April 23, 2018, 12:39 am
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Saving the crown jewels

FACEBOOK user Christine San Diego posted photos of a flooded area battered by Tropical Despression Urduja, showing devastation at a place frequently voted world’s number 1 island. San Diego didn’t mention the name, but anyone who has been to the beautiful island of Boracay will readily recognize its surroundings. Fallen trees and cables, flooded walkways and shops were seen from the photos she posted. Urduja changed course and headed to Aklan late Sunday afternoon, taking most residents by surprise. Judging from the havoc it wreaked on the island, it is easy to forget that Urduja was classified as tropical depression and not even a typhoon.

Tourism is one of the drivers of the Philippine economy, called a low-lying fruit because it is an easy target to achieve, considering the hundreds of beautiful beaches and natural sights that can be found all over the country. Our perennial problem of infrastructure remains a challenge, and one of the proposed solutions of the Aquino administration was the tourism convergence program, where the Department of Tourism joined forces with the Department of Transportation and Communications and the Department of Public Works and Highways to map out the needed improvements to our tourist sites.

The program involved identifying tourist sites with the most potential for growth, and providing the needed infrastructure support to help visitors access these places easily. The convergence program was another reflection of former president Benigno Aquino III’s whole of government approach, essentially pegging its success or failure on the ability of various government agencies to work together and help each other in attaining their targets.

I remember sitting in one of the briefings given by DENR officials about the state of the environment in Boracay. DENR was concerned that the island could not handle the increasing number of tourist arrivals every year, as every tourist not just brings revenue but the corresponding waste that has to be properly processed and disposed. This was some years back, of course, and I remember that the DENR expressed its concern about the lack of a unified sewerage system between all the resorts. Some resorts had apparently just built structures on their own and started dumping waste directly into the water, which is obviously not good for the island’s fragile ecosystem.

Broadcaster Ted Failon even discovered a resort that built its structure directly on the waters of the sea itself, in blatant disregard of local and national laws. I wasn’t able to follow his reporting to its end (I remember it lasted several weeks) but I hope that the local government was able to do something about the clear violations by the developers.

Even former Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez was met with some resistance when the national government imposed a ten-meter setback for beachside resorts, when he noticed that some of the establishments had practically claimed the shore for themselves, depriving locals and tourists alike of the privilege of walking the entire stretch of the white mile of sand.

When the Second Senior Officials’ Meeting for APEC 2015 was hosted in Boracay, organizers had to make sure that beach clean-ups were part of their responsibility. The idea was borrowed from private entities that hosted events on the island, a recognition of the responsibility that visitors and non-locals have to make sure that the beaches are kept pristine for future generations. I sincerely hope that initiatives like this one have continued since then.

Preserving the island cannot just fall on the shoulders of visitors. Local and national government, along with the resort and business owners in the area, must make sure that a long-term plan is in place to help stop the deterioration of this beautiful place. As in the recent devastation brought by Urduja, sharing blame cannot and will not go anywhere in accomplishing the rebuilding that needs to be done, as well as the ensuring that the community is prepared and trained in disaster-risk reduction measures.

It cannot be denied that Boracay is one of the crown jewels of Philippine tourism, drawing in hundreds of thousands of international and domestic visitors per year. Along with Palawan, Boracay is well-known around the world for being synonymous with paradise, but it can quickly turn into paradise lost if interventions aren’t made soon. Who will step up and save this crown jewel?
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