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Monday, July 15, 2024

Drastic measures needed

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MUCH has been written lately in opposition to a government plan to shut down Boracay Island for six to 12 months to give way to a major environmental cleanup of the popular beach paradise that the steady influx of tourists and decades of neglect and abuse have turned into a cesspool.

Most of these voices offer three arguments against the total closure of the island:

1) That it would hurt the thousands of workers who rely on employment at the beach resorts for a living;

2) That it would punish the innocent along with the guilty. Resorts that did not dump their untreated sewage directly into the surrounding waters—would fare no better than the ones that did, and the ones who operated with a permit would be shut down along with those that built indiscriminately on no-build zones; and

3) That it would hurt the tourism industry and cost the economy millions of pesos in lost revenues.

All three points are indisputably valid, but none of them is enough reason to hold off on a major overhaul of the island.

In broad terms, let us address these concerns one at a time.

First, workers who are displaced by the temporary shutdown can be given employment in what must obviously follow: A massive government-led infrastructure build-up and cleanup effort on the island. After the resorts reopen, these workers can resume work in the tourism industry, secure in the knowledge that their livelihood is based on a sustainable system that will not be disrupted again by closures due to environmental problems.

Second, the shutdown should not be viewed as punishment, but a necessary inconvenience to put things in order. Nobody objects when the government builds a flyover to ease the flow of traffic on a clogged thoroughfare because people expect to benefit from the infrastructure in the long run. A temporary closure on Boracay is no different.

During the shutdown, the authorities can undertake a complete renovation of the island to demolish establishments that were built in violation of environmental laws, build a comprehensive sewage and water treatment facility for the entire island, establish a sustainable flow of tourists onto the island, and train local businesses and workers in practicing sustainable tourism. All of these will inconvenience the main players in the short term, but benefit everyone in the long term.

At the same time, the government can file cases against businessmen, and national and local officials who have violated laws in the name of profit, as a pointed reminder that the wanton disregard of the environment will no longer be tolerated.

Finally, there is no doubt that the temporary closure of Boracay will cost the tourism industry and the government millions of pesos in short-term losses. But these should be more than offset when Boracay reopens, better prepared to handle the hordes of tourists who flock to the island, precisely for its natural beauty that has been seriously degraded over the years and in dire need of restoration.

Tourism and the environment need not be mutually exclusive. Building an environmentally sustainable Boracay makes good business sense in the long run—and a temporary shutdown is the best way to jumpstart the process.


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