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Paradise Lost – part 1 May 26, 2014

Posted by Alex Sawit in In My Opinion.
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By Alex Sawit

May 26, 2014

 

 

Behind its beautiful face, Boracay’s heart is turning rotten to the core.

 

Boracay has always been a special place to Cyrano friends. So don’t get me wrong. It’s special to me, too. But I consider everything that has happened this year to be yet another wake up call for sons of beaches like me who give a damn about this island.

A jewel of impeccable, powdery white sand and seductive blue water in the Philippine archipelago, Boracay earned top bragging rights in 2012 after it was voted as the World’s Best Island by the highly influential travel magazine, Travel + Leisure. Even after it slipped to 2nd place in 2013 (1st place went to Palawan, yet another gem in the Philippines), Boracay hasn’t slowed down as other prestigious reviewers joined the bandwagon, heralding it as the planet’s top beach destination.

And there’s the rub.

Although Boracay gets filled every summer, this is my first time to hear what I’ve been hearing from returning Cyrano friends, who were lured to this year’s massively commercialized Labor Day party weekend (#laboracay2014) and its epilogues. That’s not to say they didn’t find ways to have fun. It’s just that they came back with a lingering aftertaste, expressed in one word: “sleazy”.

“It was very sleazy,” remarked one of them after she got back to Cyrano. “You couldn’t see the water anymore. The beach was just so crammed with people advertising themselves, trying to get noticed by everybody else.”

“Boracay is a party place, not a travel place,” said another, who felt so disillusioned that he spent his vacation in Palawan instead. “Without the party, there’s nothing (else offered).”

“I don’t think I’ll go back,” said yet another Cyrano friend (who is probably the most outdoor-adventurous girl you can find even though she also loves wearing pretty little dresses and stilettos to match), after returning from a working vacation, even saying that she found the water quite foul. “It was very dirty.”

“We didn’t mind,” said one dissenting voice, who jokingly excused his network of party-goers for contributing to the wanton mess. “They brought all the drugs they needed to have a good time.”

Maybe it was just a perfect storm. This was the biggest, wildest long weekend in Boracay’s memory. But other returning Cyrano friends described getting the same “icky” feeling. I can’t help wondering if a new culture of seediness is emerging, encouraged by a tourism industry hell-bent on promoting Boracay as a hedonistic 24/7 honky-tonk to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue.

Every year, Boracay gets more crowded, more commercialized, more exploited. On a small island of just ten square kilometers, common sense tells us that tourism cannot be sustained here beyond the grace of nature. Yet planners insist on packing upwards of 1.5 million visitors annually from this year onward – all without first solving Boracay’s time-bomb environmental problems, from its garbage and sewage nightmares to the alarming erosion of its priceless white beaches, which are fast disappearing due to commercial overdevelopment.

Indeed, maintaining a heavy volume of foreign tourists is such a priority that the island’s tourism authorities do little but look the other way in the face of an exploding influx of foreign pedophiles (in case you’re not aware, the international children’s protection organization Child Wise has identified Boracay as one of “the primary Filipino locations for child-sex prostitution.”).

Sooner or later, something’s got to burst. And when it does, it will only mean more suffering for Boracay’s indigenous people, who have fallen the lowest in the island’s rise to stardom.

The fairy tale is that Boracay was uncovered in the late 1970s by European backpackers, who were searching for a tropical eden rumored to exist in the Philippines. It was they who supposedly elevated Boracay as a pristine hideaway. The truth? Long before the arrival of those unwitting beach bums who opened the door for mainstream tourism, the island was already being kept unspoiled under the care of the Ati, one of the Negrito ethnic groups of the Philippines, who have been living in Boracay since time immemorial.

Today, displaced and persecuted by the island’s tourism industry, the Ati live like squatters in the land of their forefathers as commercial development expands into the remaining areas the tribe has access to. In a cruel twist, the industry views the impoverished, diminutive tribesmen as walking eyesores and directs local businesses to drive them away – even to stop them from swimming at their ancestral White Beach, which is now permanently fortified with hotels, restaurants, and bars where the Ati are not welcomed.

In February of this year, on orders of Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, the Philippine National Police was deployed to protect the tribe’s 30 families in the wake of the 2013 murder of 26-year old Dexter Condez, who was the tribe’s spokesman and hope for the future as their young emerging leader. Police believe Condez was gunned down due to a dispute between the Ati and rival claimants to their land, after the national government awarded 2.1 hectares of beachfront property to the tribe as its legal territory. The accused hit-man was an employee of Crown Regency Boracay Resorts, owned by J. King & Sons Co. Inc., one of three private groups that have been trying to seize control of the property.

“Some (thugs) started cursing and shouting at the Ati tribesmen,” said a government official last March, after another private claimant and his henchmen were arrested for sabotaging the property’s mangrove sanctuary, turning it into a garbage dump in an attempt to intimidate the tribe. “They even threatened to rape the women and hurt the other tribe members.”

More crowded…more commercialized…more exploited. In this party paradise, the road to hell is paved with good time intentions.

The question is: Who will rescue Boracay from itself?

In a radio interview last week, Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez said the Aquino administration is rushing to save Boracay with an “engineering solution” to preserve what remains of the 4-kilometer stretch that is White Beach, although government experts concede this will not be enough to prevent the impending loss of portions of the island’s most iconic attraction. Jimenez also said they have finalized a list of 80 establishments that are built too close to the shoreline, causing beach erosion, and that the government will enforce the demolition of many of the structures.

Good luck with that. Best wishes fixing the island’s many other environmental problems, too (note: President Aquino’s term in office ends in 2016). At least there’s a little progress in the uphill struggle to protect Ati tribal rights, though we still don’t know what the plan is to intercept and arrest all those smug foreign pedophiles.

The truth is that Boracay is too much of a money train for tourism developers and big corporate sponsors to want to slow down this runaway joyride. I’d like to think that there isn’t a train wreck waiting down the line but…well, we can only watch and wait. Sadly, I know there are other beautiful island destinations in the Philippines that are similarly becoming victims of their own success.

Yet I also know there exist a few precious places where the incursions of commercial exploitation have time and again been driven back – but only because these places are strongholds of heritage, where the community’s cultural identity empowers its people to speak and act in defiance of anyone who would threaten what is theirs to cherish.

“We feel that not every tourist deserves to come here,” my Ivatan friend told me, if I remember correctly what he said years ago, about his windswept island province of Batanes – an untamed, soul-stirring realm of land, sea and sky that is to me the most magical place on earth. “What we get are high value tourists, those who understand that to stay in Batanes is to stay here on the terms of its natural surroundings and traditional culture. That’s why they end up falling in love with this place and want to protect it as much as we do.”

Maybe that’s where the answer really lies.

 

[ Continue to Part Two. ]

 

 

POSTSCRIPT: If you fancy yourself a real traveler, go to Batanes. And if you possess a heroic sense of adventure, consider chasing my kind of thing when you get there – running and hiking along its rocky sea cliffs, hillwalking to the summits of its ocean-overlooking peaks, boating on restless waves to go from shore to shore, or just sharing a bottle of Lagavulin while surrounded by starlight on a pebble beach as the cold wind from the sea chills you in the face (trust me, the locals really like having a good drink with visitors). Then again…you might just be another typical, superficial, party-retarded beach bum tourist. In which case, keep your damn hands off this place and stay away.

 

 

 

 

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