Research and Development Bureau (ERDB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in 2008 revealed that White Beach can accommodate only 10,116 swimmers a day. It can also carry as many as 16,703 sunbathers daily. The coconut groves lining the beach can only carry a maximum of 14,674 diners nightly.
The pressure to expand is just so tempting, and the local government unit (LGU) of Malay, Aklan, which has jurisdiction over the island has simply ignored the warning signs. Despite the absence of an environmental clearance certificate (ECC) from the DENR, the LGU continued to issue building permits. After all, at stake is a billion-peso tourism industry that has transformed Malay into a first-class municipality. In the 10-month period from January to October 2017, the total receipts from tourism arrivals was a whopping P46.5 billion, a hefty P31.6 billion of which came from foreign tourist arrivals.
Previous administrations have attempted to crack the whip on overdevelopment, but pressures not only from private resort owners with political connections, but also from within government itself such as the tourism bureaucracy and the LGUs, have stopped such attempts.
It therefore takes a President Rodrigo Duterte to finally issue an ultimatum when he threatened to close down the island. He gave Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu six months to institutionalize massive reforms. Cimatu has vowed to crack the whip on erring hotels, resorts and establishments.
But in order to save Boracay, what needs to be instituted is an alternative tourism business model that will ensure not only the ecological rehabilitation of the island, but also recuperate its cultural integrity.
There is no doubt that unbridled growth has to be radically checked, with closures and taking down of establishments that have violated the rules. It would also be in order to strictly enforce a limitation on the number of people that can stay in the island in a given day, very much like that imposed on the St. Paul Subterranean River in Palawan. This could be coupled with a gradual shift of the epicenter of activities away from the island, and into the mainland coast near the jetty pier and the airport. There is enormous potential for the Malay municipality to be developed into a jump-off point for tourists who would be allowed to go to the island only for day or limited overnight stays. This can address the problems of displaced employment that can result from the scaling down of operations in the island.
Meanwhile, tourism activities in the island can be reimagined to focus on eco-cultural tourism, turning it into a sustainable venture where the indigenous Atis, who are now confined to a walled village isolated from the rest of the island, can be given a prominent role.
One of the great tragedies of Boracay is that it may be the jewel in the crown of our tourism apparatus, but it is utterly bereft of any marker that makes it truly a Filipino cultural and physical landscape. Unlike Bali, or Thailand, where food, architecture and entertainment are clear markers of their respective cultures, what we have in Boracay is an explosion of alien constructs. Tourists stay in hotels and resorts that do not embody native architecture, dine in restaurants featuring foreign cuisine, as they are entertained by fire dancers that are basically Polynesian in origin.
Boracay’s physicality has been damaged not only environmentally but also culturally.
If there is any chance that we can recuperate its wounded ecological and cultural body, it should be now that we have a President who has the moral courage to tell the private capitalists and their government enablers that enough is enough.