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Postcards from Boracay |

Modern Living

Postcards from Boracay

CITY SENSE - Paulo Alcazaren - The Philippine Star
Postcards from Boracay
Boracay 30 years ago was a pristine paradise.

Postcards from Boracay, or any  other Philippine destination, may soon be only from the past, unless we all learn from the lessons of  our once-pristine islands.

The ongoing closure and rehabilitation of Boracay has been met with much controversy. Local business owners were up in arms because of lost revenues, while labor groups and NGOs complained of the heavy social cost. Many people, though, hailed the move as long overdue for the premier island paradise of the Philippines.

When I was much younger, options for beach adventure were limited. Budget airlines were unheard of in the ‘70s. Barkada or family outings were also constrained by basic infrastructure back then, which meant taking the short “superhighways” out of Manila, followed by tortuous routes south to the beaches of Cavite and Batangas, or north to the coasts of Bataan and Zambales.

The Hundred Islands of Pangasinan were as far as most went in those days. But, if you had some money, the selection widened to the beaches up in Ilocos, down in Cebu, or the delights of Sicogon off Panay.

For the really adventurous there were the festivals of the Moriones in Marinduque and the Ati-Atihan in Kalibo, Aklan. These two were not really beach destinations but because of these, tourists discovered Puerto Galera, as well as the dumbbell-shaped Boracay Island.

By the 1990s Boracay had surpassed all other island destinations in the country.

The popularity of scuba diving from the late ‘70s onwards had a hand in developing these destinations, although it started with the underwater treasures of Anilao in Batangas. Unfortunately, Anilao did not have good beaches.

Boracay’s claim to fame in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was not as a destination but as a source of the fashionable puka shell. I remember taking a bagful of puka necklaces and bracelets with me when I toured Europe in the ‘70s as part of a university troupe. They were fought over by our European hosts.

Boracay began showing on the maps of backpacker guidebooks in the 1980s. This started with German writer Jens Peter’s short introduction to the island, followed a few years later by features in Lonely Planet. I had copies of both. Peter’s showed only two places to stay in, Aguirre’s Beach House or the White Beach Resthouse. A room for the night cost P5 and P10 per person respectively.

The discovery by intrepid foreigners is normally the first stage of the development of island destinations. Academic studies in tourism state that there are between five to six stages of evolution for these destinations in paradise before an inevitable decline.

Boracay went through the second and third stages when investors from Caticlan and the nearest urban centers like Roxas and Iloilo came to build larger facilities. Swimming pools and restaurants added to the mix and regular ferries from the mainland were scheduled.

Boracay quickly gained popularity with European visitors.

By the 1980s, Boracay saw the first foreign-built resorts. Manila-based operations also started running facilities on the island. This was the fourth stage of development. After the People Power revolution, the island caught the attention of the Department of Tourism. It had overtaken Sicogon and was quickly surpassing Puerto Galera as a destination. The DOT hired a US consultant to prepare a master plan for the island’s development. A Task Force was set up to ensure this master plan was completed as a guide for development.

Unfortunately, the Local Government Act of 1991 devolved power to towns and cities and the master plan for Boracay, although completed, rather quickly gave way to opportunistic, free-market development. This was when stages five and six went into full swing. Local resort chains set up in the late 1990s. This was followed in the next decade by the appearance of regional, then international chains, of which the Shangri-La was first.

Most scholarly studies of tourist island destinations state that these late stages make or break them. Without strict enforcement of master plans and building codes, they can go bad, as was the case for Phuket in Thailand and the first beaches in Bali. Both of those country’s governments knew they had to step in hard and nip the problem in the bud.

Thailand and Indonesia learned their lessons, Bali faster than Phuket, but learn they did. Both today have tourism numbers that greatly surpass ours. They still have problems but, by and large, the tourist experience there is better than in the Philippines — even though we believe our destinations are more attractive.

We may have heavenly beaches, blue waters and lush vegetation but most of our islands quickly are quickly going the way of Boracay. Haphazard development, the lack of basic sewer systems, dependable power and water, the absence of solid waste management and the flouting of building codes are leading other destinations like Puerto Galera, Panglao, El Nido, Mactan, Camiguin, Siargao down the same road to disaster.

Postcards from 15 years ago already showed signs of environmental problems, but tourists still came.

The closure of Boracay was a drastic move, but dire situations necessitate quick action. For sure, the closure and rehabilitation effort could have been implemented in stages, but many doubt if such an approach would have worked. Maybe the Boracay closure is the bitter pill those in the industry, and the local government units that host these destinations need to swallow, to ensure it does not happen again.

The building codes of the Philippines are good. The DENR has guidelines for determining carrying capacities. The law requires LGUs to prepare comprehensive land use plans. Tourism is a key sector in provincial and regional development plans nationwide. But Boracay still happened because of corruption, the lack of coordination and the absence of accountability at all levels.

Postcards from Boracay, or any other Philippine destination, may soon be only from the past, unless we all learn from the lessons of our once-pristine islands.

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Feedback is welcome. Please email the writer at

Photo by Regine David Styled by David Milan Produced by Kara Ortiga

We need to learn from Boracay’s failures to save all our islands.

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