From being named among the world’s best beaches in 2011 and 2012 to being declared a cesspool by no less than President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine island of Boracay has suffered a crashing fall in its reputation.
Boracay welcomed some two million tourists in 2017, bringing in at least 56 billion pesos (33.5 billion) in revenue and generating thousands of jobs for its residents.
But during a speech in Davao City last week, Duterte threatened to close the 1,032-hectare island to tourists if its sewage and garbage problems were not solved within six months.
The threat has alarmed sectors of the local business community.
Why close the entire island for the fault of a few erring establishments, a group of resort and restaurant owners asked, adding: Shouldn’t Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu crack the whip against the guilty few?
But other locals welcomed Duterte’s hardline stance, saying it would finally rouse officials from their stupor and spur much-needed change.
The fact is that Boracay’s sewage problem has been festering for years, with coliform levels deemed critical in some swimming areas.
In 2015, coliform bacterial levels in Sitio Bulabog on the eastern part of the island reached 47,460 MPN/100ml, soaring beyond the acceptable 100 MPN/100 ml for swimming areas.
The green algae coating the water and the foul smell have also been blamed on untreated sewage draining into the sea.
Certainly, greed has played a major part in Boracay’s deterioration, with business owners riding on the tourism boom and abusing the island’s carrying capacity.
Of the 150 business establishments recently inspected by the government, only 25 were connected to the sewage line as a means of cutting operation costs.
Also, many establishments have been building too close to the beach and spilling over into the roads, resulting in piles of construction waste and trash being thrown into the sea.
According to a local government website, 293 of the estimated 340 hotels and gust houses on the island were found in 2013 to be in violation of the local ordinance requiring buildings to be at least 30 metres from the shore.
Overpopulation has added to the garbage problem as well, with workers from nearby islands swelling the local population of around 32,000 to 50,000.
Drastic but sustainable measures are clearly needed to save Boracay, and communities must work with local and national governments in strictly implementing existing laws.
For a start, the relevant authorities can revoke the environmental clearance certificate of business establishments that have no proper sewage systems, and cancel their accreditation.
The local government of Malay can revoke their business permits if they remain non-compliant.
Establishments should also be held responsible for the trash around their property and the pollution of the waters fronting their businesses.
Event organisers and resort owners should be fined heavily for trash generated by their events.
Barangay officials must hold regular beach cleanups to retrieve trash thrown into the waters, and perhaps hold contests and provide incentives for the cleanest beachfront areas and compliant resorts.
Anti-littering and anti-smoking ordinances as well as regular garbage collections must be prioritised, with a continuing information campaign on these issues and village officials going on active patrol to deter would-be violators.
School subjects can include lessons on hygiene, health and sanitation so that children can imbibe these habits early.
A group of environmental planners has proposed a cap on the number of visitors to the island, as more numbers mean more waste generated and more stress on Boracay’s overburdened facilities.
In fact, tourist-heavy sites elsewhere in the world have embarked on this path, such as Santorini in Greece, which is limiting the number of cruise-ship stops to give its locals more space.
Can the number of flights and ferries to Boracay be similarly limited?
What about freezing the development of new hotels, and enforcing a tourist tax that would go toward improving the island’s sewerage system and beefing up its environmental force?
Business owners and local tourists would perhaps howl at these ideas, but what is the alternative?