In a speech during The Manila Times Business Forum in Davao last week, President Rodrigo Duterte took aim at Boracay, one of the country’s most popular destinations for both local and international tourists. He called the island a “cesspool” due to environmental problems that have been hounding it for years, threatening to shut it down in six months if nothing was done to address the situation.
It’s about time that stakeholders were called out to address a situation that has been in existence for quite some time. Let’s be clear, this is not a new issue. It’s been there for years.
Back in 1997, it was already evident that Boracay was reaching peak capacity when studies done by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources showed coliform levels in the waters around the island at almost three times the acceptable limit. It was deemed a “disaster case” by then DENR Secretary Victor Ramos and created a rift with the Department of Tourism, which asserted that it was the agency that should determine if there was a need to close down Boracay.
In a show of support, then-Tourism Secretary Mina Gabor flew to Boracay and proceeded to take a dip in the waters to prove that it was safe to do so. To a certain degree, it worked. The message was heard and measures were taken to ensure the problem was addressed. The Philippine Tourism Authority (PTA), now called the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (TIEZA), installed a potable water supply system and constructed a sewage treatment plant as well as a solid waste disposal system as part of the efforts to clean up the island. From that time, construction of new resorts and other establishments continued unabated.
In 2017, roughly 1.7 million foreign and local tourists trooped to Boracay from January to October. When all the figures come in, around two million visitors likely went to Boracay for the whole year. Yes, that’s two million people visiting a 10-square kilometer piece of land. It comes as no surprise that the island’s capacity has been stretched to its limits or even beyond. With the increase in visitors comes to the need to increase facilities, creating the perfect storm.
However, it is unfair to blame the owners of establishments as the only culprits in this mess. Also responsible are the LGUs and other agencies tasked to ensure that sustainable environmental standards were met. There was an obvious failure in the implementation and enforcement of regulations as construction upon construction proceeded.
How could resorts be built without proper sewage systems? How could buildings be constructed on no-build zones? This could not have been done without the complicit cooperation of agencies that should have been monitoring and implementing regulations. It becomes more alarming because the very same environmental problems were already identified two decades prior. There is no reason for these agencies to not be vigilant or compelled to enforce environmental rules.
It should not have taken a threat by the President for Boracay’s stakeholders to take much-needed actions to mitigate the effects of overtourism and overdevelopment. If nothing else, this President means what he says.
While there is a need to heal Boracay, closing it down is not prudent nor practicable. This will lead to more problems, which may become catastrophic for the tourism industry and the workers that depend on the island for their livelihood. It will not be easy for displaced workers to find new jobs in the interim not unless the government already has jobs waiting for them the minute the island is closed. Moreover, the ensuing public relations nightmare that will stem from a closure will rock a tourism industry that needs bad news like hole in the head. If nothing else, the private sector is more than willing to unite and find a quick and lasting solution.
What needs to be done is for both stakeholders and the government to immediately come up with short-term and long-term solutions to address the ecological problem. It does not serve Boracay nor the country to have continued bad press.
The DENR, under Sec. Roy Cimatu, has been given marching orders to crack down and close violating establishments. It is actually being quite lenient as the department has giving them two months to rectify the situation. It would make good sense for those establishments to start making those improvements rather than waiting to see if the President makes good on his words.