The Philippine island of Boracay has regularly been voted among the world’s best islands, and by the same rankings boasts some of the world’s best beaches. President Rodrigo Duterte was recently less impressed, saying Boracay had become a “cesspool” as a result of overcrowding and unchecked development. Accordingly, he has seen fit to close the island to tourism from April 26th onwards, ostensibly in order to carry out much-needed work on sewage and garbage disposal systems and to address the question of excessive development which has not been in compliance with regulations.

Why is this happening and what are the details?

Can we say that in Asia there are often underlying motivations looking for a suitable cover story? And that even when there aren’t there is speculation. Ask around and you’ll find consensus that there are developments on the island that have not followed the rulebook, and while “cesspool” might be a strong term, a general clean-up is warranted. There is also talk of influential Chinese involvement through proposed casino projects which might have prompted presidential action. As for the details, the closure appears set for six months, with the possibility of government assistance provided to those who find themselves out of work. Hotels and airlines are asked to refund visitors whose vacations are canceled, or help them with alternatives. In reality, confusion reigns.

Is this unprecedented?

Not quite. Thailand has already closed islands to visitors, although not on the same scale. Koh Yoong and Koh Tachai have been off-limits for the last two years, although they are part of the Similan Islands National Park and thus not a resort destination in anything close to the same style as Boracay. More recently, Thailand has decided to shut down the much more famous Maya Bay for four months to allow a modicum of environmental recovery. In Europe, meanwhile, mass tourism has resulted in protests in destinations such as Barcelona, Venice, and Dubrovnik, where visitors crowd out the locals, making some cities both hell to live in, and hell to visit. The measures taking place in Boracay are therefore not entirely new and will almost certainly be repeated in other destinations in the coming years – although the sweeping scale of the decision might only be possible under a particular type of political regime.

Will it damage the Philippines’ and Boracay’s reputation?

Absolutely not, no matter how badly it might turn out to be managed. People close to an issue care deeply – the rest of the world is not bothered. Remember when Thailand introduced a ban on the sale of alcohol between certain hours during the day, so tourists could no longer have a late lunch with a beer or two? Despite predictions of an imminent collapse in tourist arrival numbers and subsequent economic recession, nobody who wasn’t actually here and paying attention cared. On a personal note, a friend has just had a disappointing experience with Qatar Airways, which involved his luggage having a lengthy and unintended detour while customer service staff were distinctly underwhelming. I, however, have booked to fly with Qatar next week, because I, too, don’t care about anything that didn’t affect me directly. I assume Qatar Airways usually get things right, given their customer rankings, just as I’d assume that Boracay was once voted the world’s best island because it’s quite nice.
In fact, unless you’ve just had your holiday cancelled by presidential decree, the reaction to the closure is likely to be positive. Everyone likes a clean-up, and the idea of visiting a newly pristine Boracay where the authorities have stepped up and enforced development regulations and hygiene standards is likely to appeal. Catchy “better than ever” or “now our sh** doesn’t stink” marketing slogans could work wonders in six months’ time, while all those people who’d never heard of Boracay before today might now see some positive restoration work taking place and decide it’s worth a look. Two million people visited Boracay last year. Given that the island probably can’t actually support much of an increase on those numbers, the more likely outcome is an increase in Boracay room rates and a spillover of demand into other destinations within the country. Chinese arrivals recently outstripped Koreans, who have long enjoyed the Philippines, so the long term looks positive.

What does it mean for everyone else?

By everyone else we mean hoteliers in Asia – and first of all it is a reminder that in certain parts of the world where the law isn’t necessarily enforced all the time, or any of the time, for everyone, or anyone, it is always possible to be caught out when the music stops. There are countless examples over recent years of previously lax regulation suddenly taking a stricter turn, or of inducements to turn a blind eye no longer being accepted on a particular law enforcer’s watch. Cutting corners today can lead to pain tomorrow, as what is common practice or widely accepted right now might not be seen in the same light a few years down the line.
The final point is that environmental closures will likely have broad public support, especially from those who are unaffected, so hoteliers would be well advised to redouble their efforts to exceed environmental standards and to do their bit for their own surroundings. It is fair to say that awareness of these issues is perhaps greater in the developed world, while other nations may still need time to develop a cultural understanding of the need to look after the environment. Hotels can play a part in that education process. The day we see Asian hotels engaging the Asian mass tourist market in CSR projects based around cleaning up the environment is the day the tide may turn and the Boracay closure might be the last. If not, get ready to operate only six months a year.