Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s order to shut down the country’s leading tourist destination, Boracay island, threatens to put the crucial foreign currency-earning industry into a tailspin.
The surprise decision, announced earlier this month, has underscored the mercurial leader’s often erratic and unpredictable rule and underscored its growing impact on the economy.
It has also sparked debate on the impact of mass tourism on the country’s natural environment, an issue plaguing many of the region’s seaside destinations with the recent surge in Chinese tourism.
Boracay, a paradisian beach island with pearl white sands in the nation’s central region, will be closed to tourists for six months beginning later this month until October so the government can undertake a cleanup and land reform.
As a result, more than US$1 billion in expected revenues as well as employment for more than 36,000 tourism workers now hangs in the balance, according to industry estimates.
Some businesses have already started to lay off employees en masse in anticipation of the shutdown and dramatic drop in tourist arrivals during the peak summer season.
The government has sought to justify the move by raising environmental concerns amid a recent surge in both local and international tourists, the latter coming mainly from China as well as South Korea.
The decision came after a meeting between Duterte and government chiefs of the Department of the Interior and Local Government, the Department of Tourism and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Duterte earlier described the beach resort as a “cesspool”, though levels of toxicity in the area’s waters are relatively lower than other major urban centers and tourist spots.
Many are thus questioning Duterte’s true motivation in light of reports that he is planning to give massive land rights to a Chinese casino tycoon who has offered to build a US$500 million gambling complex on the island. The government announced last week that the plan had been shelved.
Concerned about a backlash, especially with growing public suspicion about Duterte’s cozy ties with Beijing, the Filipino president perfunctorily announced earlier that he plans instead to give the island to farmers.
“It’s going to be a land reform area for the Filipinos. I will clean up the place then give the land back to them [farmers],” Duterte announced shortly before his departure for the Boao Forum for Asia in China, his third official visit to the country in less than two years.
Land rights are an issue on the island. Back in 2006, then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo signed Proclamation No 1064, an order which classified the island tourist destination into a mix of agricultural and forestland.
Up to 400 hectares of Boracay’s forestlands were sequestered for “protection purposes” while the remaining 628 hectares of agricultural land, or 60% of the island’s terrain, were classified as “alienable and disposable.”
Two years later, the Philippine Supreme Court upheld the decision despite opposition from some local residents who claimed ownership over some of the lands had been placed under state control.
Duterte has also claimed that he wasn’t aware of plans for a mega-casino on the island. “There is no plan for any casino, since there have been too many [casinos] here and there,” Duterte claimed. “Consider Boracay a land reform area. I will give it to the farmers, to the Filipinos first…to the people who need it the most.”
Duterte’s claims, however, don’t stand up to scrutiny. Pictures from the Malacanang presidential palace show the Filipino president met last December 6 with Lui Che-woo, chairman of Galaxy Entertainment, a Macau-based gaming company which has pledged US$500 million to construct a mega-casino at Boracay.
During the presidential palace meeting, Philippine Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo as well as Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp (Pagcor) chairperson Andrea Domingo were in attendance. Statements by the Pagcor chief confirmed the centrality of Galaxy’s Boracay investment during the discussions between Duterte and Lui.
“I don’t think they would risk losing that investment by dumping filth in front of their property,” Domingo said in response to concerns over the environmental sustainability of building a mega-casino in Boracay.
Many Boracay residents, meanwhile, question the wisdom of land reform, since much of the island’s public land has already been occupied by residential structures and small and medium scale enterprises. Any land reform would entail driving tens of thousands of people off the island for the conversion of land into farms.
Opposition Senator Antonio Trillanes has accused Duterte of blatantly lying to cover up his real motive behind the closure. “I don’t believe that Mr Duterte is an environmentalist,” declared the outspoken legislator.
Trillanes has called for a Senate inquiry into the shutdown and encouraged Boracay residents to challenge the executive decision in court by requesting temporary restraining orders (TROs) against its enforcement.
“I suspect that the reason they shut down Boracay is to allow cargo in – cement or whatever – to build that casino. That’s my suspicion but we will validate that because it doesn’t make sense at all to close it,” Trillanes said.
Senator Joel Villanueva has raised similar questions over Duterte’s “haste” to close the tourist island, wondering why “the rehabilitation plan and livelihood interventions for the workers has not been clearly set in motion first before the closure of Boracay.”
The dynamics of the closure are still unclear, with different departments issuing contradictory directives on the exact date, parameters for limiting visitors and stopgap measures for those who will lose wages and business during the shutdown period.
What is clear is that Duterte’s professed lurch towards environmentalism and land reform will not go unchallenged as an alleged conflict of interest that benefits big money over common Filipino interests.