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The Philippines

Boracay’s back cleaner and greener. But something’s missing: jobs

  • Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte shut down the island for a six-month rehabilitation that ended last week
  • Locals say the new environmental rules have left them unable to make a living
PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 November, 2018, 12:03pm
UPDATED : Friday, 02 November, 2018, 10:05pm

For six long months and counting, Filipino mother Olive Abenera has been struggling to feed her four young children.

The 32-year-old has been out of work since April when President Rodrigo Duterte shut down what he called a “cesspool” island in need of rehabilitation. While she could survive by eating less, her one-year-old infant needed nutritious food and essential baby items such as diapers.

Her other children, the eldest of whom is eight, have been skipping school because she cannot afford their transport and meals.

“We have been suffering for so long. I have four children. How can we survive with no income?” she said, fighting back tears. “I am very angry and sad.”

The Philippine paradise reopened last Friday after the dramatic and abrupt shutdown that lasted six months. It has since been coming gradually back to life as tourists from around the world are once again allowed in to marvel at its white-sand beaches and crystalline water.

Boracay business owners and residents say the beaches are much cleaner now and they are hoping tourists will come and see this for themselves.

Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat said the island was now so clean and beautiful that it looked and felt like it did 30 years ago, before the influx of tourists.

The island is indeed quieter, as witnessed by the Post when it visited after the reopening. But many shops remain closed, and some have decided to leave for good. Others are still trying to make sure their establishments comply with the environmental rules.

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Meanwhile, shabby houses built in the wetlands are being demolished with some residents complaining the government has not helped them with relocation, leaving them homeless.

Before the island’s closure, Abenera worked in a Korean restaurant and sold souvenirs at the beaches. The restaurant is expected to reopen in December, so she is still two months away from a steady income. But the government has also taken away her only other means of making money, by imposing rules that ban vendors from the beach.

“Even though Boracay has been reopened, I still have no jobs,” the desperate mother said in an interview with three other friends in a similar situation. “It’s OK that we cannot sell souvenirs at the beach. But let us do so somewhere else. It is the responsibility of the government to help us.”

Before the shutdown, she made about 20,000 Philippine pesos (US$373) a month.

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During the six-month shutdown, she received just 15,000 pesos in cash assistance from the authorities. She helped clean up the beaches and the streets for a month during the closure and received another 9,000 pesos for that.

In one of the wetland areas on the island, less than a 10-minute walk from the main beach buzzing with tourists, Maureen R. Tapican was expecting bulldozers to demolish her house at any time.

Piles of debris are scattered around the area, as children are seen playing basketball with a hoop they fashioned from wood and iron.

Of the 85 houses that once stood here – home to about 600 people – a number have already been demolished for standing too close to the wetlands. Eventually, they will all make way for a park, according to Tapican, a 44-year-old mother of eight children aged three to 24.

The government has not offered to relocate these people. Many who have been evicted say they have been living with friends.

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“My entire family now relies on only my 24-year-old child who still has a job,” Tapican said. She used to sell seafood on the beachfront. But the new rules ban her from doing so any more.

Cherry Rose Delos Santos, a mother of five children with the youngest being just four, is in a similar situation. She used to run a boarding house and rent the rooms out to workers on the island.

Now, just as the island is getting back on its feet, she’s faced with paying 50,000 pesos for permits proving her business complies with the new rules. She cannot afford it.

“I just want the government to allow me to rent the rooms out for some time first, so then I will have the money to pay for the permits,” the 44-year-old said.

Maricor S. Gabinete, also 44, had a similarly grim view of her life on the island. She is no longer allowed to approach tourists on the beach and sell them activities. With no income or way to afford rent, she has had to stay at her friend’s house.

“I am a single mother with four children,” she said. “Boracay has been reopened only for the richest people here.”

We Are Boracay, a community group made up of affected workers and residents, said in a statement that the rehabilitation was a “complete lie, full of deceit, and a disaster to our lives and livelihood”.

“The rehabilitation was a disaster stronger than super typhoon Yolanda. This brought a never-imagined-before destruction to our lives, homes, and our community that we have built, dislocating us from our jobs and livelihood, and trample upon our human rights,” it said.

They didn’t give us enough time to prepare. At the end of the day, we suffered
Peter Tay

Although Boracay has reopened its doors, it is clear the island has changed. The new rules only allow 19,200 tourists on the island at any one time. At its peak, Boracay – which is only about 1,000 hectares in size – hosted 40,000 to 50,000 tourists. The sheer number of visitors saw piles of garbage strewn all over the island.

Among other rules, smoking and alcoholic beverages have been banned, as well as hawkers along the beachfront. Water sports activities have been suspended.

Peter Tay, a Singaporean-Chinese and general manager of Boracay Adventures Travel and Tours that sells water sports and other activities, has had no choice but to shut down his businesses for six months.

“When they closed the island, it was so sudden. They didn’t give us enough time to prepare. At the end of the day, we suffered,” he said. “For Boracay Adventure, we tightened our belt and we survived. Unfortunately, many establishments have gone bankrupt,” he said.

Angry that business owners were not consulted first, he bluntly described the government’s decision as “dictatorial”.

“[The government] will scare a lot of potential investors [off investing] big money here. Imagine if I am from the US or other countries, I have invested billions here and the next day you tell me, close it.”

During the closure, he found a job working at a diving shop in Bohol, which he described as a “humble” experience.

“Even though we are not 100 per cent rehabilitated, I would still encourage people to come and help the locals. We really need the support. If there are no tourists, there will be no money,” he said.

Freida Dario-Santiago, author of The Complete Guide to Boracay Island, said instead of a complete shutdown, the island should have been closed in phases, area by area.

“That’s all water under the bridge now. Our hope is that our sacrifices will not be for nothing – that the improved Boracay will be sustained, and that the lessons learned will not be forgotten,” she said.

“The real work starts now, in rebuilding from scratch, and slowly but responsibly building up tourism once again.”

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Nowie Potenciano, who owns several restaurants including the popular Sunny Side Café, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about what lies ahead. But business on the first few days after the reopening was just a fraction of what it was before the closure.

“It is going to be an uphill battle. The closure of the island has sort of affected the image of the island. Imagine the people who were planning to come in the past six months, all of a sudden, their plans were ruined,” he said.

As night fell in the rehabilitated Boracay, no loud music or beach parties could be heard – a stark contrast to the scene just seven months ago. But make no mistake, the sand was as soft as ever, and the water as clean as it was 30 years ago.