My first visit was in the late ‘80s, when this secret paradise was just beginning to enjoy prominence. This beautiful island in the Pacific started to gain worldwide attention when a German named Jens Peter wrote about Boracay as “Paradise on Earth” in the late ‘70s. At the time there were still very few tourists, and electric power was scarce and unreliable. However, a few Europeans were beginning to buy land on the island. There were no concrete structures along the shore, and there were very few business establishments. In fact, we stayed in a nice cottage made of bamboo. There was no such thing as “Stations” yet, as in Stations 1, 2 and 3. The main source of livelihood were fishing and agriculture, and one could go from place to place on horseback.
Being somewhat of a “beach bum” in my youth (I would take breakfast in one beach and hop to another beach for lunch) I immediately noticed in Boracay the sugar-fine, white sand I had never seen before. It was also the first time I experienced sand that remained cool even at midday. By contrast, one could hardly walk barefoot on the beaches of Northern Philippines on a hot summer day.
More than 20 years later in 2010, I again visited Boracay together with some fraternity brothers. I fell in love with the island again! Inspired by what I saw during this second visit, I wrote an article for our fraternity website (www.upbsi.org/Travelogue/ “Boracay, You’re Still the One,”- October 2010).
We were billeted at Sea Wind Resort owned by Joebert Cocjin, a brother of our former frat sweetheart Julien. It was located in an area called White Beach in Station 1. (For those who have not gone there, Station 1 is the quietest portion of the island and where the more high-end establishments are located; Station 3 has less pricey lodging facilities and where backpackers normally stay; Station 2 is somewhere in between and is the island’s epicenter of activity.) It was also during this visit that I started collecting sample sand from different beaches. As an aside, Boracay’s sand is still the whitest in my wide collection of 40 samples. Internet data shows Boracay’s White Beach sand ranks third in this aspect, as ranked by Internet sources, behind Hyams Beach in Australia and Matira Beach in Bora Bora.
Once again, I enjoyed the most beautiful, breathtaking and mesmerizing sunset one could ever behold.
At the time, Section 3 was just beginning to be populated by both local and foreign tourists, as well as migrant workers from other provinces. D’Mall, Boracay’s business center, was comprised of various establishments that offered all types of merchandise from food to foreign exchange to souvenir items to electronics. It was already beginning to expand. Very noticeable in this mall was a Ferris wheel, something that I thought was out of place.
Even more noticeable was a lavish resort that encroached towards the sea, a structure that might have marked the beginning of ecological degradation. During this time there was a lack of environmental regulation, and the resort was clearly an eyesore. Because of its size and location, tourists could not miss seeing it when they go island-hopping. Its ownership was being attributed to boxing icon Manny Pacquiao (which Pacquiao denies). Nonetheless, the locals called it “The Pacquiao Resort.”
I would learn in 2012, two years after my second visit, that Boracay was on top of the list among the world’s best beaches by various travel and leisure magazines. The status as one of the world’s best islands remained for a few more years thereafter.
Fast forward to June 2019. My personal wish of bringing to Boracay my Albanian son-in-law Gentian, himself a beach lover, became a reality. He, together with my daughter, Ria, and their two young boys, Adrioni and Enzo, flew to this paradise island with me and my wife, Tess.
We stayed at Coast Hotel, a four-star facility with 5-star service. I must sing praises to all of the hotel staff–from food service and front desk, to security and housekeeping. They were very friendly, courteous, service-oriented, smart and alert, equaling the caliber of my former staff at the Development Academy of Philippines Tagaytay Training Center where I served as Resident Manager in the ‘80s. I spent a lot of time talking to them mainly to find out what had happened since I last visited in 2010. Therefore, the succeeding paragraphs are based on my interviews, as well as my most recent personal observations and experiences.
Here are some of the accounts of locals:
• Tourist arrivals have increased significantly especially after 2012, when it was publicized as one of the top beaches in the world, thereby increasing problems on the already overloaded drainage system.
• A strong typhoon named Urduja hit the area in 2017 and caused flooding to about 90 percent of Boracay Island. Part of the cause of the flooding was the lack of an adequate drainage system and overdevelopment. Some of the natural wetlands, that would previously catch excess rain water had been converted into business establishments.
