Boracay: Paradise Lost

With Manila failing to impress, just another overcrowded, smog filled mega city with limited historical, architectural or cultural attractions of interest to me, I turned to what all the experts identified as the crowning glory of the Philippines, its islands. It has over 7,000, but 3 kept coming up as particularly beautiful: Cebu, Palawan and Boracay. Cebu was on the Canadian Foreign Affairs watch list, so I vetoed it. Palawan looked positive, but hours of searching on failed to turn up appealing hotels within my price range. They were either outrageous, hundreds of dollars per night for western style resorts, or so cheap that necessities like air conditioning and private bathrooms were lacking.

Thus, Boracay won by default, but it was a risky choice. In April, 2018, the Philippines’ president, Rodrigo Duterte, declared the island “closed” due to its lack of cleanliness; he actually called it “a cesspool.” For 6 months, the island was off-limits to tourists, while the locals picked plastic off the beach, reconstructed sewer lines so that hotel sewage did not flow directly into the sea and upgraded infrastructure to ensure environmental standards were adequate. The island had reopened in October, 2018. I thought, naively, that since it had only been open for a few months, there would be few tourists, far less than the 2 million that arrived there in 2017, and everything would be relatively clean.

If I wanted to create a case study in how to make a bad first impression of a sun destination, Boracay would be perfect. After an uneventful, but expensive ($600 round trip) 40 minute flight from Manila, me and the other passengers walked to the miniscule Caticlan airport arrivals area where we waited half an hour for our luggage to be off-loaded manually from the plane, put into luggage carts then again manually unloaded, not onto conveyor belts, but raised tables. As soon as a few bags were placed on the tables, the 150 or so passengers surged forward to see if their bags were some of the offloaded lucky ones, only to be pushed from behind by other like-minded passengers. When it couldn’t get much worse, an Air Asia flight landed and dislodged another 150 passengers into the already cramped arrivals area. More pushing and shoving ensued.

Eventually, I retrieved my luggage (Philippine Airlines had decided it was not appropriate hand luggage, despite fitting easily into the metal measuring contraption) and went outside to look for a sign with my name from my pre-arranged hotel transfer. I found it and was escorted to a mini-SUV where 3 Filipino Americans were waiting. They were here for a wedding and the mother, perhaps in her 60’s, was none too happy. They had flown from Los Angeles that day, the wedding was in two days and she had been excluded from the planning process. Nonetheless, she said, 70 of the groom’s friends and relatives had flown in from the USA for the ceremony. Her daughter volunteered the bride’s family was from Boracay, which partly explained the location, but more importantly, it was 1/3 the price of a similar wedding in the USA.

We drove a grand total of less than 10 minutes in the comfort of the air conditioned SUV, when the transfer guide ordered us out of the vehicle. We had reached the boat jetty but before we could enter the terminal, we had to stand in line for registration and confirmation of a hotel on Boracay that had been issued an environmental compliance certificate. Naturally, this required filling out forms in triplicate using carbon paper (hadn’t seen that in decades) along with presenting our passports and providing personal information (occupation “not applicable” sufficed) which bore little relevance to protecting the environment.

Upon finishing the formalities, our guide hustled us into the boat jetty terminal, past the ticket taker and onto the pier, a concrete affair with basic, but colourful catamarans lining both sides, tethered by ropes and narrow, shaky gangplanks we were forced to traverse to enter the boat. I handed my bag to the guide, uncertain if I would be able to either maneuver it into the boat  or throw it on the roof where a crew man caught suitcases and piled them high on the cabin, with no visible signs of securing the bags. With misgivings, but no other choice, I ensured my cell phone was pushed deep in a pocket, grabbed both of the flimsy railings and gingerly crept the 10 feet or so down the wooden plank and onto the boat.

Boat transfer to Boracay

Inside, the luxury level remained low. A narrow passageway was flanked by rows of narrow wooden seats, each carrying two passengers. Above the seats hung two long poles, holding life vests which were uniformly ignored by all. As soon as the last seat filled, the captain turned the motor, backed out of the mooring place and off we scooted to Boracay, less than 10 minutes away on a relatively smooth crossing.

