MANILA: The Philippines is closing its best-known holiday island Boracay to tourists for up to six months over concerns that the once idyllic white-sand resort has become a “cesspool” tainted by dumped sewage, authorities said on Thursday.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the shutdown to start on April 26 for a maximum period of half a year, his spokesman Harry Roque said.
“Boracay is known as a paradise in our nation and this temporary closure is (meant) to ensure that the next generations will also experience that,” Roque told reporters.
The decision jeopardises the livelihood of thousands employed as part of a bustling tourist trade on the island that each year serves two million guests and pumps roughly $1 billion in revenue into the Philippine economy.
Experts said the measure also appeared to contradict the government’s own pro-development policy for the island, including the recent approval of a planned $500-million casino and resort on Boracay.
The threat of closure first emerged in February when Duterte blasted the tiny island’s 500 tourism-related hotels, restaurants and other businesses, accusing them of dumping sewage directly into the sea and turning it into a “cesspool”.
Authorities said Thursday some businesses were using the island’s drainage system to send untreated sewage into its surrounding turquoise waters.
The environment ministry says 195 businesses, along with more than 4,000 residential customers, are not connected to sewer lines.
But within weeks of Duterte lashing out at the local businesses, the Philippines gave the green light for Macau casino giant Galaxy Entertainment to begin construction next year of the casino and resort complex.
“The casino contradicts all the efforts now of cleaning up and making sure Boracay goes back to the state where it doesn’t violate its carrying capacity,” former Philippine environment undersecretary Antonio La Vina told AFP.
He added that the area has seen “unlimited” development because “local government units and the national government agencies did not do their job of enforcing rules on land use, environmental impact assessment”.
Authorities said they would use the closure to build new sewage and drainage systems, demolish structures built on wetlands and sue officials and businessmen who violated environmental laws.
The impact of the decision was already being felt, with domestic airlines announcing they would scale back the number of flights to the 1,000-hectare (2,470-acre) island.
“I am really in a quandary on how to handle six months (of closure),” budget hostel manager Manuel Raagas told AFP.
“There will be no income and we have bills to pay so I don’t know how I will survive.”
Officials said they were willing to take a hard line, saying police and potentially even soldiers would enforce the closure.
“We will issue guidelines on how to bar tourists from entering starting from the port,” interior assistant secretary Epimaco Densing told reporters on Thursday.
“Whether foreign or local, they will not be allowed to enter the island.”
The Boracay Foundation Inc, a business association on the island, had asked the government to shut down only those violating environmental laws.
“It’s unfair for compliant establishments to be affected by the closure,” Executive Director Pia Miraflores told AFP.
Miraflores said that even before the ban was announced, its shadow had hit some businesses hard in Boracay.
“The tour guides have already complained that they have no more guests. There’s already a huge effect,” she said, adding the quays and jetties were “less crowded” than before.
Some couples who scheduled their weddings on the island up to a year or two in advance had cancelled their reservations even before the ban was announced, she said, with the tour agents also besieged with client calls on whether to pursue their planned trips.
Boracay employs 17,000 people, as well as 11,000 construction workers working on new projects.