• When the floods receded towards the sea, the formerly crystal clear shoreline became murky, and was full of plastic materials and uncollected garbage. As if this wasn’t enough, green algae grew along the shores, causing dismay among local and foreign tourists who wanted to enjoy the untainted beauty of the sea.
• When Boracay was reopened to tourists in October 2018, some areas remained flooded for another two months, leaving some stink and a proliferation of flies on the island.
• As tourism grew unabated, so did other forms of entertainment such as fire-dancing and partying along the shore. Fire-dancing was one of Boracay’s nightly attractions. The noise level was always high, even beyond midnight, due to partying and loud music.
• Consumerism and commercialization had spread all over with shops mushrooming especially on the shoreline, and all types of vendors breathing down on the neck of tourists. That included a lot of sand sculptors who offered over-priced souvenir photo-ops to their customers.
Given all these accounts of environmental degradation, unabated influx of tourists, alleged area mismanagement, coupled with some blogs by tourists and pictures posted in the Internet, Boracay must have, indeed, deteriorated to a record low during the few years before its six-month closure that began on April 26, 2018. Some even say that Boracay was being promoted as a party island and a place where one could have cheap sex.
My fraternity brother Rolly Reyes, former Undersecretary of Tourism and currently a columnist for the Manila Times, wrote in his column about Boracay’s problems: beach area encroachment; clogged drainage system; waste disposal directed to the sea; illegal structures; stray dogs; swarms of vendors; indiscriminate granting of building permits; narrow main road; boats blocking beach view; transients scamming tourists; and corrupt local officials.
This caught the attention of DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu, who asked to meet with Rolly. This meeting eventually led to the decision to close Boracay temporarily. “Band aid solution or partial closure will only prolong the environmental deterioration of the island. Reformatting is a long-term solution,” Rolly explained.
It was, therefore, a fortunate coincidence that we decided to visit Boracay in June 2019, almost eight months after it reopened in late October 2018. From Terminal 4 of NAIA, we took a one-hour PAL jet flight to Caticlan. A van was waiting for us to shuttle our six-person group to Fairways, where a speed boat took us for a five-minute ride to the island of Boracay. Then another 15-minute ride on a van to the center of town. I noticed some road-widening construction along the main road, plus some giant water pipes obviously meant to improve the drainage system. After that, we walked for about five minutes towards the shoreline of Section 2 where our hotel is located.
On the very hour of our arrival, Gentian took his sons to the shore fronting our hotel. To our group’s delight, they immediately fell in love with the warm, calm, crystal-clear, and shallow waters of the island. All of us spent much of our time enjoying the beach, most especially my grandson whose skin color became more Asian than European after spending several hours each day on the beach. I observed though that the sand was no longer as white compared with my two previous visits.
Very early the next morning, I went on a four-mile hike (round trip) to Section 1, where we stayed in 2010. My purpose was not only to exercise, but also to examine the sand. I found that as I approached Section 1 the sand became more white and fine but no longer of the same quality I keep in my collection. Even the sand I saw in Puka Beach (one of the island-hopping stops) was no longer as white.
During these early morning hikes towards Station 1, I would see young boys constructing a sand castle or two. Each time, however, law enforcers would demolish them. I felt pity for the boys for missing the chance to earn a few pesos from tourists posing for pictures. So I asked the locals why this was so. And here was the answer, quoting the ordinance: “This daily unregulated commercial activity tinkers with the natural terrain of the beach resulting to prolonged presence of irregular contours which affect the natural symmetry of the beach.”
Also, I observed what I call the “multinational commercial invasion.” On the three-mile walkway starting from Station 3 towards the end of Station 2 are now international restaurants and establishments such as 7-Eleven, McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Subway, Starbucks, and Shakey’s. There is a lot of Filipino establishments, too: Mang Inasal, Andok’s, Mesa Filipino Moderne, Subo, Hoy Pangga, Cha Cha’s Beach Café, Smoke, Halomango, Plato Paluto, etc. There is even a joint in D’Mall that employs only midgets, called “The Hobbit Tavern.” The Ferris wheel is still there. Then there is also a growing number of Chinese establishments, a lament among local businessmen vying for space since the reopening.
