Boracay island’s six-month closure to tourists, fortified by SWAT teams, underscores the Philippines’ slide towards unchecked authoritarianism
World-renowned Boracay Island took a forced vacation beginning on April 26, as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte turned a deaf ear to appeals not to close the country’s top tourist destination.
The six-month shutdown, enforced by the government to rehabilitate the island’s deteriorating environment, is expected to exact a heavy toll on the lives of over 35,000 workers in what was once described as the premier paradise island of the Philippines.
Over 600 heavily-armed security personnel have been deployed to the 10-square kilometer island to ensure with an iron-fist that Duterte’s executive order is implemented. The move has alienated most of the islanders who face bleak economic prospects in the months ahead.
In February, the tough-talking Duterte described Boracay as “stinky” during an official function in his hometown of Davao City on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Boracay is located in the island nation’s central region.
“I will close Boracay. Boracay is a cesspool,” he warned before actually issuing his closure order. “There will be a time that no more foreigner will go there because he will have — when he goes back to the plane [to depart the island] — he will be full of shit going back and forth to the restroom,” Duterte said at the time.
Duterte’s order has not only motivated a court petition but also new accusations of creeping authoritarianism in a nation where democracy was restored in 1986 after over a decade of dictatorial rule under the late president Ferdinand Marcos.
Duterte’s brash order really smacks of a dictator imposing whatever he wants to do at a whim,” said Clemente Bautista, spokesperson of Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment.
“Not content with disregarding the livelihoods of the people, does he really have to send 600 armed police and soldiers just to force the people of Boracay to submit to his will?”
At least two Boracay residents, a driver and a sandcastle maker, have filed a petition at the Supreme Court against Duterte and other officials challenging the constitutionality of the shutdown. They have also sought a temporary restraining order against the island’s closure.
In a special session on April 26, the Supreme Court asked the executive branch to file their comments to the petitioners’ complaint within ten days after receiving the judicial order.
On the first day of the island’s closure, Duterte issued Proclamation No. 475 to place Boracay under a “state of calamity” that will expedite the release of rehabilitation funds for the island’s famous powdery white sand beaches and clear blue waters.
Boracay, which belongs to a Malay township in Aklan province, has emerged over the years as the Philippines’ top destination for both foreign and local tourists.
Last year, Boracay accommodated more than two million tourists, mainly foreigners led for the first time by the Chinese. Those arrivals were up 16% from the 1.7 million tourists received in 2016, local tourism data showed.
In 2016 and 2017, Boracay won the distinction as the “best island in the world” from international travel magazine Conde’ Nast Traveler.
“This itty-bitty island is as close to the tropical ideal as you’ll find in the Philippines, with gentle coastlines and transporting sunsets. Add in a thriving nightlife scene, and you have one of the top tourist spots in the region,” the publication said.
According to Duterte’s state of calamity proclamation, there are high levels of fecal coliform on parts of the island due to waste discharge directly into the sea by resorts, businesses and residences that lack proper sewage facilities.
Before the closure, tourists on Boracay produced between 90 to 115 tons of solid waste per day, well beyond the locality’s hauling capacity of 30 tons, the government’s calamity proclamation said.
Green algae now unpleasantly dots parts of the island’s shoreline, a growth blamed on unregulated waste discharge into the sea. Only four out of nine island wetlands remain due to illegal encroachment of structures, the proclamation also said.
According to the Boracay Foundation Inc (BFI), the island’s biggest business organization, Boracay generates annual tourism receipts of 56 billion pesos (US$1.08 billion), mostly from foreign tourists.
While welcoming the government’s bid to rehabilitate Boracay, BFI opposed the total closure of the island to tourists.
“While indeed there are many violators…it is unjust to close the entire island at the expense of the compliant establishments,” BFI said in a statement.
Hundreds of illegal structures will be demolished during Boracay’s shutdown, where only verified residents are allowed to enter and stay on the island.
An inter-agency task force estimated that Boracay’s rehabilitation would cost at least 4.2 billion pesos (US$80.9 million). On the other hand, the government says it will disburse more than 2 billion pesos (US$38.5 million) to assist affected locals and displaced workers.
While Duterte has underscored that “urgent measures” were needed to arrest “human-induced hazards” to protect and rehabilitate the island, critics warned the closure could pave the way for the construction of a US$500 million mega-casino project, led by Asian gaming giant Galaxy Entertainment Group.
Duterte had denied any knowledge of Galaxy’s plan to build a casino on Boracay, even though he met the company’s executives at Malacanang, the official seat of presidential power, in December. Galaxy and its local partner Leisure & Resorts World Corp have reportedly already bought a 23-hectare land in Boracay for the casino-resort.
The Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation regulator granted the joint venture a provisional gaming license on March 21, just days before Duterte ordered in early April Boracay’s six-month closure, after reviewing the recommendations of concerned government agencies.
Kalikasan’s Bautista has stressed the need for a full moratorium on all new construction projects in Boracay, including the mega-casino venture, to truly rehabilitate the island.
Local Catholic Church leaders, known to be influential in the area, also oppose any casino on the island, citing gambling’s negative social impacts.
A week before Boracay’s April 26 closure, the Department of Tourism said the Macau-based gaming company will not build an integrated casino and resort on the island.
It’s yet to be seen if the government will hold fast to that pledge, though. A media blackout on the island will make it difficult for probing reporters to check what’s really happening on the now police-fortified island.
With Boracay’s shut down, its once crowded beaches have suddenly become deserted. The restaurants and bars that gave the locality a lively nightlife have nearly all been shuttered, according to reports.
Even so, Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo has ordered her agency’s foreign offices to continue marketing Boracay as a prime Philippine tourist destination.
Teo has suggested that Boracay could be reopened in less than six months, even as experts say that complete rehabilitation of the island could take several years.