Arriving at Boracay, we disembarked on the same, rickety gangplank, but instead of stepping onto a solid pier, the 100 foot floating jetty in Boracay was made from recycled plastic, which may be environmentally sound, but bounced around in the waves and made pulling wheeled luggage a challenge. To top it off, the jetty ends, not at a wooden or concrete pier, but right on the beach, in sand, through which we now dragged our bags and dirtied our feet.

The guide led us to an open air jeepney which would transport us and our luggage to our respective hotels. Boracay is a fairly small island, only 10.2 kilometres and shaped in an oval, with some parts being only a kilometre wide. The jeepney drove to Main Road (as opposed to Back Road) which, not surprising, is the main road on the island. It is heavily built up, with structures lining both sides, but at least half of the structures were either closed due to lack of environmental certification, or undergoing some sort of construction, making my first impression of Boracay equivalent to visiting a massive building site, with the noise and dust to match.

I wrongly would have expected Main Road to bear some resemblance to an actual road. Aside from being bordered on both sides by buildings, it didn’t. To comply with the environmental decrees, new sewers under the road were being drilled, leaving most of the road unpaved and sandy, with the work not expected to be complete until 2020. Sidewalks did not exist and the road was so narrow that two normal size SUVs could barely pass each other. Welcome to Paradise!

Main Road

It was time to hit the beach and see if all the accolades were valid. To some extent, they were: the water was the requisite turquoise and clear, the sand soft and white and palm trees lined the back of the beach, providing much needed shade. Just past the palm trees was a pedestrian path of sorts, half asphalt, half sand, where hundreds of buildings faced the sea – restaurants, massage parlours, tour agencies offering water sports and souvenir shops galore. Signs warned of dire consequences if you dared to litter, smoke, use plastic, drink alcohol, play loud music or construct commercial sand structures on the beach.

To be fair, the beach area appeared spotless. In the 4 days I stayed, I didn’t see a single plastic bag, discarded cigarette or any trash whatsoever on the beach, although some energetic locals sculpted the words “Boracay, 2019” with the precise date in sand and charged tourists to pose in front of it, which I suspect would constitute a “commercial sand structure,” but no one seemed too concerned.

There were, however, thousands of tourists, primarily Korean and Chinese but also a smattering of Russians and Australians. When I say thousands, I mean so many that it was hard to see the sand for all the people. And, for the most part, these tourists didn’t sunbathe in the way I think of sunbathing – getting a towel, lying on the beach under an umbrella which were sorely lacking, slapping on sunscreen and reading a juicy romance novel. Rather, most preferred to stay well covered up from the sun save for the mandatory run-into-the-water photo or video, and parade up and down the beach in large groups, so there was a constant army of people marching back and forth making my attempt to claim a little piece of sand as my own for a while completely futile.

The beach

Now I recognize that I am being completely hypocritical when I complain about too many tourists, being one myself, but I had not appreciated until I went to Boracay how overtourism can destroy a place. The environmental damage, emanating from the rapid and shoddy construction of too many resorts to accommodate the growing number of visitors, the dumping of sewage straight into the sea and the sheer volume of garbage, must have been mammoth to cause a complete 6 month  shutdown of the island.

But no amount of clean-up will address the other problem: the large number of tourists. Some places – Venice, Barcelona, Dubrovnik – come to mind, are dealing with the problem of too many visitors by charging admission, imposing maximum numbers or restricting cruise boats. The Philippines are too poor to undertake such actions. An attempt to limit the number of beds on Boracay to 5,000 fell by the wayside. Boracay and the other popular beach islands provide too many jobs and opportunities for too many people and the nouveau tourists of the Asian giants, buoyed by budget airlines and cheap food and hotels, are going to keep coming for their beach experience, In isolation, their Instagram inspired photos will look magnificent, but pull back a little, see the hordes that crowd the island and Boracay is less a paradise than a warmer version of the rat race, with tourists scurrying about to do their beach vacation just like the photos say they should.

Me and hundreds others enjoying a sunset