I don’t remember many concrete structures in 2010 except in Station 1. Most notable were the Shangri-la Hotel and the “Pacquiao Resort.” In 2019, most of the hotels and restaurants in the four-mile White Beach stretch are now made of concrete. Very noticeable are the six Hennan-owned establishments located a few hundred meters from each other.
Nonetheless, I found some positive developments relating to this growing commercial activity. First, the banning of single-use plastic. Second, business permits are not granted unless hotels and restaurants acquire their own individual waste disposal system. We can also cheer the undergoing demolition of the so-called “The Pacquiao Resort,” a total eyesore that is now almost beyond recognition. There are other resorts undergoing demolition because they are not legal, although it is said that some of these are being voluntarily taken down by their respective owners.
Is over-tourism being controlled? I don’t know about that. Even if the month of June is supposed to be the start of the low season, I still saw crowd upon crowd of tourists along Stations 3 and 2, many of them were Chinese and Koreans. If it is of any consolation, the government has intermittently banned the entry of cruise ships with 2,000 or more passengers. I did not see any cruise ship docking on the island.
Other significant improvements include the following: (1) Ban on deck chairs and tables from the beach area; the prohibition of buffet by the beach, an activity we used to enjoy in 2010; (2) Ban on one of Boracay’s main attractions before the closure–the famous fire dancers; (3) Ban on firecrackers of any sort, and beach entrepreneurs have to make do with LED lights instead of kerosene-soaked torches; (4) Imposition of stiff penalty for those caught drinking alcohol by the beach. For instance, in the bars and restaurants located right on the hotel façade, there is a certain boundary where one could have food or drinks; (5) Limiting masseuses from doing service on the beach; (6) Designation of a specific area in Station 3 where boats depart for the “sunset cruise” or “island-hopping;” this would entail quite a long walk especially for people who are billeted in Station 2; (7) Even plastic straws can no longer be used, and umbrellas and benches have been removed from the beach; and (8) Super loud music is no longer allowed, a welcome development for those who prefer peace and quiet.
The keen observer may also think Boracay has turned into some sort of “police state.” Men and women in police uniforms walking in groups of five or more are ubiquitous, especially in the most populated areas. Personally, I felt a bit safer, plus this is a way of providing employment to the locals. There has been a proliferation of massage clinics, although the masseuses look sharp in their white uniforms but are no longer allowed on the beach.
The reader who has followed this article this far might develop the impression that Boracay has again become the paradise island that it used to be. The fact is that there is still some work to do. As I began writing this article, there was a recent tropical storm, Danas, that caused flooding, as high as three feet, in major areas including the D’Mall commercial complex. It is believed that tourists and residents will have to deal with flooding until the middle of next year when the construction of the island’s drainage system is scheduled to be completed.
Another major irritant is the abundance of flies in non-air-conditioned areas. The band-aid remedy being adopted is to put candles on each restaurant table. It is quite obvious that the current sanitation system–with all the ordinance-dictated waste disposal systems–is insufficient. A systemic, wholistic solution needs to be put in place.
The abovementioned restrictions are favorable, especially to those who want to unwind and relax. Others say the restrictions make the island “boring,” and one blogger wrote that it should now be called “Boringcay.” Yet there are still many exciting activities: parasailing; banana boat ride; paddle board; kayaking; scuba diving; windsurfing; scuba diving; and snorkeling. I liked the six-hour island-hopping and the tour around the island.
However, if you like to enjoy the spectacular Boracay sunset, I don’t recommend the so-called “Sunset Cruise.” It starts and ends before the sun really sets and is quite expensive considering an abbreviated sailing time of only 30 minutes. Rather, a lazy walk along the beach just watching the silhouettes of people and the slowly passing sailboats as the sun sets on the horizon is certainly more gratifying.
On the whole, I must submit that Boracay is a place for tourists especially before and after the monsoon season. That is, if one is looking for a place to rest and relax, delight in various types of fresh seafood, enjoy the crystal-clear water and engage in wholesome entertainment. Perhaps this place will even be nicer after all the rehabilitation work shall have been completed in 2020.
Willie Vergara was a former Vice President of the Development Academy of the Philippines until he immigrated to the United States in 1996. He recently retired from the County of Sacramento and has traveled to 15 countries since then.