Tourism businesses were forced to suspend their operations as soon as COVID-19 cases in the Philippines began to increase. The island of Boracay, which finished its rehabilitation last October 2018, remains as one of the country’s local attractions. Simultaneous with its reopening during this pandemic, we recall the proper planning and infrastructure provision aspects that landscape architect Paulo Alcazaren identified, why these matter, and what we must learn from them.

7641. This is the number of reasons why Boracay is important. The figure is the adjusted island count by NAMRIA, the government office tasked with mapping our sun, sea, and fun-filled islands. Every school kid is more familiar with 7107—depending on whether it is high or low tide. Regardless of the pop-quiz answer, the most important insight is that Boracay is not the Philippines, and if we do not learn the lessons from Boracay’s descent into e-coli-filled, blighted hell, the same fate awaits the countless other tourism destinations in the country.

“Carrying capacities for Boracay have to be formulated as a basis for future development,” Alcazaren says.

The current six-month closure was a long-time coming. Such a draconian measure is economically disruptive and reflects a last-ditch option that we should never have to take, also because of its high social cost. The window for the infrastructural retrofits and cleanup necessary for the island’s recovery may, however, not be enough to reach an acceptable level of environmental integrity. Both a longer time frame, as well as the even more drastic step of culling the number of resorts on the island, may be the way to go. 

That said, we must first list the lessons to be learned from the case of Boracay, then apply these all our other islands.

Proper planning

The most obvious lesson is that of the importance of proper planning and the provision of infrastructure necessary to accommodate the development set by these plans. Infrastructure for transport, power, water supply, solid and liquid waste management must be in step with projections of growth for any destination; and not an afterthought. This growth must also be tied to that primary concept of ‘carrying capacity’ and this concept is integral to proper economic and physical planning. 

Specific to tourism development, no beach, island, province, or region should be allowed to develop more resorts, and take in more tourists, than the location is able to host, without compromising the natural assets, aesthetic experience, and cultural values that had attracted visitors in the first place. Definitely too, none must get to a point where public health and safety are in peril. One should never kill the goose that lays the golden egg. What we have in the Philippines, however, is the start of a golden goose genocide.

Boracay’s fragile and compromised environmental condition is obvious from the air, which is also the first perspective visitors have on the island.

Tourism development, as well as all types of physical and economic development, is already embedded in planning initiatives covered by various wonderful laws and the Local Government Code. These are also scaled up to all the requirements of provincial, regional, and national economic and physical framework plans. Unfortunately, the lack of capacity of government officials and support plantillas at almost all levels of government makes it impossible to properly plan, much less implement, monitor, and sustain trajectories for rational development.

Although the number of registered and licensed environmental planners have increased dramatically to over 4800 this year, the number of those who work for the government is not enough to fill the requirements of 17 regions, 81 provinces, 145 cities and 1489 municipalities of the country. Most of these planners have only just completed one-year diploma courses. Less than 500 among them have any relevant or lengthy enough experience to be fully effective in their positions. Many of the more experienced planners service private clients or are working overseas.

This situation does not even factor in the reality that the actual planning and zoning decisions are ultimately made by members of the different Sanguniang Bayan, Lungsod and Panglalawigan (municipal, city, and provincial boards), and not by these planning officers. Few of these members, or the general public for that matter, are up to speed in matters relating to tourism and environmental concerns, much less urban or regional planning. 

It should also be pointed out that many of these decision-makers themselves have personal and business agendas, which are often in opposition to any moderation of development according to the tenets of sustainability. What is left un-moderated in the country, therefore, is greed.

The need for good governance

The weakness of present governance frameworks to cope with rapid growth, or other ‘externalities,’ then, is the next lesson from Boracay.  

A good number of the preferred tropical-island, beach, and even mountain destinations are fourth or fifth class municipalities far from urban centers. The aspect of remoteness is one of the characteristics of a good tourism destinationat least at the start. These small municipalities never have the resources (or claim they don’t, as in the case of Siargao) to implement any initiative to build adequate infrastructure or provide basic services for visitors, much less for their own resident population. 

Once a destination is ‘discovered’ by backpackers or local bloggers, it is often just a matter of a few years before the scramble for beachfront property ensues. The particular negative lesson of real-estate profits made from flipping such properties has already spawned a buying frenzy nationwide for such properties. This is happening in remote provincial locations in Palawan and the Visayan regions, as well as anywhere else with a decent beach, lake, or mountain vista. 

Many island destinations in the country, like Siargao, are larger than Boracay and demand a different, in fact a more complex framework for sustainability.

All this is now happening even before adequate tourism, land-use, and infrastructure planning is set. Some would say, the stampede of property acquisition is happening by design, before any regulation is established, to benefit certain entities, corporate, or politically based.

