The Philippines is due to re-open Boracay, its most famous resort and often hailed as one of the world’s top beaches, to tourists on Friday after a six-month clean-up.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered a shutdown of tourist facilities on the island in April to restore the local environment, which had been hit hard by excessive development and an overflowing sewerage system.
Years of unrestrained mass tourism had left Boracay, in the middle of the Philippine archipelago, like a “cesspool,” Duterte said.
Famous for its long white sandy beach, Boracay had been loved to death by two million tourists a year, officials said.
Limits on hotels, visitors, partying
The response by local authorities has been radical with hundreds of hotels and restaurants shut down, and a cap imposed on the number of visitors.
A host of new rules have been laid out, banning drinking on the beach and a welter of other things in a bid to water down the island’s reputation as a party haven.
It is all part of a push for sustainable tourism to protect the island’s natural beauty, a trend that popular destinations around the world are emulating.
“It means taking account of the repercussions of our actions on current and future situations of the environment,” Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat said last Friday, AFP reported.
Romulo-Puyat said she had written a “warning” to other top sites in the country such as the El Nido and Panglao islands that they may also face similar action, with a clean-up and possible cap on tourist numbers.
Casinos shut, dogs and vendors banned
Boracay saw up to 40,000 sun worshippers at peak times, who left behind $1 billion a year but also mountains of garbage.
But under the new rules, less than half that number – only 19,200 tourists – will be allowed on the island at any one time, with the government aiming to enforce that by controlling the number of available hotel rooms.
Buildings have been torn down to create a 30-meter expanse from the waterline.
The island economy has been hammered: the shutdown is estimated to have cost $500 million in lost revenue.
But the worry, privately, is that the new restrictions could kill a lot of the fun.
Bans have been imposed on fire-jugglers, masseuses, vendors, stray dogs, bonfires and even builders of its famous sandcastles.
All water sports save for swimming are also banned for the time being, while Boracay’s three casinos have been permanently shut down in line with Duterte’s wishes.
Nearly 400 hotels and restaurants deemed to violate local environmental laws have been ordered closed and airlines, as well as ferries, were told to restrict services to the area.
Boozing and smoking are banned on the beach and the huge multi-day beach parties dubbed “La Boracay” that drew tens of thousands of tourists during the May 1 Labour Day weekend will be a thing of the past.
The Boracay Foundation, the main business industry group on the island, did not comment on the new rules but welcomed the return of tourists.
“We are pleased that workers have now got their jobs back and will now be able to do what they love and provide for their families,” its executive director Pia Miraflores told AFP.
“Everyone, big and small, has sacrificed a lot during the six-month [closure],” she added.
The impact on Boracay, and how it will fare with all these new restrictions – or perhaps how long they will be enforced – will be closely watched.
Meanwhile, other places in the region strained by mass tourism have also used closures as a tactic to protect popular sites from destruction.
Thai authorities announced this month that Maya Bay off Phuket in southern Thailand, the bay immortalized in the movie “The Beach,” will be closed indefinitely to allow it to recover from the impact of hordes of tourists on day trips.
– with reporting by Agence France-Presse