By Lara Climaco | FilAm Star Correspondent
“For too many members of the Boracay community, life has gone from confusing to disappointing, to despairing,” Boracay Foundation Inc. (BFI) lamented when it got wind of the national government’s decision to shut down Boracay Island starting April 26.
“The reality is that the BFI is just as confused as everyone else because the pronouncement came too soon with no clear and specific guidelines presented to us,” BFI said in its April 5 statement, conveying the sentiments of business owners on the island.
The shutdown could last four to six months, with President Rodrigo Duterte approving at a Cabinet meeting last March 28 the total closure recommended by the inter-agency task force composed of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) and the Department of Tourism (DoT).
“The closure is a maximum of six months, which means it could be for a shorter period of time,” Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque announced at his regular press briefing April 5.
According to officials of the DENR, DILG and DoT who joined Roque in the press briefing, the rehabilitation of the country’s top tourist destination would take longer than six months but total closure to local and foreign tourists is needed to ensure the unhampered execution of major infrastructure work.
Drainage and sewerage fixes will be the focus this month, along with solid waste management — the main reasons for invoking the state’s police power.
Fecal contamination in some parts of Boracay has been off the charts due to the dumping of untreated wastewater into the sea. Meanwhile, the island generates around 90 to 115 tons of garbage, of which only 30 tons are hauled off to the mainland, resulting in the open dumping of trash.
“It’s true that there was a suggestion to do it in the low season of June but when we re-presented the data by the DENR and DILG and the pollution levels that we are now seeing daily, the recommendation is to move the date earlier,” DoT Asst. Sec. Frederick Alegre explained during the briefing.
Administrative charges against local and other government officials found to have connived with unscrupulous businessmen or condoned illegalities over the past 10 years are expected to be filed on or before April 14, in order to beat the election ban, according to DILG Asst. Sec. Epimaco Densing III.
Public works to be undertaken within the next six months include a PHP 1-billion drainage project; the installation of a sewage treatment plant (STP) for big hotels, resorts and other commercial establishments; cutting off illegal drainage connections; fixing the STP in Balabag and replacing the existing sewer network along the main road there; construction of a materials recovery facility (MRF) in Manoc-Manoc and the rehabilitation of existing MRFs; and completion of the island’s circumferential road.
Easement recovery along the shoreline and within wetlands is also lined up until May alongside the identification of resettlement areas, while road right of way acquisition will be done from July to September. The removal of illegal structures, piled debris, waste and sediments within the wetlands will be an on-going activity, with half of an estimated 948 establishments expected to be covered by November.
Residents of Boracay will continue to have access to their homes and move freely in and out of the island albeit bearing special IDs, while displaced workers are being encouraged to help with the rehabilitation. The government will have a standby fund of about PHP 2 billion for an estimated 20,000 formal and informal workers to be affected, although financial aid would only be available to those affiliated with legitimate hoteliers and businesses on the island, according to DENR Usec. Jonas Leones.
Hotel and flight bookings for Boracay will be diverted to alternative destinations, such as Bohol, Cebu, Siargao, Palawan and Pagudpud. Alegre said two major airlines have agreed to waive re-booking and cancellation fees and to issue refunds hassle-free. The DoT is on top of re-directing tourist traffic and has asked tourism attachés all over the world to promote the other destinations.
The potential revenue loss from the closure of Boracay is estimated to reach PHP 18 to 20 billion if it takes the entire six months. If the rehabilitation can be fast-tracked, the closure could last only three to four months, task force officials said.
“We have to swallow the bitter pill if we wish to sustain and protect the island of Boracay. We want to bring it back to its paradise feel that we saw in the ‘80s. It may not be achieved but we know that in doing this clean-up and rehab as ordered by the President, more people will come to Boracay — we assure you about that. And it’s just something that we have to do; it’s a temporary setback but we will recover the glory days of Boracay,” Alegre said.