Boracay: All eyes on Boracay

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Simplicity lives at the core of every action towards sustainability. Simply put, it is to take only what we need and make sure there’s enough for nature to replenish itself, enjoy the simplicity of life and make do without excesses and vanities, leave things as they were or better than before, and not to exceed a location’s capacity to sustain us. That’s what it means to be environment-friendly. But some residents, environmentalists and longtime travelers believe that Boracay—one of the Philippines’ most popular tourist destination—may have become crowded with too many visitors for its own water supply or sanitation system to safely and responsibly handle. Simply put, they fear that at the current rate of growth, its pristine beauty the very reason for the island’s rapid development—may not be sustainable.

After all, Boracay today is anything but simple. With its crowds, franchise eateries, themed restaurants and exclusive resorts, some contend that the current experience is a far cry of what old-timers recall during the 1970s and early 1980s—a secret getaway for travelers from the far corners of the Earth, a place where the English breakfast, the Swiss inn and the French crepe restaurants were all authentic experiences run by globetrotting beachcombers and hippies. It was, by many accounts, an eternal summer of love.

Some longtime residents note that, even before all the foreign and Filipino settlers came, much of the island belonged to the indigenous Ati. They had lived in perfect harmony with nature since pre-history—well before the notion of land ownership and titles. Having no legal documents, some say they were tricked and threatened into leaving the choicest parts of the islands. Much of their centuries-old knowledge on how to maintain the island’s resources was disregarded and lost. Today, they are very careful about who to face and have grown quite skeptic about how they are portrayed in media. They refuse to talk to outsiders, even to a journalist such as I.

Few of today’s visitors even know of the Ati’s existence. Among the many themed resorts, bars, and restaurants, (faux Balinese, Tahitian, Greek, etc.) few if any feature local Filipino culture. And my generation admittedly just doesn’t know what we’re missing and what we’ve lost. Many of today’s visitors find current conditions acceptable, perhaps because they cannot compare what Boracay is today to what it was before.

And yet Boracay has become even more alluring, as the numbers show. If you happened to have visited Boracay last year, you would have been among its 907,000 tourists. Big figures, booming businesses. Boracay is seeing an age of heightened growth.

For my maiden trip to Boracay, my mission was to observe how pristine its beaches are, find out what green programs are ongoing, and have a feel of how fun it is, and still can be, in the years to come. This mission was further spurred by my hearing of all kinds of opinion about Boracay. From foreigners, awe-struck by White Beach, I get praises. But some fellow Filipinos tend to be skeptics, as stated above. There are those who would say they have found “a Boracay,” referring to newly discovered beaches, and that these “new Boracays” should be careful about being “the next Boracay,” in reference to the island’s rumored downslide.

Oh, rumors. It became clear to me that more than checking out how green Boracay is, I was about to finally see the star. The one that every new virgin beach is compared to, and though guised in the sharpest of criticisms, the one that everybody can’t help worrying about, because she is loved.

Surveying White Beach

Anyone expecting to see anything unsightly will be disappointed. Standing in the middle of White Beach, the longest beach on Boracay and its crowning glory, I laughed at how exaggerated the rumors I heard were. I strolled along White Beach, feeling like I was walking on an endless strip of white velvet, the sand being so fair, soft and stretching so long. And instead of being turned off by the modernity, I was actually amazed, beholding how the strip was lined on one side by an interesting mix of stores, hotels and restaurants. And on its other side, there’s the plain bluish sea, dotted by figures of people wading or swimming.

A recurring sight in White Beach are trios of covered waste bins. You can rely you’ll see a set after every few steps, labeled as compostable, recyclable and non-recyclable. As I was approaching one of the bins to dispose popsicle sticks, I saw a male Caucasian guest successfully figuring out which bin to use. We smiled and nodded at each other.

And yet perhaps another reason why everyone is seemingly observant of the beach’s key ordinances banning littering and smoking is the beach cops, donning black shorts and blue polo shirts. Good old police visibility. The country’s big cities can even learn a thing or two from Boracay; what’s the need for numerous complex laws when the simplest ones, implemented, can preempt bigger problems?

Another delightful sight was not seeing transportation boats anywhere near. Boats are at the farthest end of White Beach’s station three. Motorized water vehicles are prohibited from coming near the beach due to the coral reef rehabilitation program. The program looks serious—not once in my White Beach stay did I spot a jet ski.

What about those rumors of unsafe waters, circulated by pseudonym-bearing bloggers? Boracay’s array of international beachgoers disprove these. Their babies crawl on the beach, and with all probability get to drink some of the water. At one moment I looked at one spot and saw young Koreans hurriedly getting out of their graduation togas, eyeing the sea, then I looked another way and I saw westerners asleep on beach mats, getting as dark as the locals. Under the noonday sun, they all glow. And I heard no second of panic at all, only laughter, and the music of different languages mixed as one happy blur.

Much of the small island’s drinking water is imported from the mainland. The development of more resorts, residences and gardens, especially golf courses, creates even more demands on the tiny island’s water supply. But these challenges are being addressed.

