By Jake Maxwell Watts
(The Wall Street Journal)
The damage from tens of millions of tourists flooding Southeast Asia’s once-idyllic islands is forcing shutdowns of some of the world’s most popular paradise beaches.
The Philippines took the drastic step Thursday of announcing the closure for up to six months of its top tourist island, Boracay – a “cesspool,” in the words of President Rodrigo Duterte, after decades of unrestrained development.
Tourist traffic to the white-sand tropical beaches and coral reefs of Southeast Asia is growing unsustainably fast, officials said, with a boom in Chinese visitors adding to the strain they were already under from throngs of visitors from Europe, Australia, the Americas and the rest of Asia.
Successive Philippine governments have tried and failed for decades to clean up Boracay, until Mr. Duterte declared this month that he saw closure as the only option. A high concentration of human feces makes the water around the island hazardous to health.
“It really smells bad,” Mr. Duterte said. “The water is really contaminated.”
He is fighting strong economic incentives. Closure “is unfair to the good resort owners who are in compliance with environmental safeguards, ” said Risa Hontiveros, an opposition senator. “Tens of thousands of jobs will be affected across the industry.”
Other countries in the region are taking similar action. Last week, Thailand said it would close Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh – famously the setting of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Beach” – for four months a year to allow it to recover. In Bali, Indonesia, authorities in December declared a “garbage emergency” and deployed hundreds of volunteers to cart tons of plastic trash off beaches.
“The problem is the lack of action by the authorities,” said Komang Sudiartha, founder of a Bali-based nongovernmental organization that organizes cleanup campaigns on Indonesian beaches. She said many hotels don’t seem to care about disposing of trash properly.
Gilda Sagrado of the Bali Tourism Board, which puts the number of rooms across Bali at more than 90,000, said management at many hotels have inadequate knowledge, but at many others are “well-versed in waste management.”
Reachable from most of the world on cheap flights, Southeast Asia draws millions of visitors every year to its beaches, where they can find attractions from high-end resorts and sleek cafes to haphazard party venues, and activities from diving to alcohol-fueled nightlife. The result: Many paradise islands have become pollution catchments.
Some even stay, retiring on pensions that go much further than back home.
Jockeying for the best beachside locations, developers bulldoze over regulations and each other, and officials often turn a blind eye for the sake of jobs and economic development. The tourism industry employs nearly 14.5 million people across Southeast Asia, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.
International tourist arrivals are expected to hit 126 million this year and up to 209 million by 2028, as visitors from China surge. More than 62 million Chinese vacationed outside the country last year, twice as many as five years earlier, government data show – and Southeast Asia, just a few hours from southern China, is a top destination, particularly for first-time travelers.
“With the Chinese arriving we don’t have high and low seasons anymore,” said Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, vice president of the Phuket Tourist Association in Thailand. Infrastructure including roads and sewage lines hasn’t kept up, he said, blaming a lack of long-term planning.
In the Philippines, the number of Chinese visitors is growing 40% a year – hitting a million in 2017, for the first time outnumbering visitors from the US
Closing Boracay for six months could cost up to $380 million in lost revenue, Philippine officials said Thursday, but Mr. Duterte pledges not to be deterred, saying it is about protecting his country’s national interest.
“It is a tourist destination and we are proud of it,” he said. “We would like to maintain it because we are earning so much money there.”