By Genalyn Kabiling and Analou De Vera
Boracay, the country’s best-known holiday island, will be totally closed down to tourists for the next six months over concerns that the once idyllic white-sand resort has become a “cesspool” tainted by dumped sewage.
President Duterte approved the six-month total shutdown starting April 26 following the recommendation made by an inter-agency task force to pave the way for the rehabilitation works on the island.
“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,”Presidential spokesman Harry Roque told reporters.
Tourism Secretary Wanda Tulfo Teo said all structures in Boracay Island, whether compliant with the environmental laws or not, will be shut down during the six month rehabilitation of the world-famous tourist destination.
“Sarado pa rin lahat… Whether compliant or hindi lahat talaga magsakripisyo dito (All will be closed… Whether compliant or non-compliant all have to sacrifice here),”Teosaid in a radio interview.
The Tourism chief said all establishments erected in the shoreline easements, wetlands, and forestland will be demolished.
Interior and Local Government Assistant Secretary Epimaco Densing III said the six-month closure of Boracay may be reduced by two months if more people would support the government’s efforts to save the island from further environmental decay.
Densing said the government intends to fast track the rehabilitation of Boracay to attain a possible soft opening even before the six-month closure ends.
“If we will go through the full six months, potential loss in gross receipts could reach around P18 to P20 billion. That’s why it is not to the interest of everybody to go the full six months,” Densing said during a press briefing in Malacañang.
Densing said a government team would go around Boracay by May to inspect establishments and other structures, and close down or dismantle those breaking the law.
He also said they are preparing to file charges against local government officials believed to be responsible for Boracay mess on or before April 14.
Apart from the improvement of island’s drainage system, Environment Undersecretary Jonas Leones said illegal structures located in forest lands and wet lands will also be dismantled during the rehabilitation period.
Leones said they were also targeting the rehabilitation of protected areas in Boracay such as Puka beach as well as improvement of the island’s transportation system.
Senior Deputy Executive Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the recommendation of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), and Department of Tourism (DOT) on the Boracay closure was approved “after an exhaustive discussion” during the Cabinet meeting Wednesday night.
P2 B for displaced workers
The government is allocating P2 billion worth of calamity assistance to workers who will be displaced by the six-month closure of Boracay, Roque said.
President Duterte is expected to place Boracay under state of calamity to enable the release of the appropriate funds for affected small people during the rehabilitation period, said Roque.
Guevarra said the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) will also provide the necessary assistance to displaced workers.
Roque assured that the not all of the 35,000 workers in Boracay would be jobless. He said they don’t have to leave the island since alternative jobs would be available during the rehabilitation period.
President Duterte had earlier indicated he was amenable to a temporary close down of the island to allow its rehabilitation Boracay, known for its white sand beaches and crystal clear waters, has been struggling with a bad sewerage and zoning problems. This prompted the President to describe the tourist destination as a cesspool.
Before President Duterte approved the closure, the inter-agency task force submitted to Malacañang a detailed proposal on the six-month shutdown of Boracay to address the environmental problems. The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), however, suggested the closure of Boracay in phases to minimize the disruption of businesses and livelihood in the island.
But Teo said the rehabilitation cannot be done in phases.
Various Boracay stakeholders had opposed the closure, citing that at least 36,000 individuals could be displaced while at least P56 billion of revenue could be lost.
Plan for workers lacking
While the task force submitted a rehabilitation plan, senatorslamented the administration’s lack of a concrete plan in finally deciding to shut down Boracay.
“Where is the concrete plan for the workers of Boracay? What are the plans of the DENR, DILG, DSWD, DOLE, and the DOT for affected employees as well as those in the informal sector?” asked Senator Nancy Binay, chair of the Senate Committee on Tourism.
She said that while physical plans to rehabilitate Boracay are already in place amid the closure, the government has “missed out” measures for the more than 30,000 workers that will be displaced, especially that enrollment of their children for the next school year looms.
“As chair of the Senate Committee on Tourism, I was expecting a more detailed plan for the majority of the workers – especially from the tourism sectors – who will be displaced,” she said.
