The Philippines is closing its best-known holiday island, Boracay, to tourists for up to six months over concerns that the once idyllic white-sand resort has become a “cesspool” tainted by dumped sewage, authorities said yesterday.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the shutdown to start on April 26 for a maximum period of half a year, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said.
“Boracay is known as a paradise in our nation and this temporary closure is [meant] to ensure that the next generations will also experience that,” Roque told reporters.
The decision jeopardizes the livelihood of thousands employed in the island’s bustling tourist trade, which each year serves 2 million guests and pumps about US$1 billion in revenue into the Philippine economy.
Experts said the measure also appeared to contradict the government’s own pro-development policy for the island, including the approval of a planned US$500 million casino and resort.
The threat of closure first emerged in February, when Duterte blasted the tiny island’s hundreds of tourism-related hotels, restaurants and other businesses, accusing them of dumping sewage directly into the sea and turning it into a “cesspool.”
Authorities said some businesses were using the island’s drainage system to send untreated sewage into its surrounding turquoise waters.
The Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources said 195 businesses, along with more than 4,000 households, are not connected to the sewage system, but within weeks of Duterte lashing out at the local businesses, the Philippines gave the green light for Macau’s Galaxy Entertainment Group Ltd (銀河娛樂) to begin construction of the casino and resort complex next year.
“The casino contradicts all the efforts now of cleaning up and making sure Boracay goes back to the state where it doesn’t violate its carrying capacity,” former Philippine undersecretary of environment and natural resources Antonio La Vina said.
The area has seen “unlimited” development because “local government units and the national government agencies did not do their job of enforcing rules on land use and environmental impact assessments,” he added.
Authorities said they would use the closure to build new sewage and drainage systems, demolish structures built on wetlands, and sue officials and businesspeople who have contravened environmental laws.
The impact of the decision was already being felt, with domestic airlines announcing they would scale back the number of flights to Boracay.
Malaysian low-cost carrier AirAsia has suspended all of its domestic and international flights to Boracay until further notice.
“I am really in a quandary on how to handle six months [of closure],” budget hostel manager Manuel Raagas said. “There will be no income and we have bills to pay, so I don’t know how I will survive.”
Officials said they were willing to take a hard line, adding that police and potentially even troops would enforce the closure.
“We will issue guidelines on how to bar tourists from entering starting from the port,” Philippine Assistant Secretary of the Interior Epimaco Densing told reporters yesterday. “Whether foreign or local, they will not be allowed to enter the island.”
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