One of the Philippines’ most popular holiday destinations, Boracay is an example of how tourism growth can have negative effects if it is not handled correctly. An island covering 10.3 sq km, Boracay hosted one-third of all the country’s visitors in 2017. Unchecked development, insufficient waste water treatment facilities and overpopulation led to an emergency task force finding widespread environmental violations. The majority of sewerage facilities were draining waste into the sea and polluting the water. In order to rehabilitate the island, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered its closure to tourists for six months on April 26, 2018.

The announcement of Boracay’s closure was met by concern from local businesses about the impact on the island and its residents. Immediate action taken within the industry included airlines scaling back flights and the closure of 900 establishments that violated regulations, such as the demolition of establishments within 30 metres of the shoreline. As a result, 30,000 people lost their jobs, sparking concerns about the long-term impact of the closure on the community. However, the Department of Labour and Employment provided support packages in the form of financial assistance to informal sector workers and training for formal sector workers to enhance their employability. More than P507.1m ($9.4m) worth of compensation had been distributed as of February 2019.

Positive Performance

Although industry leaders feared the economic impact of the closure, as Boracay accounted for 20% of the country’s tourism revenue, the effects have not been as severe as expected. Although the Department of Tourism (DOT) scaled down the arrivals target in late 2018, a record 7.1m visitors came to the country that year. The closure of Boracay encouraged a surge in the marketing of new destinations, showcasing a variety of different islands.

When Boracay reopened in October 2018, steps were taken to prevent further damage and ensure visitors respect the environment. Smoking and alcohol are prohibited on the beach and in public areas, and a maximum allowance of 19,000 tourists and 15,000 workers has been imposed to ensure the island’s capacity is not exceeded. There are also strict environmental accreditation procedures in place for hotels and resorts. “The closure showed we are serious about protecting our natural resources and minimising environmental impact, and that we are focused on preserving and highlighting the beauty of our country for generations,” Jhaytee Wong, executive vice-president of the Philippine Travel Agencies Association, told OBG.

New Benchmark

Boracay has become the model for sustainable tourism, and the success of the rehabilitation programme is a potential springboard for establishing a culture of environmentally conscious tourism across the country. The National Tourism Development Plan 2016-22 was revised to improve environmental protection guidelines. According to local media reports, similar rehabilitation programmes have been proposed for Manila Bay, El Nido, Panglao, Siargao, Sagada and Baguio to ensure that other popular destinations meet the environmental standards of the new Boracay.

In February 2019 the government launched the Manila Bay Task Force as part of a cross-ministerial effort to enforce environmental regulations and improve water quality. Having a budget of P2bn ($37.2m), it aims to make the water at Manila Bay safe for swimming by end-2019. Waste water treatment facilities in Metro Manila will also be upgraded, demonstrating the current administration’s commitment to sustainable tourism. “We are trying to encourage corporate social responsibility, so we are highlighting destinations that practise green tourism,” Mavic Sevilla, head of corporate planning and business development at the DOT’s Tourism Promotions Board, told OBG.

The positive effects of Boracay’s temporary closure look set to continue in terms of promoting a diversified offering of destinations, and encouraging sustainable practices and the rehabilitation of over-saturated areas.