Boracay, the Philippines’ most popular tourist destination, is closed... for now.
The closure was no surprise to long-time Boracay observers. The formerly pristine beach-resort island in the Philippines’ Visayas region had long exceeded its carrying capacity: an estimated 1.7 million tourists visited Boracay in 2016, helped along by budget airline flights from all over Southeast Asia.
During the few days surrounding the LaBoracay party season that same year, almost 71,000 tourists gave Boracay a temporary population density matching New York’s!
Infrastructure, sadly, has not kept up with Boracay’s runaway growth. Hotels have sprung up on both sides of Boracay to meet demand — but some of them do not comply with local environmental laws. In fact, half of all known buildings in Boracay were built on protected land.
Finally, the island’s sewerage system is shockingly ill-managed: some pipes disperse raw sewage directly into the sea, contributing to the growth of algae and coliform bacteria around Boracay’s beaches.
No wonder the Philippines’ famously opinionated President Rodrigo Duterte called Boracay a "cesspool", and directed its closure.
How Long Will Boracay Stay Closed?
The official closure is expected to last six months from April 26, 2018, while local government gets a grip on the island’s many problems.
Indeed, Boracay’s stakeholders have their work cut out for them:
Inadequate waste disposal: Despite having a sewage treatment plant and solid waste disposal system that opened in 2003, it served only half of all hotels and a fourth of all households in Boracay. In the meantime, some establishments discharged their sewage right onto the beach — the environment secretary revealed that about 43 illegal sewage pipes were recently found buried under the sand.
Algal blooms — the rapid increase of water-borne algae that commonly accompanies dissolved fecal matter in the water — have also expanded in size and duration, no small thanks to these illegal discharges.
Boracay’s solid-waste problem has also escalated. The island's resorts, restaurants and houses generate 90 to 115 tonnes of trash a day, of which only 30 tonnes are shipped out regularly to a landfill on a nearby island, according to Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo.
Illegal structures: About 947 out of 1,800 total structures on the island were erected without permits or on restricted land, many of them shanties built by locals. A total of 579 structures are targeted for demolition, due to their being erected in forests, wetlands or under the 30-meter distance from the beach.
But some big fish will also be caught up in the net—the massive D’Mall shopping district on Station Two, for instance, may have been built on protected wetlands, and may fall to the wrecking ball.
Tourist congestion: Prior to closure, Boracay was drawing about 2 million tourists annually—but that number simply isn’t sustainable in the long run.
After it reopens, Boracay may need to impose caps on the number of tourists allowed to visit, same as Sipadan in Malaysia and the Philippines’ own Underground River in Palawan have done.
“In the Underground River, there's a limited number of people going there—I think that will be the case with Boracay,” explained Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo. “So when it's full, then you have to book on the next day. You have to wait... They can stay in Caticlan, and then when the tourism in Boracay wanes, then they can go in.”
What the Boracay Closure Means for Visitors
For many, the closure is bad news. Tourists have had to reschedule their trips, or leave the Philippines out entirely from their itineraries. (Not to mention the 36,000 Boracay locals who will be deprived of their usual business for six whole months, and the estimated US$1.06 billion in tourist receipts forfeited in that time.)
If you have an existing booking from April to October, affected airlines flying into Caticlan and Kalibo will offer refunds. (Read these advisories from AirAsia, Cebu Pacific, and Philippine Airlines.)
Your hotel booking may be a little trickier to resolve. Hotel brands with operations beyond Boracay may be able to offer alternate bookings in sister properties elsewhere, but hostels and smaller hotels may not have the capacity to do the same.
Alternative Destinations Beyond Boracay
If you’re flying into the Philippines anyway, consider these Boracay alternatives:
On Palawan Island, you can go to the beach and diving hotspot Coron, where the clear waters and clean beaches remind visitors of what Boracay may have been like 40 years ago. There’s also El Nido, a limestone-island-studded archipelago with hidden coves and some luxury resorts hidden among the islands.
Just off Bohol Island, the island of Panglao offers Alona Beach and its three- to four-star resorts that rival any in Boracay for their creature comforts.
The island of Siargao south of Cebu has a laid-back surfer community and some of the world’s hottest surf spots—but white-sand beaches are harder to come by, unless you go on an island-hopping tour.
What to Expect When Boracay Reopens
Improved infrastructure: Fixing the defective sewerage system is a top priority of the government—by October, there will be no illegal pipes discharging wastewater directly into the sea, reducing algal blooms and coliform bacteria in the water.
Most of the major road running north to south of the island will be considerably widened as well, and a new circumferential road will be completed when Boracay reopens.
More expensive stays: The government might decide to make a Boracay stay more expensive, appealing more to rich tourists than backpackers.
“Make Boracay expensive,” proposes economist John Paolo R. Rivera of the Andrew L. Tan Center for Tourism—while it lessens the number of tourists visiting the island, this also reduces the strain on Boracay’s resources, resulting in “sustainable tourism.”
Limits on tourist arrivals: The simple expedient of adding a tourist cap has been tried elsewhere before — and they’ve worked out quite well for the diving hotspot of Sipadan in Malaysia, where tourists are required to buy permits from local resorts, who in turn are issued a limited number of permits per day.
Boracay may follow their example, making the oppressive crush of LaBoracay a thing of the past.