Police power and tourism

Last year, 129 million tourists came to Southeast Asia   and left $329.5 billion, 12 percent of the region’s GDP according to the World Travel &Tourism Council. Those figures are expected to increase in the next five years. The mighty tourism wave will continue to crest as barriers to the industry   disappear.    However, there are already alarming signs that tourism is reaching unsustainable levels.

A case in point is Boracay our world-famous destination, coveted for its powdery white sand that remains cool under a blazing tropical sun. Boracay is a victim of its own success.  The island is only   7 kilometres long, barely a kilometer wide at its narrowest waist. With a total area of 10.32 square kilometers, there are at least 500 hotels there, not to mention bars, restaurants, and retail shops.   It has a resident population of 38,000 which includes its original inhabitants, the Atis.

In 1990, over one million tourists visited Boracay and last year when   total tourism arrivals peaked at 6.6 million, 2 million went to Boracay, which is incredible, considering that there are more than 7,000 islands to choose from in the Philippine archipelago.

According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the World Tourism Council, if Boracay’s real carrying capacity is to be respected, it should receive only 19,215 tourists   and the number of permanent residents should not exceed 35,730. There is already an excess of   17,000 who must be relocated to Aklan, as soon as possible.

We were all appalled when President Rodrigo Duterte called Boracay a cesspool  (that man does not mince words!) Apparently, he saw a video that had gone viral, showing disgusting sewage flowing directly into Boracay’s blue waters and heaps of rubbish generated on Boracay more than three times higher than in the Manila, the country’s congested capital.

You can imagine how furious the President must have been when inspectors reported more than 800 environmental violations.  He took local authorities to task for their negligence   and dispatched an emergency government taskforce to save the island from ecological catastrophe.  With urgency, he signed Proclamation No. 475 that  declared a state of  calamity in  the island of Boracay  and ordered its closure  for six months. The Departments of Environment and Natural Resources, Tourism, and Local Government were commanded to clean up the island.

Significantly enough, there are existing laws, rules and regulations protecting wetlands, forests, indigenous communities, and natural landscapes on Boracay Island and most of our beach resorts. There are regulations about carrying capacity, easements, drainage systems, and non-obstruction of streams, brooks, and other natural waterways. But obviously, local government officials and private sector investors had  purposefully violated these laws for the sake of expediency, or just plain greed.

There were protests by people whose livelihood were affected by the closure; cases were filed, and some reached the Supreme Court. But the President showed his mailed fist and sent the Armed Forces to guard all entry points of Boracay. The island held a soft opening in October, 2018, but Secretary of Tourism Berna Puyat said the cleaning-up must continue as the back streets of Boracay were still messy.

It may interest you to know that in the Supreme Court en banc decision  two justices dissented because they believed that the  President’s decision to close Boracay Island for six months “leads to the realization of tyranny, the very evil against which the Constitution had been crafted to guard against…” However, most justices   affirmed that President Duterte’s Proclamation No. 475 is a valid police power measure.

Sustainability was not a buzz word until recently. The “3 pillars of sustainable tourism” used to be somewhat obscure:   Environmental concerns, socio-cultural and heritage issues were given lip service; Congressmen could not quite connect tourism with economics, they were more interested in body count than revenues.  Tourism was merelya source of funding for their street lighting projects, basketball courts, and town fiestas.  But that is slowly changing.

From my perch as Secretary of Tourism, I began to see the obstacles to tourism sustainability in the Philippine context which might have been like that of other Southeast Asian nations.  At the political level, the Department of Tourism, from its creation in 1973, was primarily a policymaking, planning, programming, and coordinating entity, dependent on the Executive Branch. It was disconnected from the government institutions it needed most, to wit, the Civil Aeronautics Board, Philippine Ports Authority, Departments of Education, Public Works and Highways, Health, Foreign Affairs, Environment, and Transportation.

The issue of “Open Skies” was both political and economic, and it was taboo. Inspired by the case of Bali, where tourism boomed under “open skies,” I said Philippine tourism needed “open skies”, during a first interview as secretary of tourism.  After all, 98 percent of those who come to the Philippines travel by air.  But, Philippine Airlines {PAL} which was no longer a flag carrier, was vehemently against the 5th freedom. It’s owner accused me of nothing less than treason.   But that was 20 years ago; even PAL must go with the flow.

Last year I felt sort of vindicated because, at the 32nd ASEAN Summit in Singapore, connectivity dominated   the agenda as the ten member countries expressed commitment to a “seamless ASEAN Sky.” ASEAN was adopting an “open skies” policy and it is now enlarging the air market so ASEAN-based airlines can operate freely in this region of more than 600 million inhabitants.

In 2009, President Gloria Arroyo signed Republic Act 9593, the Tourism Act,   the  Department of Tourism became   the primary   planning, programming, coordinating, implementing, and regulatory government agency in the development and promotion of the tourism industry, both domestic and international, and in coordination with attached agencies and other government instrumentalities. The department is also mandated to   instil in Filipinos the fundamental importance of the industry        in the generation of employment, investments and foreign exchange.

However, ten years after that Tourism Act gave more teeth to the Department of Tourism, today’s sitting President had to nick the Constitution and use his police powers to restore sustainability in just one island, Boracay. So, that begs the question — do we need police power to assure tourism sustainability?