Standing on the powdery white sands of Boracay, I stare out to sea and gaze upon its rich, endless shades of turquoise water. The hot Philippine sun blazes powerfully upon my face, and for the briefest of moments, I am arrested by the island’s paradiasacal natural beauty, the way I had been the first time I arrived here.
Abruptly and intrusively, like a slam zoom in a big reveal scene, my pinhole vision expands. All the foils and ills of the island come screaming back into my field of vision: dozens of sailboats and jetskis zooming across the water; sun-bleached plastic loungers and green algae sludge littered across the shore; plastic bottles hanging from palm trees; bottle caps and cigarette butts embedded in the sand and soil beneath my feet; hungover, RayBan-clad glamoristas nursing hair of the dog in chairs beneath trees.
To top it off, gaggles of persistent, borderline aggressive tour operators keep thrusting laminated sheets of island activities into my face and shouting insultingly extortionate prices, obliterating my dreamy zen.
When I glance down the rest of the hypercommercialized strip of shoreline, I wince as ubiquitous corporation logos – Starbucks, McDonalds, Pizza Hut – spring into view. In the evenings, it grows worse. Conga lines formed of orange shirt-wearing party animals squawk their way down the island, obnoxious and buzzed, as they embark on their nightly pub-crawl. Elderly foreign males with likely underage local girls and boys emerge from their dark hotel rooms, their sins cloaked by money and fire-juggling shows.
I cannot lie to you. There is a sickness on the island; some festering wound somewhere in the heart of Boracay that I’m unable to pinpoint, but can absolutely feel. It’s the same kind of commercialized barrenness, a garish hollowness, that has riddled and raped many other beautiful islands or destinations that have become known as ‘party islands’ or ‘party destinations’. My feelings towards Boracay are much the same as my feelings towards Ibiza, for example, or Malia – gorgeous sources of European natural beauty which have become synonymous with human waste, toxicity, drink and drugs.
After doing further research, my feelings on Boracay are entirely warranted. Last year, CNN Philippines reported “an imminent loss” of Boracay’s marine life and ecosystems, which have been “seriously degraded by tourism-related activities.” Another news source reported that Boracay faces “turning into an environmental disaster due to the spotty enforcement of sanitation and wastewater rules – a problem further compounded by the island’s incomplete sewerage and drainage system.”
Since recently visiting Boracay, its white sand shores have been filled with wet, green algae sludge, and some parts of the beach reeked of sewage. I thought it was seasonal, natural even, but no. According to another news source, there have been “findings that coliform bacteria, partly caused by human and animal feces, continue to pollute the island’s waters.” Yes, that’s right. Human and animal feces. As early as 1997.
Boracay’s tourism industry took a huge hit in 1997 when coliform and algae first began to surface, but because then-president of the Philippines, Fidel V. Ramos, was such a public relations expert, he drew the island out of the spotlight by distracting the media with a fancy splash into the water. Thus Boracay, the gem of Philippine tourism, was declared as safe and welcoming as ever for domestic and foreign holiday-makers, because the President himself swimming in its waters deemed it so.
Back in 2003, local children were hospitalized multiple times for recurring “stomach ache, vomiting and diarrhea”, which was attributed to drinking water coming from a deep well source. By the end of the year, nearly 800 patients were diagnosed with acute gastroenteritis.
The island has been steeped in defecation for decades, and as it turns out, the algae sludge and sewage stench are issues are caused and exacerbated by the “dangerously high” levels of coliform bacteria (see: human and animal crap) that leaks from the island’s sewer system and runs almost straight into the sea.
The worst human health issues caused by contaminated ocean water include ear infections, shellfish poisoning, cholera, and gastrointestinal illness (stomach pains and diarrhea). I have no doubt that this is why, whenever I visit Boracay, I feel nauseous for most of the trip, and return home ill.
(You can read more about Boracay’s cover-ups of environmental hazards over at this excellent blog.)
Boracay has been left high and dry by tourists, resort owners, locals and government in an utterly filthy state, one almost too difficult for the island to be rescued from. To this day, island officials and resort owners have continually ignored, “among other things, the guidelines in a decade-old master plan for environment-friendly development on Boracay.” The first time I stepped foot on the island as a wide-eyed 13 year old, freshly flown in from the UK, I I was enamoured by the island. Now, my rose-tinted glasses have been shattered.
I’m being harsh. Boracay is still incredibly beautiful. You must go, at least once in your lifetime. The island has the most beautiful sunsets. There is diving, snorkelling, quad-biking, banana boating, paragliding, and many a happy hour to be enjoyed. Boracay depends on personal taste, and your experiences depend on where you stay, the company you keep, and the time of year that you visit. If you have the money to burn, you can and will have the most phenomenal experience on the island.
But when the Philippine government itself – the APEC summit of 2015, for example – are all but forced to come together to discuss the ravaging of a much-beloved international jewel, you realize that Boracay’s booming tourism development is a very grave cause for concern. Boracay, with all its beauty and its rapidly rising ills, is a prime example of the excruciating importance of having tourism laws and protocols in place.
There will always be something for everyone at Boracay. After experiencing the highs and lows, every shade of the island, any future inclinations of mine to visit would involve staying at a private resort, away from the crowd, to regain the sense of wonder that the island’s nature and beauty once gave me.
I have paid my dues with shoddy hostels, alleys reeking of sewage, cockroach-infested hotels, and expensive crappy food along Stations 2 and 3 for long enough that I’m not interested in ever doing it again. I am not alone in this. Many foreign travellers coming to the Philippines for the first time now view Boracay not as must-visit, but as a party island hell, opting for better maintained beaches such as Bohol or Palawan. One hopes that fellow islands across the Philippines will view Boracay as a cautionary tale.
From conniving hotel owners desperate to bleed the last centavo from your wallet by fabricating stories, to witnessing disturbing dalliances of barely legal natives with well-paying foreigners, worrying issues seem to go by largely unnoticed in Boracay, where natural beauty has too been tainted by the siren call of tourist money against a backdrop of a neglected, disrespected island environment. It is a deeply painful shame.
With regards to Boracay’s future, there are glimmers of hope. If serious and immediate action can be taken, whether by government, conservationists, locals, or by an organization large enough to raise millions of pesos and make a real difference, then we can initiate sustainable and eco-friendly tourism, implement functional sewage systems, control reef damage, and protect the more vulnerable of Boracay locals, all with the long term view of restoring the island back to its original state of paradise.