BORACAY Island, Malay, Aklan—President Duterte is expected to decide during the Cabinet meeting today (Monday) whether to keep Boracay Island open to tourists. But if it will be closed off, he will also decide when the closure will start, and for how long.
Government sources told the BusinessMirror that all Cabinet secretaries are one in thinking that the island should be closed, and “it’s just a matter of when that will happen…. [Interior secretary-designate] Gen. [Eduardo M.] Año wants to close off the island immediately, so demolitions of illegal structures could be done and the sewage problem can be resolved. [Tourism] Secretary [Wanda Corazon T.] Teo wants it to be closed during the habagat [monsoon] season. [Environment] Secretary [Roy A.] Cimatu still has questions, but is considering it.”
Other government sources noted that the Cabinet secretaries shouldn’t be hasty on recommending the island’s closure. “The President gave the task force six months to solve Boracay’s problems. Only then will he consider to close it or not. Ba’t nila pinangungunahan si Presidente?”
After the Senate hearing last Friday, Año told the BusinessMirror that Task Force Boracay “would relay to the President what was discussed today because it was he who said, if there would not be any changes, ‘I will close it.’ He means business. If it can be shown that everyone is willing to contribute to save Boracay, then the President will reconsider it.”
The senators had asked the task force not to include the closure option in its recommendations. It was revealed at the hearing that there were about 19,000 workers on the island who will lose their only source of income if the island is closed. (See, “DENR chief wants Boracay to remain open,” in the BusinessMirror, March 3, 2018)
Last Thursday and Friday members of the task force, which include officials of the Departments of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Interior and Local Government and of Tourism, conducted marathon meetings to discuss several issues pertaining to the easement and sewage issues, as well as the need for baseline figures for the body to be able to make its proper recommendations to Duterte. The task force is composed of the three agencies and will be expanded to include the departments of Justice and of Public Works and Highways.
One of the issues raised during the meetings was the number of local government and DENR officials who are responsible for the problems Boracay is now facing. Another point raised is the carrying capacity of the island and what year was it breached. The DENR is expected to determine how many people—tourists, local population and workers—the island can still carry. Tourist arrivals on the island grew from 634,263 in 2008 to some 2 million in 2017, indicating an average growth of 13.2 percent in 10 years, data from the DOT showed. Partial data also showed there were 430 resorts with 14,697 rooms in 2017, up from 408 resorts with 11,246 rooms the previous year.
At the Senate hearing last Friday, Sen. Juan Miguel F. Zubiri, chairman of the Committee on Trade and Finance, said he will be proposing a bill to create a Boracay Island Development Authority, a private sector-led body that will oversee the development of the popular island resort. He added this would be something similar to the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority.
Teo said she agrees with Zubiri’s proposal: “Maybe the government can handle it first, then turn it over to the private sector.”
Meanwhile, Cimatu said he will be presenting at the Cabinet meeting on Monday “the outcome of the less-than-one-month compliance to [President Duterte’s] directive [to fix Boracay’s problems]. Without finishing the sewage system, I can’t say [if we will close the island.]” BIWC has been tasked to connect its two sewerage-treatment plants to maximize their use. At present, one is underutilized, while the other is overused.
The DENR chief stressed it was “really impractical” to close the island to tourists immediately as Año wanted, if its problems have not yet been solved. “This will depend on the total things I’m doing now. The compliance to easement [rules]. The compliance to solid waste [law]. There are problems other than the sewage issue. This is an integrated problem, and we’re trying to solve it one by one.”
He cited traffic congestion along the main road of the island as a major issue, as well. “We are even looking to [construct] a diversion road and we have been discussing that we have to do it immediately so we can decongest. If there is a diversion road, the problem of congestion will ease. We have an integrated approach to the problems. When after several months, when everything is okay na, then only then can I make a recommendation [to close it or not].”
Año had told task force members he wanted an immediate closure while time was still on its side, and it will be able to implement rehabilitation plans for the island before the establishments found to have violated environmental and easement laws can file cases against the government.