Speaking of stampedes, the elephant in the room is, of course, graft and corruption. Variances and deviations in zoning ordinances, loose interpretations of the greyer aspects of those ordinances, as well as approvals of all types of permits with the minimum of compliance, can be had by making ‘arrangements’ with key officials or cultivating mutually beneficial ‘relationships’ with LGUs, provincial, as well as national line agency officials. All this is just common public knowledge or perception, but judging by how overwhelmed the Commission on Audit and Ombudsman offices are, there must be more than an ounce of truth. 

In the case of Boracay, and many established and emerging tourism destinations like Puerto Galera, Panglao, Mactan, El Nido, and Siargao, the non-compliance with even basic National Building Code regulations is undeniable. This is not fake news. Sewage pipes spewing gunk, eutrophication of inland waters, disappearing forest, and mangrove cover cannot be hidden.

Using data

Even if we establish a more disciplined physical planning regimen, enforcement of laws, supported by increased governance capacity, and access to financial resources (with no strings attached to the requisites of pork-barrel largesse), what is needed to move forward with tourism development of island destinations is data. 

You cannot make any decisions without data. Baseline data gathering, surveys, and mapping for social, cultural, economic, and physical attributes are needed as starting points for both existing destinations and the identification of future ones. The government’s NAMRIA and PAGASA, in partnership with educational institutions are well on its way to complete risk mapping at a national scale. Many tourism destinations, however, need more detailed physical mapping. This is important to set boundaries, define areas, overlaps in jurisdiction, identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, as well as contribute to better communication of context and specifics of proposed plans.

Mapping is good for all planning endeavors, tourism-related or otherwise. In fact, all the lessons from Boracay are applicable to all types of development. Paradigm shifts in development and economic planning need to be made due to the impact of rapid tourism growth that we all hope will happen to the Philippines.  

The advantage of the current DOT head’s background is that she was in the agriculture sector, and many of the challenges in planning come from the overlaps and conflicts of agricultural or primary production, resource conservation, and the provision of infrastructure. Farm to market roads, as well as seaports, rail, and air transport networks benefit all economic sectors and need to be addressed no matter what. What is needed is to acknowledge the distinctive requirements of tourism, especially the speed and extent at which the sector may induce physical changes to a national landscape still transitioning from rural to urban, and from product-based to knowledge-based economies. 

Moving forward

Yes, we are not in Kansas anymore. Intense and frequent cyclones of change, climactic, or economic are the new normal. Comprehensive planning is the only avenue to sustainability and resilience. Success in planning is only ensured if outlooks are long-term and not opportunistic. It is also based on how well we set the context for planning, both from the physical (ridge to reef), as well as in the context of economic globalization. In the Philippines, there is also the impact of geopolitical pressures, which require us to exert better control over the destinies of our islands and territorial waters.

One cannot think of Boracay just as a tourism destination that has gone bad. Boracay is just one of the over seven thousand islands in our archipelago. The steps we need to take to bring the island back to life cover planning, a change in governance framework, coordinated resource conservation, and mitigation of risks from overdevelopment.

These and other steps need to be taken for all our other islands. Specific to tourism development, there are numbers more important than 7,641. 

There are literally thousands more tropical paradise islands in the Philippines and the lessons from Boracay need to be learned before we lose any more to haphazard tourism.

We need to know how many more destinations are compatible with resort and hospitality development; how many more airports and seaports we need to build to reach them; how much more of our forests, mangroves, and coral reefs to protect, save, or regenerate; how many more people we need to train to man, manage, and sustain the hospitality we are so proud of; and, lastly, how much of our government structure to reconfigure to eliminate the lack of coordination, overlapping jurisdictions, and temptations of pecuniary rewards outside of what our fantastic but un-implementable laws stipulate.

The danger with the October deadline for Boracay is that the people who control the boots on the ground there may be pressured to produce only cosmetic results. The general cleaning and clearing tasks are achievable, but we need to recalibrate the time needed for more lasting interventions. This includes the island-wide sewer and water system, the transport network (that utility bridge may be a good idea, but its aesthetic impact is debatable), the resolution of limits of agricultural (if any), forest, and mangrove protection areas, along with their buffer zones. Finally, we need to set carrying capacity numbers for the beaches of Boracay, which are the main attraction, as well as the entire island, within the larger context of its surrounding waters and Caticlan. 

Ultimately, the most important lesson to learn from Boracay is, “What happens in Boracay does not stay in Boracay, but gets repeated nationwide.” We have no choice but to achieve success in that island if we are to create a new template for Philippine tourism development. 

This article first appeared in BluPrint Vol 3 2018. Edits were made for BluPrint online.

READ MORE: Is it really possible to farm in Boracay Island?

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