The Philippines has announced its best-known holiday island Boracay will be closed to tourists for six months over concerns that the once idyllic white-sand resort has become a “cesspool” tainted by dumped sewage.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the shutdown to start April 26, his spokesman Harry Roque said late Wednesday on Twitter, without providing further detail.
The decision jeopardises the livelihoods of thousands employed as part of a bustling tourist trade on the island that each year serves some two million guests and pumps roughly $1 billion 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 recent approval of a planned $500 million casino and resort on Boracay.
The threat of closure first emerged in February when Duterte blasted the tiny island’s some 500 tourism-related hotels, restaurants and other businesses, accusing them of dumping sewage directly into the sea and turning it into a “cesspool”.
Officials have warned the island’s drainage system is being used to send the untreated sewage into its surrounding turquoise waters.
The environment ministry says 195 businesses, along with more than 4,000 residential customers, are not connected to sewer lines.
But within weeks of Duterte lashing out at the local businesses, the Philippines gave the green light for Macau casino giant Galaxy Entertainment to begin construction next year of the casino and resort complex.
– ‘How will I survive?’ –
“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 environment undersecretary Antonio La Vina told AFP.
He added that 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, environmental impact assessment.”
The impact of Wednesday’s decision was already being felt, with domestic airlines announcing they would scale back the number of flights to the 1,000-hectare (2,470-acre) island.
“I am really in a quandary on how to handle six months (of closure),” budget hostel manager Manuel Raagas told AFP.
“There will be no income and we have bills to pay so I don’t know how I will survive.”
Officials have said they are willing to take a hard line enforcing the closure.
Environment Undersecretary Jonas Leones told AFP last month shutting down the tourist trade could involve having ferries suspend their Boracay services and making the beaches off-limits, and stationing police there “if necessary”.
“An iron fist is needed to bring it back to its previous condition. It will be a temporary thing,” Leones said.
The Boracay Foundation Inc., a business industry association on the island, had asked the government to shut down only those violating environmental laws.
“It’s unfair for compliant establishments to be affected by the closure,” Executive Director Pia Miraflores told AFP.
Miraflores said that even before the ban was announced, its shadow had hit some businesses hard in Boracay.
“The tour guides have already complained that they have no more guests. There’s already a huge effect,” she said, adding the quays and jetties were “less crowded” than before.
Some couples who scheduled their weddings on the island up to a year or two in advance had cancelled their reservations even before the ban was announced, she said, with the tour agents also besieged with client calls on whether to pursue their planned trips.
With more than 500 hotels, Boracay employs 17,000 people, apart from 11,000 construction workers working on new projects.