August 18, 2018

Gov't to remove people, not hotels in Boracay (UPDATED)

THE Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) will be adopting a "low-density" plan for Boracay Island, as part of its efforts to rehabilitate the area and reduce the  latter's environment stress.

A high-ranking DENR official said, however, a low-density plan did not mean the number of hotels and resorts would be reduced, even as the agency finalizes the study on the island's carrying capacity.

In an interview with this writer, DENR Undersecretary for Attached Agencies Sherwin S. Rigor said the agency will be releasing the carrying capacity study “within this month, because we are finetuning [it]. We’re including the weight of the facility also, not just of human beings. The first question there was the carrying capacity of people. But we discovered also the degradation of the environmental areas there, including the use of land. So we included that as well.”

The inter-agency Task Force Boracay estimates that the carrying capacity of the island, hailed by travel publications as one of the best islands in the world for its long, powdery, white-sand beach, was breached in 2009, when visitor arrivals then reached some 650,000. Last year, visitor arrivals on the island reached 2 million, more than half of who were foreign tourists. 

(UPDATE Aug. 26: The Task Force already discussed the carrying capacity study commissioned by the DENR, and drawn up by scientists from UP Los Baños in their meeting last August 22, Wednesday. Members of the task force, however, have declined to release said study.)

The Environmental Literacy Council defines "carrying capacity" as an ecosystem's ability to support people and other living things without having any negative effects. "It also includes a limit of resources and pollution levels that can be maintained without experiencing high levels of change. If carrying capacity is exceeded, living organisms must adapt to new levels of consumption or find alternative resources. Carrying capacity can be affected by the size of the human population, consumption of resources, and the level of pollution and environmental degradation that results. Carrying capacity, however, need not be fixed and can be expanded through good management and the development of new resource-saving technologies."

Rigor said the DENR is “moving forward [toward making Boracay a] low density development” because right now, it is now “high density. It’s a matter of [the island’s] land use.” But he clarified that in moving towards a low-density development plan for Boracay, this would not mean a significant reduction of the number of hotels and resorts on the island. “Definitely there is decongestion. So you must decongest what part you want to decongest. Right now, [there are] the hotels, the tourists, the workers coming from the other islands who are not residents of Boracay. So we're willing to make a balance; the workers are the ones who will be transferred, just to make the [island focused] on tourism development.”

Task Force Boracay wants to use the masterplan designed by Architect Jun Palafox, which featureslow-rise accommodations, expansive green spaces, a rail system or environmentally-friendly transport vehicles, among others. But it was not clear if the Task Force would pay for the masterplan or the local government of Malay, which commissioned it.

Rigor also disabused the public’s perception that Boracay Island is overbuilt. “It's not overbuilt. It's overused and overpopulated. We will be making a full plan of it…. At present, we're planning to remove the workers living on Boracay. There are about 20,000-30,000 who occupy forestlands, wetlands, [and] lands owned by the government. So when we transfer them to the mainland, that will substantially decrease the population.” He said the 20,000 workers are in just one shift. In contrast, there were about 18,000 tourists who visited Boracay daily. 

He stressed that the DENR will likely not move to reduce the number of hotels and resorts on the island, “because there is still area you can build upon.” During the last hearing of the Senate Committee on Tourism, Senator Nancy S. Binay pointed out the need to determine the carrying capacity of the island before it is reopened, and found out that hotels and resorts were already selling their rooms in anticipation of said reopening. (See, “To open or not to open Boracay Island, that is the question for Binay,” in the BusinessMirror, July 17, 2018.)

But Rigor stressed that accommodation establishments on Boracay “cannot sell yet their rooms until they are compliant. Without the compliance, we will not open them. But we will open Boracay.”

The DOT has estimated that there are 430 hotels on Boracay, with rooms at some 15,000 as of March 2018. It also said it was targetting only 30 percent of the rooms to be available for tourist bookings by October 26, the announced date or Boracay's reopening. (See, "Only 30% of Boracay hotels seen opening by October 26," in the BusinessMirror, August 13, 2018.)

He expressed confidence that the rehabilitation of the island was still on track to reopen on October 26. “We still have 90 days. We're confident [we will reopen on schedule],” adding that the widening of the main road need not be 100-percent completed. “You just need to start where are the congestion of hotels,” he averred.

President Duterte ordered the closure of Boracay Island, once dubbed the “best beach in the world” by travel magazines, for six months beginning April 26. It was to make way for the government rehabilitation program, which entails the restoration of environmentally-stressed areas, completion of the sewerage system, removal of easement obstructions, widening of the main road, construction of a diversion road, and decongestion of the island of transport vehicles. 

In 2017, the island generated some P56 billion in tourism receipts.