The Philippines has announced a six-month closure of the popular tourist destination of Boracay over concerns the island’s famous beaches and clear blue waters have been transformed into a “cesspool” due to sustained environmental damage.
The closure, which will begin April 26, was announced following a cabinet meeting Wednesday, and would be a “total closure” to tourists, Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said. No other information was made available, CNN Philippines reported.
The decision ends weeks of speculation on the fate of the popular tourist destination, after Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte complained about the state of the island in February.
Boracay, which is around 170 miles south of the capital Manila, is home to as many as 17,000 people, many of whom are directly engaged in the tourism industry, according to CNN Philippines.
“Calamity funds” would be activated to provide financial relief to those affected by the shutdown, Senior Deputy Executive Secretary Menardo Guevarra said, but declined to give a figure.
The archipelago nation of the Philippines boasts well over 7,000 islands, and among them Boracay had come to be almost a byword for white-sand beach paradise.
But with an influx of tourists that began in the 1980s the island has struggled to maintain its idyllic allure. Last year almost 1.7 million tourists, including a significant number of cruise line passengers, visited the island during a 10-month period, according to the governmental Philippines Information Agency,
Among the problems caused by the island’s long-running tourism boom is unregulated development and pipes carrying raw effluence directly into the sea.
In a survey of the island’s sewerage facilities, the vast majority – 716 of 834 – residential and business properties were found to have no discharge permit and were presumed to be draining waste water directly into the sea, according to a report by the official Philippines News Agency.
In February Duterte directly called out the alleged mismanagement of the island, accusing those responsible of turning it into a “cesspool.”
“As long as there is shit coming out of those pipes draining to the sea, I will never give you the time of the day (to return)” to the island, said Duterte.
Residents said that past pleas for help with infrastructure on the island had gone unheeded, and the government’s reaction was too harsh.
“We cried for help for all the unfinished infrastructure that causes all these problems,” Normeth Preglo Parzhuber, a kiteboarding school owner on Bulabog Beach told CNN via Facebook.
“Now we have to suffer for their mistakes.”
Others said they were waiting for more details about the planned closure, with a briefing expected by Secretary Roque.
“We have yet to hear the official announcement and details of closure – what will be our role as stakeholders? They said hotels and restaurants will not be closed but they will stop the tourists,” said Nenette Aguirre Graf.
The shutdown is intended to provide an extended period to clean up the island and surrounding seas – with the burden for connecting to the sewerage system likely to fall on business owners, Tourism Undersecretary Ricky Alegre told CNN.
“We describe (Boracay) as a world class island destination with poor services,” Alegre says.
“And we wish to upgrade the services. We must swallow the bitter pill, and see this solution as one step backward and two steps forward. We want to continue to promote the Philippines as a beautiful destination – and want to add that our destinations are environmentally compliant.”
However, the local sentiment had been “clean (but) not close,” according to one resident, Civi Civitarese.
An unnamed member of the anti-closure Boracay United group said that the island’s residents could work to we can rehabilitate, restore and rebuild what was lost and preserve our national treasure” without the need for an extended and costly closure, through “sustainable environmental solutions.”
Closing the island to tourism would “severely devastate the lives of over 19,000 workers that will lose everything, while crippling not only Boracay’s micro, small and medium enterprises, but the entire country’s tourism and reputation across the globe for a very long time,” the member, quoted in Boracay United’s press release, said.
In February, over 50 hotels and restaurants were given notices after failing to comply with the country’s water treatment laws, CNN Philippines reported.
The island, which regularly features on lists of the world’s best beaches also plays host to thousands of cruise ship tourists and crew.
Prior to the announcement to shutter the resort island, the Department of Tourism said that as many as 18 ocean liners, carrying more than 50,000 passengers and around half that number of crew members, were due to visit the island in 2018.