Boracay: Paradise lost?

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MANILA, Philippines - I have been to Boracay twice. The first time was when I was 5, peeking from behind my mother’s skirt as my older cousins played daredevils on the then-novel banana boat. My second visit was when I was 21, ready to party the night away with my college friends to celebrate our graduation.

Those were two very different Boracays. The Boracay of my childhood memory was a pristine paradise where palm trees outnumbered tourists and tourists came for sand as fine as flour. The Bora of my college years was as wild as my friends and I were, with the endless row of beach-front bars with people sailing in for the morning to morning parties and crazy adventures. As they say, “What happens in Bora, stays in Bora.”

In just a few years, the most famous of Philippine beaches went from untouched paradise to the island of sin.

Expectations

If Boracay were a shy 5-year-old almost a quarter of a century ago, she has not aged gracefully. Some say Bora has lost her identity, lost much of what made her beautiful. Los Angeles Times writer Catharine Hamm spoke of her disappointment at the poverty and crowded spaces of the island that was named “Best Island in the World” by Travel & Leisure magazine.

Having seen Boracay in these two phases, I can understand all the disappointing comparisons being made.

PARTY BEACH. Boracay has become a top destination for party-goers. Photo from www.ourawesomeplanet.com

PARTY BEACH. Boracay has bee a top destination for party-goers. Photo from www.ourawesomeplanet.

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Today, Boracay is more a party hub and an outdoor mall that incidentally has a white-sand beach beside it. A constant stream of people traverse the length of White Beach to get from one bar to another. The rest are buying native trinkets or foreign-made swimwear in the shopping areas, or getting massages right beside the highway of people. It makes me wonder if they can even hear themselves think, with the crowded rush just an oil-slathered arm away.

In the world of Bora, Henna tattoos have become so popular that you’ll find an artist every few steps. Less common but perhaps more jolting are the beggars waiting at the mercy of tourists who think nothing of spilling loose change, because they saved so much on the “cheap” food and beer.

Last time I was there, I had even encountered a traffic jam that would give EDSA a run for its money. In fact, in many ways, Bora is becoming more and more like Manila. 

The price of development

This, many people say, is the price of development. But Boracay may be paying too much.

The tourism frenzy has led to poor waste management with sewage being dumped into Boracay’s once-blue waters. According to GlobalPost.com, vacationers suffer from skin infections and stomach aches because of the filthy water. 

Pollution has killed around 90% of coral reefs, says the owner of a local snorkelling shop who did not want to be named. It is so bad that to actually enjoy a beach and go snorkelling, you would have to take a boat to a nearby island.

HOPE. Will a new day dawn for Boracay? Photo by Glenn Barit

HOPE.

Will a new day dawn for Boracay? Photo by Glenn Barit

Yet the tourists and travel accolades keep pouring in. One and a half million people are expected to vacation in Boracay this year. Last January 2013, it was voted the number one beach for relaxation by Agoda.com customers. How to explain the enduring popularity of this island?

It may be that Boracay has successfully reinvented itself as the “party island.” Travellers in search of peace, quiet and nature now fly to Coron in Palawan or the beaches of Bohol. Boracay offers a different form of relaxation, of the beer-fuelled sort, where escape is a party and a killer hangover becomes a fond memory.

Is there something wrong with this reinvention? After all, some of the world’s most famous beaches are party centers like Ibiza in Spain, Phuket in Thailand and South Beach in Miami. Parents may not be smitten with the idea, but it’s the fair truth.

Identity crisis

I had a great time in Boracay when I was 21. Was the trip relaxing? Definitely. I was willing to forgive Boracay the stench of its waters and the suffocating crowds because it burned epic nights into my memory.

Something tells me Boracay should not settle for what it has become. The 5-year-old in me mourns the paradise lost. Why choose between beautiful island and a party beach? Can’t Boracay be both? Local authorities are already trying to save its natural beauty with reefbuds planted to bring back its coral reefs and a mangrove rehabilitation project already in place. But it will also take rigorous tourism management to ensure all these efforts won’t, literally, go to waste.

How to manage a million tourists a year is just one of Boracay’s growing pains. Let’s hope this time around, Boracay will finally find herself. - Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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