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The Philippines

Philippines: workers on tourist island Boracay fear paradise will be lost with closure

The Philippine government has prepared 2 billion pesos (US$38.4 million) for a ‘calamity fund’ for workers in Boracay. But will it help?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 April, 2018, 3:50pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 April, 2018, 9:08pm

Along the shores of Philippines’ top holiday island, Boracay, businesses like massage parlours, souvenir stalls, tattoo shops and boat rentals are still thriving while tourists bask in the sun on the powdery white sand, but not for long.

Workers in Boracay, the Philippines’ most popular tourist spot, have appealed for aid before the holiday island’s impending closure.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who described Boracay as a “cesspool”, ordered the island closed for six months starting April 26.

It reflects the growing pressures on beach resorts across Southeast Asia as infrastructure buckles under record visitor numbers.

Nearly 200 Boracay businesses were found to be discharging untreated waste water into the sea, resulting in increased concentration of human faeces along the beaches and posing health risks to swimmers.

The central Philippines island’s informal workers - masseuses, tattoo artists, sand sculptors and boat rental owners - said they will lose their primary source of living and sought support from the government.

“I hope there is at least some help to keep us fed daily because we have nowhere to go,” Joralyn delos Reyes, a hair stylist, said while braiding a tourist’s hair.

“We can no longer farm or fish because of the hotels and foreigners living in our land.”

The government has prepared 2 billion pesos (US$38.4 million) for a “calamity fund” to workers in Boracay.

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“Even if they give us money, can they give us jobs when Boracay closes? That’s our biggest problem,” said Yolanda Casidsid, a masseuse for 20 years.

But for Neo Colubio, a boat rental manager, closing Boracay will help preserve the tourist spot, allowing locals to profit in the long term.

The holiday island, which generated over US$1 billion last year from a record two million tourists, employs around 30,000 workers.

Airlines have already started to cut back flights to Boracay, which had 2 million visitors last year, with the largest foreign contingents coming from China and South Korea, ahead of its closure.

The Philippines, which had record visitor numbers last year after three years of double-digit growth, estimates the Boracay closure could reduce full-year GDP by 0.1 per cent.

Elsewhere, Thailand already has plans to shut its famous Maya Bay in the Phi Phi islands for four months this summer, while an environmental group is calling for urgent government action to tackle a “crisis” on the Indonesian tourist island of Bali.

The shutdown of Maya Bay in an attempt to salvage the area’s coral reefs - which have been damaged by crowds of tourists and warmer temperatures - follows the closure of 10 popular Thai diving sites in 2016 after a National Parks survey found bleaching on up to 80 per cent of some reefs.

Pattaya, south of Bangkok, serves as another cautionary tale.

An influx of western tourists from as far back as the 1960s, when American soldiers came on leave from the Vietnam war, and a construction boom in the 1990s transformed it from a picturesque fishing village to a town known for its seedy nightlife and high crime rate.

Thailand’s tourism ministry expects 37.55 million tourists this year, up from a record 35 million in 2017, of which 9.8 million were from China.

Shutdowns such as the one on Boracay are not a new phenomenon. Back in 2004, Malaysian authorities shut all hotels on the island of Sipadan, known for having some of the best scuba diving in the world, to help protect its eco-system and subsequently restricted tourist numbers to the island.

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But some say these extreme actions often come too late, and a more sustainable solution is needed across the region.

“Proactive environmental protection is a far more effective approach than reactive environmental protection,” said Matt Gebbie, an analyst from Horwath HTL Indonesia, a tourism consultancy.

“You can’t revive coral reefs and eroded beaches and degraded forests in six months,” Gebbie said. “Proactive protection is essential for the long term sustainability of resort destinations.”