By Analou De Vera, Ria Fernandez, and Tara Yap
World-famous Boracay reopened on Friday six months after it was ordered closed by President Dutertefor massive rehabilitation due to years of neglect, over development, and disregard for environmental laws.
“Welcome back to Boracay or, would it be better to say, welcome back Boracay,” said Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat in her speech at the re-opening ceremonies at the Cagban Jetty Port.
The white sand idyll was closed to visitors in April after President Dutertecalled it a “cesspool” tainted by raw sewage flowing from hotels and restaurants straight into the sea.
Now back to its pristine condition following massive rehabilitation, Boracay will now operate under a slew of new rules that restrict boozing and smoking on the beach, limit the number of tourists and hotels, all while a renovation spree is ongoing.
The government will also ban casino operations, while all water sports save for swimming are also banned for the time being.
Among the first visitors to land just after dawn on Friday was a first-timer attracted by the prospect of a cleaner, less crowded island.
“When I saw pictures of tourists in Boracay lying like sardines in a can, I didn’t want to come here,” German visitor Josef Fuchs, 61, told AFP. “Now I expect to have a few good days here.”
“It’s nice to see without thousands of people on the beach. It looks much cleaner,” Dutch executiveJelmar de Jong, who has been coming to Boracay every year since 1995, said.
The 51-year-old Dutch executive said he is pleased with the government’s massive crackdown on environmental violators.
“There’s less garbage while establishments had to make space for the road and the beach. It’s all nice. It’s only the first day, but we will see how it goes,” he noted.
Local tourist Mai Amit from Palawan was less optimistic. She lamented that maybe the government should have opted to have opened Boracay at a later schedule.
“For now, it’s not the best time. Too many demolished buildings and the road is not finished,” the 26-year-old said.
While there’s El Nido and Coron in Palawan, Mai still prefers Boracay.
“You have everything here in one island instead of going island to island. It’s also cheaper here for accommodation. But what I like best about Boracay is the fine sand,” Mai added.
Once a quiet hideaway favoured by backpackers, the tiny island was transformed by overdevelopment into a mass destination seeing some two million visitors per year.
Under the new regime, the beachfront is cleared of the masseuses, vendors, bonfires and even the builders of its famous photo-op sandcastles it was once crowded with.
Puyat said her office will make sure that the island’s carrying capacity of 19,215 persons per day will be strictly enforced.
“Angproblemanganamin, everybody wants to go to Boracay. As we’ve seen in social media a lot of the press people have been covering, not just local but also international press. They are actually very impressed by what we have been done in six-month’s time,” said Puyat in a press conference.
The tourism chief also bared that other countries are planning to “emulate” in their beaches what the Philippine government has done to Boracay.
Environmental Secretary Roy Cimatu said his agency will conduct a “periodic inspection” on the environmental compliance of all establishments in the island paradise and continue monitoring the quality of water in Boracay beaches.
To enforce the no-casino policy on the island, Justice Secretary MenardoGuevarra said his department has recommended the issuance of an executive order for its implementation.
“The DOJ has specifically recommended the issuance of an executive order that will somehow guide not only the current administration but also for the longer term, the matter of implementing a policy of no casinos in Boracay,” said Guevarra.
“Dahilang konseptong [the concept of] Boracay is a family-oriented activity, and not meant for foreigners and tourists who will come to Boracay not to enjoy the place but to engage in gambling,” he added.
Guevarra, meanwhile, said that the franchises of the existing casinos in Boracay can be revoked anytime by the government.
“We have given the opinion that iyankasing franchise whether provisional or permanent is revocable at any time because that is a privilege granted by the state. It can be revoked any time,” he said.
Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) officer-in-charge Eduardo Año said that the President also called him to ensure that no casino will be operating on the island.
“The other night, the President gave specific instructions to me to ensure that no casino shall be operating even the existing ones. In fact, we requested Pagcor (Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation) chair Andrea Domingo to cancel the franchise and permit of these existing casinos,” said Año.
During the ceremonial opening, the government’s inter-agency task force consisting of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Department of Tourism (DOT), and the DILG reiterated that rehabilitation will continue.
“The reopening of Boracay is not the culmination of our journey on sustainable tourism – it’s just the beginning,” said T Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat, who officially declared the island resort’s reopening.
“DOT urges everyone to be responsible tourists. It is the key to the preservation of this national treasure,” Puyat added.
Aside from Puyat, Cimatu, Año, and Guevarra, also at Boracay’s reopening were Secretary Mark Villar of Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), Secretary Silvestre Bello III of Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo, Philippine National Police (PNP) Director General Oscar Albayalde, Aklan Governor Florencio Miraflores, Aklan Congressman Carlito Marquez, local officials, and key private partners.
200 new lifeguards
A total of 200 new lifeguards are now ready to serve swimming guests after undergoing intensive training under the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG).
“[This is] to enhance lifeguarding here in Boracay and to improve the safety in the beach of Boracay,” said Capt. Allan dela Vega, PCG Western Visayas district commander.
PCG also broke the ground for the P30-million radar station and sent its newlyacquired patrol ship from France, BRP Boracay, to the island to augment security forces on the ground.
“These aim to counter terrorist activities…since Boracay is open seas,” said Capt. Armand Balilo, PCG spokesman.
Meanwhile, the new Cagban road, just a few steps from the Cagban port, was also opened Friday.
From the previous 4 to 5 meters, the whole stretch of the road is now 12 meterswide with walkway, according Villar.
In terms of job opportunities, the government is also keen on leveling the playing field among the natives of Boracay.
The Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) provided free scholarships on cookery, driving, and massage therapy, among others, to hundreds of people, half of them from the Ati tribe.
“[We are looking into] requesting [establishments that]…20 percent of their workforce should be locals, said Cimatu, chairman of the Boracay Inter-Agency Task Force (BIATF). (With a report from AFP)