I WRITE on behalf of the Task Force Boracay composed of the heads of the Departments of Tourism, Environment and Natural Resources and Interior and Local Governments and other government agencies, in response to an opinion column written by Mr. Lito Banayo on his “So I See” column on Manila Standard’s 21 March 2018 issue.
In his piece, Mr. Banayo claimed the Task Force has misinterpreted President Rodrigo Duterte’s directive to solve the “cesspool” that Boracay has become after decades of neglect and abuse by national and local officials and its population and the millions of tourists who have visited it. Being a former head of the Philippine Tourism Authority and now government official as head of the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office which represents Philippine interests in Taiwan, Mr. Banayo should have understood that the government’s job is not only to protect the short-term interests of businesses, but ensure that we have a sustainable future for all our peoples.
We in the Task Force recommended temporary closure of the entire island of Boracay for six months to one year for a simple reason.
Boracay is not just a mall or subdivision that could be shut down partially while repairs are being done to parts of it. It is a living, breathing island with an ecological system that needs to be fixed with a holistic and comprehensive approach to restoring the environment’s balance while ensuring its sustainability as the Philippines’ top tourism destination.
This would require a total renovation of all the areas of the island where establishments were built in violation of environment laws, building a comprehensive sewage and water treatment facility for the entire island, establishing a system for a sustainable tourist traffic inflow into the island, and training the local businesses and workers in practicing a sustainable tourism culture that would prevent a repeat of the rapacious greed that turned Boracay into the “cesspool” it has become. We have asked noted architect and urban planner Felino Palafox Jr. to help the government design a new Boracay rehabilitation program with sustainability as end-goal.
Similar decisions to close down other tourism destinations had been made before because the huge tourist traffic severely degraded the local environment. Mt. Apo in Davao and the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park in Palawan were just a few tourism sites shut down for two years or less to allow the environment to breath and restore balance to their ecology. In other nations, including the United States, tourist sites are closed down on a regular basis to restore the beauty of the environment that is the reason they become favorites to tourists.
Indeed, President Duterte himself declared in a business forum in Davao City on February 8, 2018 that he wants Boracay closed because of the severe environmental problems that businesses there have created, especially on the issue of sewage management (https://manilastandard.net/news/top-stories/258403/boracay-faces-shutdown.html).
Clearly, we in the Task Force understand the situation of the tourism industry leader who complained to Mr. Banayo that closing Boracay would be bad for his business. Profit, indeed, is a shining goal many businessmen aspire for in the short term. In many instances, many Boracay establishments found it more profitable to just pay the fine for violating environmental laws such as throwing their sewage directly into the sea rather than do something to protect the environment.
The national government is taking measures to protect investors and workers from the temporary closure of the island to tourism inflow. The DoT is negotiating with airlines and travel agencies so that the affected tourists could be rebooked to other destinations or their flights rebooked to when Boracay could again accommodate tourists back into its shores. The Department of Labor and Employment is preparing packages for the affected workers, while the Department of Finance is asking banks to be lenient on local businesses with loans.
We would rather err in favor of rescuing Boracay’s environment and be accused of misinterpreting the President’s directives and make the correct move in making sure Boracay breathes easily again not only as en ecological system but as a great tourist destination.
This is not a matter of punishment, though the government intends to file cases against businessmen and national and local officials who have violated the laws in the name of profit. This is about giving Boracay back its sustainability as a paradise island for everyone to enjoy in the longer term.
We cannot argue against business people who fear losing profits and their business so we could
protect our environment. We just believe this is the right step so we could help make Boracay live forever.
Frederick M. Alegre
Department of Tourism