The Death of Paradise

For those who since the 1970s have relished the relatively short hop from Hong Kong or Tokyo or other Asian cities to an airstrip near the onetime laid-back paradise island of Boracay in the Philippines, life is about to change. Government officials say the island, overcome by pollution, is to be closed to tourism for up to six months, sometime between June and November. When it reopens, it is likely to be a different place.

The laidback lifestyle is going to be threatened by a US$500 million casino and entertainment complex operated by the biggest casino operation in Macau. It’s questionable if the cheap and cheerful beach shacks will ever be back.

That Boracay – the Philippines’ top tourism destination – became a victim of its own success proves that clichés can be true. Hoteliers and bar owners for too long simply ignored all regulations governing pollution as well as overbuilding at a furious pace.

The first to go down was the Crown Regency Prince Hotel, part of a chain that owns three establishments on Boracay and 10 establishments across the Philippines. Officials discovered the hotel, whose sewage treatment plant had failed altogether, hadn’t bothered to get sanitary permits since 2016 and was found to be discharging wastewater into a drainage system meant for surface runoff.

Ultimately, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources found that 195 establishments on the island weren’t connected to the sewage system.

An enraged President Rodrigo Duterte demanded the closure, calling the beach a “cesspool” – appropriately – a month ago because pollution of the island’s once-pristine waters was so bad, and the entrepreneurs who have crowded the island, which measures only 10.3 sq. km, were told to clean it up.

“In the meantime, if I were from Boracay or you guys there, the best thing for you to do is to cooperate with government and hasten the clean-up,” Duterte said. “For as long as there are shit coming out of those pipes draining to the sea, I will never give you the time of the day to go back there.”

Previously the island has been perennially ranked among the world’s top 25 beaches – and second in Asia. An estimated average 10,100 tourists flew in to crowd its 7 km-long beach every day in 2017.

To be sure, Boracay hasn’t been Boracay for a long time. One relatively regular visitor said he has stopped going because the island has become so crowded that he couldn’t find a place to sit down on the beach. In January, Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo warned scores of commercial establishments that improper waste management – which actually means almost none – had resulted in high levels of coliform bacteria. Tourists complained that sewage was being pumped onto the beach, with onshore winds blowing the stink right back to the bay.

During heavy rains, storm sewers regurgitate sewage right back onto the beach. Fewer than half of the 1,900 businesses on the tiny island are connected to a sewage treatment plant. At certain times of the year, a kind of scum appears in various places on the beaches.

Now, with the six-month hiatus, that is going to change, cleanup or no cleanup. The Hong Kong-based Galaxy hotel and casino group, headed by the octogenarian Lui Che-woo has been granted a provisional license by the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. to build a US$500 million a casino resort on the island, which can be expected to change its character for good.

Casino operator Galaxy Entertainment Group Ltd., which operates the biggest casino and entertainment complex in Macau, and its local partner, Leisure and Resorts World Corp., will operate the PHP 25.5 billion resort.

“The local community, everybody works in one way or another for hotels and resorts,” said a local source, “but if you cross the road and go inland, the population still lives in difficult conditions.”

The impact of its closure is expected to be malign. An estimated 36,000 people who work for those hotels and resorts and the ancillary leisure activities will see their livelihoods suspended for at least six months at a cost of PHP56 billion (US$1.07 billion). According to a study by the Boracay Foundation, with 19,000 in hotels, resorts, restaurants, dive shops, souvenir shops, tour activity centers, and transport workers. Massage therapists, tattoo artists and beach vendors account for another 17,000, according to the foundation.

The ripple effect for a long list of other pristine and relatively undeveloped Philippine beaches is ominous. There are few if any with adequate environmental controls or sewage system. Increased tourism means crowding and sewage problems for Cebu, Bohol, El Nido and Coron on Palawan -- where the Tourism Department has begun to enforce cleanup efforts – and even places like the mountain resort communities of Baguio and Tagaytay, which also suffer from the country’s appalling lack of infrastructure, a deficiency that dates back to the Marcos era when the country neglected to follow other Asian countries into the modern world. The 3.7 million tourists are going to have to look for somewhere to go when Boracay closes.