“There should be information channels to employees and employers about impending disruptions; programs for re-employment service, unemployment insurance, cash-for-work, and direct job creation, etc,” she added.
Sen. Joel Villanueva aired the same sentiment, adding that the supposed calamity fund that will be activated by the government to aid workers will not be enough.
“It is unfortunate that the rehabilitation plan and livelihood interventions for the workers have not been clearly set in motion first before the closure of Boracay,” said Villanueva, chair of the Senate Committee on Labor, Employment, and Human Resources Development.
Sen. Ralph Recto, for his part, cited the need for a “master plan” to the six-month closure of Boracay, not only on employment issues, but also on budgeting and penalizing businesses that have violated environmental and sanitation laws.
Recto said the government should also be open to the possibility of allowing compliant resorts to open even before the end of the six-month forced closure.
Sen. Sherwin T. Gatchalian, chairman of the Senate Economic Affairs Committee, expressed concern about the potential effects of the Boracay closure order on the livelihood of the people who live and work on the island.
“The government needs to address this issue by implementing a cash-for-work program to provide temporary employment for workers who will be temporarily displaced by the closure order,” he said.
“It will be good to offer to the people of Boracay the opportunity to help clean up their community by being employed in the government’s environmental rehabilitation program,” he said.
Senator Juan Edgardo Angara, vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, urged authorities to ensure that the thousands of workers who would be affected by the six-month closure would have access to the employment assistance program of the government.
Based on government data, more than 2 million tourists visited Boracay last year to enjoy its powdery beaches, spectacular sunsets, and festive nightlife, generating about P56 billion ($1 billion) in revenue. But the influx of tourists, neglected infrastructure, and growth of resort establishments and poor settlements have threatened to turn Boracay into a “dead island” in less than a decade, according to a government study.
The island can only sustain 30,000 people but teems with 70,000 at any time, including 50,000 residents and daily arrivals of about 20,000 tourists, Tourism Assistant Secretary Frederick Alegre said.
Hundreds of settlers have also illegally built homes and structures in forests and protected wetlands over the years, officials said.
Only about 47 percent of the hundreds of establishments are connected to the island’s main sewerage treatment plant, with many of the rest possibly maintaining crude septic tanks and others discharging their waste directly into the sea, Alegre said.
Alegre also bared that there is discrepancy regarding the environmental fee being collected from the tourists.
“Actually angperanasa LGU (local government unit). May discrepancy naagadnanakitaang DILG. Remember, two million tourists angdumating last year and yet angna-declare na income is only P91 million. (Actually, the money is in the LGU. There is discrepancy that the DILG has observed. Remember, two million tourists came in last year and yet the declared income is only P91 million.) The DILG is asking the LGU to explain,” said Alegre, who bared that travelers who enter the island are required to pay P75 as an environmental fee.
Flights to Boracay reduced
Meanwhile, both flag carriers, Philippine Airlines (PAL) and Cebu Pacific (CEB), are cutting down their services to Boracay for half a year, leaving just enough flights to serve local residents and sustain basic business, as the country’s most popular island destination shuts down for rehabilitation.
So far, CEB has cancelled a total of 14 daily round trip flights (13 domestic and 1 international) to Kalibo and Caticlan, the gateway towns to Boracay, from April 26 to October 27, 2018.
CEB also cancelled five more flights varying from a single once-a-week round-trip flight from Cebu to Kalibo to a 6-day per week service from Kalibo to Cebu.
To serve the locals’ transport and commercial needs for the next six months, CEB is operating six daily one-way flights covering Manila to Kalibo, Manila to Caticlan, Cebu to Caticlan, and vice versa.
For its part, PAL is scaling down services to Caticlan and Kalibo for the six-month period while expanding flights to alternative, local, tourist destinations.
Nevertheless, PAL will continue to operate nine weekly flights between Manila and Kalibo and seven weekly flights between Manila and Caticlan.
All other Caticlan and Kalibo flights from Manila will be suspended from April 20 to October 27; flights to Caticlan from Cebu and Clark, from April 26 to October 27. (With reports from AP, AFP, Vanne P. Terrazola, Mario B. Casayuran, and Emmie V. Abadilla)