Philippine island a 'cesspool,' will close for 6 months
Popular tourist destination deteriorating from overcrowding and development
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has approved the closure of the tourist destination of Boracay for up to six months after saying the waters off its famed white-sand beaches had become a "cesspool" due to overcrowding and development.
Duterte approved the total shutdown of Boracay as a tourist destination starting April 26 in a cabinet meeting Wednesday night after extensive discussions of its impact, including ways to help about 17,000 workers who may be displaced, tourism undersecretary Frederick Alegre said Thursday.
"This is not about profit, it's about the political will to deal with years of neglect of the environment," Alegre said. "We need to act swiftly to save the island and avert its further deterioration."
Last February, Duterte said Boracay's water has turned into a "cesspool" with human waste being discharged into the sea.
More than two million tourists visited Boracay last year to enjoy its powdery beaches, spectacular sunsets and festive nightlife, generating about 56 billion pesos ($1.3 billion) in revenue. But the influx of tourists, neglected infrastructure and growth of resort establishments and poor settlements have threatened to turn Boracay into a "dead island" in less than a decade, according to a government study.
The island can only sustain 30,000 people but teems with 70,000 at any time, including 50,000 residents and daily arrivals of about 20,000 tourists, Alegre said.
Hundreds of settlers have also illegally built homes and structures in forests and protected wetlands over the years, officials said.
Only about 47 per cent of the hundreds of establishments are connected to the island's main sewage treatment plant, with many of the rest possibly maintaining crude septic tanks and others discharging their waste directly into the sea, Alegre said.
Specifics of rehabilitation not known
Parts of the 1,000-hectare island in central Aklan province could re-open earlier than six months if sewage containment and treatment systems could be built earlier and beach resorts comply with environmental regulations, he said.
The government has yet to provide specifics about the rehabilitation, but Epimaco Densing, assistant secretary of the interior, on Thursday said a soft opening could take place within three or four months, after drainage systems were fixed and illegal structures dismantled.
Priorities, officials said, were overhauls to roads, sewage treatment and waste disposal facilities to handle about 82 to 104 tonnes of waste a day, of which only 27 tonnes is brought out off the island, according to the interior ministry.
Jose Clemente, president of the Tourism Congress of the Philippines, said businesses needed time to adjust.
"We are a bit depressed right now," he said. "I really feel for the people in Boracay," he added. "They really need to find ways to be employed, or at least keep their head above water for the next six months."
The impact on hotels and resorts has yet to be fully assessed. Boracay, one of 7,300 islands in the archipelago nation, hosts 1,800 businesses, including global hotel chains like Shangri-La and Movenpick, and locally listed companies Megaworld Corp and Manila Water.
Philippine Airlines said it would reduce flights en route to airports serving as a gateway to the small island, about 315 kilometres south of Manila.
Deputy Executive Secretary Menardo Guevarra said emergency calamity funds would be used to help workers at tourist establishments affected by Boracay's temporary closure.
About 17,000 are employed in Boracay's tourist establishments, and 10,000 to 12,000 others benefit from the bustling tourism business.
A similar decision was made in Thailand where Maya Bay, on Phi Phi Leh island in the Andaman Sea, will be closed for four months starting in June.
Many Thai marine parks close for part of the year but the release of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie, The Beach, in 2000 made picturesque Maya Bay so popular it stayed open year-round. It averages 200 boats and 4,000 visitors daily, but recent surveys found the area's coral reefs and sea life damaged or gone.
Other Thai destinations ruined by mass tourism, Koh Yoong in the Phi Phi island chain and Koh Tachai in the Similan Islands National Park, have been off-limits to tourists permanently since mid-2016.
With files from Reuters