I have to say something about Boracay, even if I was Secretary of Tourism for only two years and eight months. I had not visited the island before then and was more familiar with the Hundred Islands in Pangasinan and Tali and Nasugbu in Batangas where I used to spend weekends with my in-laws.
Boracay was still breathtaking when I first arrived with a small group of DOT staff members in charge of regional concerns; we were dutifully but cordially welcomed by local officials headed by the governor of Aklan and the mayor and vice-mayor of Malay. President Joseph Estrada was expected to fly in the next day with his usual entourage, an assortment of Malacanang staff, personal friends, family, investors, bon vivants, etc. He stayed at the Fairways and Blue Water resort owned by a Manila businessman of diverse interests. As we entered the place in a golf cart, he turned to me and whispered, “ Ang pangit, ano?” He was probably referring to the unfinished structures that looked like shelled-out ruins of war.
When the planning office of the DOT gave me the standard obligatory briefing, the undersecretary in charge did not use the word “pangit” but she stressed that Boracay had already exceeded its “carrying capacity,’ ” so urgent measures had to be taken before matters got out of hand.
Apparently, when the Local Government Code became a law, most of the national agencies, like the DOT, were taken by surprise and were not ready for the devolution of their national functions to local government units. Neither were the latter ready to take on tremendous responsibilities that continue to have national impact. As a result, Boracay’s environmental plight was entangled in political and economic turf wars of a local government that wanted to reign supreme over Boracay, by virtue of the Local Government Code. They forget that tourism is a national concern with numerous stakeholders.
The DOT staff and I had a number of meetings with tour and travel groups, foundations concerned about the environment, and the local government officials (the same ones are still around, playing musical chairs for 20 years!). To take the pressure off Boracay, we began promoting seven other “anchor destinations” to strengthen domestic tourism and spread the benefits of “Pride of Place.” Cebu, Bohol, Davao, Palawan, Siargao, Ilocos Sur, and Norte were among the destinations offered through various cultural and sports programs. However, Boracay Island was the unassailable celebrity because of its amazing expanse of white powder — fine sand that remained cool under the tropical sun.
Twenty years ago, there were already indications of sanitation problems, contamination with coliform, uncollected garbage hidden from public view, wanton construction with no permits, no regard for zoning, no respect for natural waterways, wetlands, or forests, no regard for the regulation easement along the beach. Fisherfolk protested their being driven inland while the aeta community lamented the loss of their ancestral lands.
Today, there are rumors that Boracay will be closed for a year to prepare for the coming of a huge gambling casino from Macao. What about its “carrying capacity”? In the meantime, until such stories are confirmed, I am glad that DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu has taken a firm stand and seems determined to enforce the law in Boracay. He has the support of Pres. Rodrigo Duterte without which he will not be able to move. Sec. Cimatu is soft on mining interests, unlike his predecessor Sec. Gina Lopez, but, I hope his agency (DENR) can give full support to the Department of Tourism. A gloomy twilight is over Boracay, but sunrise will come soon