The cool of John and Aby, the fire of Mrs. Brugger

The best proponents of taking care of the Earth are those who do not hoist up their banners in doomsday warnings. They are positive. They believe there’s always hope and nothing is ever totally unredeemable. Some of them are from Boracay.

Mayor John Yap and his wife Aby stand as the main guardians of the island. This young and beautiful couple has been together for over a decade and just got married. Their love story practically runs parallel to the story of Boracay. Being a newly-wed, they are filled with trust and plans for a better Boracay, while their years of friendship signifies the resilience Boracay must have while undergoing green actions, if it is to remain on top as one of the world’s most-loved beaches.

“In the early 1980s, Boracay was at its most pristine state – the white beach was at its best, there was no electricity in the island, there were no tall structures, only less than ten thousand people were living in the island and tourists visiting number around 15 thousand. Tropical nipa huts were all the accommodation available and lamps lit these beautiful huts. Life in Boracay was very simple with fishermen selling their fresh catch to the people,” recalls Mayor Yap of the Boracay he knew as a kid. When word got around the world that Boracay existed, mostly during the 1990s, developments had to be made to cope with the influx of local and international guests.

Mayor Yap shared in Boracay’s growing pains, but his coolness reigned, “I felt sad at first because the changes were blurring the landscape of the Boracay island I so loved. But then I thought that if we have to share the island with the world, this is what we must face.” Under his leadership, a no-build zone policy has been implemented, along with regular tree planting. One of the island’s water companies, Boracay Island Water Company, tied up with the government to address water shortage and wastewater treatment, and is even ahead in most of their targets. Boracay also observes waste segregation and management through the Materials Recovery Facility, which even creates bricks from shredded plastics and glass collected from the beaches’ trash bins, and fertilizer from food waste. MRF also built the recycled reef domes planted offshore and are now gradually growing corals. There are a lot more going on.

“Bonfires are definitely banned. We have also standing agreements with resorts to implement an up-to-12 midnight policy of partying outside of the establishment. The moratorium policy we have put in place recently will further cover areas and concerns not previously included,” the mayor sums up.

While John and Aby are the cool pair, passion burns in Elena Brugger. Known throughout Boracay as Mrs. Brugger, she serves as the mayor’s environmental consultant, pro bono, purely “for the love of Boracay.”

Mrs. Brugger came from the real estate business but got into sustainability after her involvement with the Boracay Chamber of Commerce immersed her into associations with international environmentalists. She is self-thought and continues her education on how to preserve Boracay, regularly coordinating with environmental groups. Whatever she learns, she passes on. And there have been occasions when she had to personally talk to difficult constituents, to explain that if they do not follow the green plan, nature will prove them wrong.

“Education is the key. You learn from your mistakes. It’s all about blending,” she explained with a smile. She admits that Boracay is no longer the paradise that it was before, that the original coral reefs around some parts of the island have been damaged to the point of eradication, and that it’s not always easy to talk those who refuse to listen. But she will not give up on Boracay.

“I’ve been to 19 countries. When I am [abroad] and asked, ‘where are you from?’ and I say, ‘Boracay, Philippines,’ they ask me back, ‘why are you here?’” she recalled with a laugh, referring to how the rest of the world could not believe she could bear to be away from the island.

“Boracay is a brand. It’s our country’s pride,” she exclaimed. And to those who say there are now better places to go to other than Boracay, she laughs again and points out at how she has friends who actually say they don’t like Boracay, “but they keep coming back.”

Beaches shinning like limelight

Boracay has other white beaches and coves offering different experiences, ranging from the adventurous to the idyllic. Bulabog Beach is parallel to White Beach, on the other side of the island. Cross the main road, ride a tricycle, and you can be there in minutes. Though not really known as a swimming beach, I saw local kids actually taking an afternoon dip or paddling on surfboards. Kiteboarding competitions are hosted here too, explaining the number of kiteboarding and water sports equipment shops dotting the stretch. Up north of Bulabog Beach is Mount Luho, the highest point of Boracay at 369 feet, which actually makes it just a hill. From a viewing deck, I saw Boracay’s other beaches like Lugutan and Tulubhan at the south. Ilig-Iligan, not populated but is also a swimmer’s beach I was told, can be seen from the deck too, northward.

But Boracay’s best north beach would have to be Puka Beach. It derives its name from the small, smooth white puka shells found here, crafted by locals into jewelry and décor. The sands are not as fair and fine as in White Beach, but Puka shines just the same, I had to squint at times from the brilliance. And there were only a handful of swimmers.

Since the past days were poured on surveying and interviewing, it was in Puka where I had my first ever Boracay dip. As I fixed the knots of my bikini under the shade of a puka-selling stall, the vendor told me Puka is how peaceful Boracay was before the island got famous.

I left with him my clothes, notebook and pen, and marched off towards the crystal clear waters. Immersed neck-deep, looking at Boracay from Puka, I thought maybe mister vendor can relax – just as Puka has remained how it is over the years, so can the whole of Boracay stay beautiful, what with all the work being done by its people. Besides, just a few feet away was a group of Japanese youths, marveling at the belt of smooth round rocks and corals underwater.

Boracay, the star, cannot hide from the world.

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