Local Travelers Are Discovering and Saving Boracay

SecondOne of the best of the Philippines’ 7,641 islands, oracay has long been one of the least known, and its four square miles are a closely guarded secret. The island’s pristine beaches and crystal clear waters are isolated in the center of the archipelago and were a refuge for the few Ati Aboriginal people – until the rest of the world caught on.

hero too lateThis 1970 American war film was shot in Boracay, a stunning location where big-name stars Michael Caine and Henry Fonda sparked international interest. In 1979, as German travel writer Jens Peters published his definitive book, the ensuing trickle of curious backpackers turned into a flood. Philippines Travel Guide And declared Boracay “paradise”. Just over ten years later, Tropical Beach Brochure— a Michelin-inspired compendium sponsored by automaker BMW — hailed Boracay Beach as the best beach in the world.

Naturally, this recognition comes at a price. From a pre-1992 neighborhood without even electricity, Boracay has quickly transformed into an international party hub, with its shoreline teeming with bars and clubs from dusk to dawn.

In 2019, the year before the pandemic brought travel to a halt, about 2 million tourists visited Boracay, pumping about $1 billion into the tiny island. But tourism has also created huge problems over the years, especially with regard to waste and sewage disposal. Raw sewage is pumped into the sea, and broken glasses, bottles and plastic cups litter the shoreline. Things got so bad that President Rodrigo Duterte called the island a “cesspool” and banned tourists for six months in 2018 so that it could be cleaned up.

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Today, due to the pandemic, the island is again almost devoid of foreigners. Of the 200,000 visitors to Boracay in May, fewer than 5,000 were from overseas, according to local government figures. Their absence completely changed the nature of the island. The bars close as early as 9pm and the money changers don’t even bother to open the doors – because almost everyone you see in Boracay these days is from the Philippines.

Some, like Cedrick Ungab, are enjoying the country’s most popular island for the first time. The tourist from Manila had heard about Boracay’s notorious nightlife before visiting Boracay six months ago. But upon arriving, he realized he liked quiet. “It’s more of a family vacation vibe,” Ungab told TIME.

Customers dine at a restaurant in Boracay, Aklan, Philippines, Wednesday, March 23, 2022.

Veejay Villafranca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Local tourists and Boracay

What is happening in Boracay is being replicated in many other Asian travel hotspots that are still emerging from the pandemic. Inbound, long-haul travel is gradually resuming, but it’s a heavy business involving multiple PCR tests, varying degrees of quarantine, more expensive flight reduction schedules, and a complex and ever-changing web of regulations and paperwork. To travel to Boracay, vacationers must submit proof of COVID-19 vaccination and hotel reservations three days before travel. Then assign them a QR code or they will be denied entry.

When COVID-19 hit, only tourists were left on the island scrambling to get there. International tour companies and restaurants are closed, and islanders in the tourism industry have had to look for other jobs, many of whom rely on pandemic aid from local governments. A travel assistant said he worked construction and fishing to make ends meet. Mary Grace Malolos, who runs a wholesale seafood business, said her business had not achieved anything in the past year and a half.

Due to strict COVID regulations, the island did not see a steady stream of tourists again until October last year. The dearth of foreigners partying has left a void that domestic holidaymakers are eager to fill.

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Filipino vacationer Natalia Chan told TIME she was reluctant to go on vacation overseas because of the risks and hassles of cross-border travel during the pandemic — so she went to Boracay in March. What she saw was refreshing and refreshing. There are no crowds on the island and most attractions are within walking distance. There is space in the streets and alleys to explore the shops and restaurants at your leisure. The usual seaside touts are there, offering kayak rides, hair braids or temporary tattoos, but they advertise their services in the local language rather than English.

Many of the island’s 4,000 licensed businesses have flexibly adapted to changes in customers. Cris Cahilig runs a small burger joint called Two Brown Boys, which used to serve international tourists. Now, more than 95% of her clients are local clients. “We have to pivot to stay in business,” she said. “We added rice bowls to the menu and started serving breakfast.” She also had a Filipino DJ who knew what tunes new clients wanted to hear.

Chan loved the island so much that she stayed there for a month and hoped that Boracay would remain the way it is.While acknowledging the economic imperative to bring foreign tourists back, she said: “I honestly really want it to be our [island] Because it is ours. “

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Kite surfers in Bulabo Town, Boracay Island, Aklan, Philippines, Wednesday, March 23,

Veejay Villafranca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Foreign tourism in the Philippines

Foreign tourists have only been allowed into Boracay since February of this year, and their return has been slowly increasing, but there have been very few visitors from South Korea and China, the two biggest markets, especially the latter. China’s zero-coronavirus policy has prevented residents from traveling abroad as they face onerous re-entry requirements on their return.

Before the pandemic, the island struggled to attract the 1.9 million Koreans and 1.7 million Chinese who visit the Philippines each year. Hotel signage and menus are usually written in Chinese and Korean. The South Korean market is expected to recover with the resumption of direct flights from Seoul’s Incheon Airport to Kalibo Airport, the main transport hub in Boracay, about 75 kilometers from the island, this month. But for now, the Chinese seafood restaurants and Korean barbecue joints that line the main streets and alleys remain empty.

Backpacker hostel owner Janice Bindolo told TIME that the only Chinese and Koreans she sees are restaurant owners or hotel and hotel owners. Most of her guests are locals or from Europe.

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MJ Salme, marketing manager for the family-owned Pig Out Bistro, said the small number of people visiting the restaurant made her feel “encouraged and hopeful” for a full comeback on the island, even though international tourists remained scarce. “We are optimistic that in a few months, we will expect more international tourists to fly in,” she told TIME. “We can’t afford another lockdown because we’ve all endured so much during the pandemic.”

It’s clear, though, that many domestic holidaymakers would be happy if Boracay wasn’t as crowded, rubbish, and commercial tourism as it once was.

“I’m glad Filipinos can enjoy it more,” said Chen, a one-month vacationer [and] Travel there and enjoy the island like a Filipino. “

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