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How to save ‘Paradise’

It’s summer now and my thoughts hark back to the wonderful days I spent in Boracay last year. Indeed, Boracay is one of the country’s most unforgettable places, endowed with such attractions as powdery white sands, azure waters, a magnificent view of the sunset from the beach, lush and pristine vegetation, a swinging night life, succulent seafood, and friendly residents.

I’m thinking of the late afternoons when I sat on White Beach watching the sun go down and, at one time, remembering these lines from “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”:

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A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,

A Jug of Wine, A Loaf of Bread—and Thou

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Beside me singing in the Wilderness—

Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

That time I sat under a talisay tree leafing through the book “The Revenge of Geography.” Beside me was my wife, and close to hand was a bottle of beer, a slice of pizza and chicharon. Together we watched, transfixed, the sun slowly kissing the sea and then getting lost in its embrace. Oh, Boracay were Paradise enow!

But there are signs of trouble in Paradise. We need to save this centerpiece of our booming tourism industry! Only recently there was news of increased coliform levels in the island’s waters—actually a recurring problem, along with the green algal blooms during summer. These have been attributed to the island’s poor sewerage, drainage and solid waste management systems. There are land use and environmental management plans that are supposed to regulate the location, type and rate of development on the island. But these are not strictly implemented despite Boracay’s tourism receipts totaling P27 billion in 2014 and despite the shifting of management control from the local to the national government.

And so we see the pell-mell development as well as environmental and social problems simultaneously occurring on the small island of only 1,032 hectares, where the ecosystem has been rendered fragile. It’s not surprising that TripAdvisor, a popular travel site reviewer, has dropped the ranking of White Beach to 24th place (from 12th place in 2015) despite the fact that tourist arrivals of 1,725,483 in 2016 were 11 percent higher than those in 2015.

In planning terms, Boracay may be said to be on the verge of exceeding its carrying capacity, or the total population that it can accommodate without suffering from the deterioration of its environment, level of visitor satisfaction, and sociocultural norms. According to the study done by Ecosystems Research and Development Bureau in 2008, an average of 9,362 visitors go to Boracay daily, while the island’s carrying capacities are: White Beach can accommodate 10,116 swimmers and 16,703 sunbathers per day, while Coconut Grove can accommodate 14,674 diners per night.

Thus, it appears that, considering the rapidly increasing volume of Boracay tourists and the slowness of plan implementation, the impending overcapacity would be hard to avert unless drastic measures are taken.

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One way to avoid the catastrophe is to appoint posthaste a no-nonsense island tourism czar who will waste no time in strictly implementing the plans and the regulations. Another way is to quickly create a tourism circuit plan that will divert tourist influx to these nearby sites:  Carabao Island in the north, which also has white-sand beaches; Romblon farther north with its white marble quarries and artistic marble products; Roxas City to the east with its variety of succulent seafood; and Sicogon and Higantes islands farther east with their pristine beaches, unique flora and fauna, and quaint cultural sites.

This scheme will not only allow Boracay relief from stress but also spur tourism development in the neighboring areas.

Meliton B. Juanico is a retired professor of geography at the University of the Philippines Diliman. He is a licensed environmental planner and is active in consultancy work in urban and regional planning.

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