BORACAY, AKLAN — It's Holy Week in Boracay, and as usual, the long stretch of beach is teeming with tourists basking in the sun.
Families frolick in the water as others build castles out of the famous white sand. Groups of foreigners hang out at beachfront restaurants or lie down to work on their tan. Tour guides enthusiastically offer 6-hour island hopping tours, with free lunch buffet! Boracay is bright and sunny, and you would think it is business as usual.
But things are different this time.
If you look closely, you will see tarpaulins posted on many establishments in Station 1 that say the place is up for demolition because it is built within the 25 + 5 meter easement in violation of Presidential Proclamation No. 1064. And if you talk to your waiter about what will happen to his job given talks about the island's possible closure, he will most likely answer that he doesn't know.
One of the thousands of service workers in Boracay anxious about their their jobs is Jocelyn Vega, who works at one of the restaurants in Bolabog beach.
Her work place is facing demolition for being too close to the shore, so she worries about how she will take care of her two children.
"May pamilya din kami, may mga anak kami, ganun. Kelangan namin buhayin," she said, adding that she is also worried where she’ll work if the island is temporarily closed to tourists.
Three government agencies—the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Department of the Interior and Local Government, and Department of Tourism—have recommended that Boracay be closed for six months starting April 26 to give way to unhampered rehabilitation efforts.
This came weeks after President Rodrigo Duterte called the world-famous island resort a "cesspool" and further investigation revealed that hundreds of establishments violated building and environmental rules.
Let's look at some numbers.
There are two water concessionaires in Boracay: Boracay Island Water Corp. and Boracay Tubi System Inc. The DENR found that 195 of Boracay Island Water Corp's 578 business customers were not connected to the sewerage system, while only 5 percent of their 4,331 residential customers were connected. Meanwhile, only one Boracay Tubi System customer was connected to its sewer lines.
This means dirty wastewater from unconnected establishments go untreated into bodies of water in the island and into the sea known for its clear waters.
Here's another set of numbers: according to the municipality of Malay's estimates, there are 17,328 registered local and foreign workers, while unregistered workers are estimated to be over 11,000.
This means almost 30,000 people will lose their jobs once the whole island is closed, albeit temporarily.
Nennette Graf, president of Boracay Foundation Inc. which counts around 150 of the island's hotels, restaurants, and other businesses as members, said some establishments have already begun laying off workers in anticipation of the island's temporary closure.
"Alam ko yung ibang resort, I will not mention the names 'no, nag-retrench na sila. Nagbawas na sila ng mga hindi talaga nila kailangan na mga workers para lang ma-maintain yung mga workers," she said.
Graf said some guests have also canceled their hotel bookings for the last week of April even though President Duterte has yet to issue a final, official order on Boracay's recommended closure.
"May mga cancellation. May mga nagbu-book at saka nagtatanong anong status. Hindi namin alam," she said.
"Kung nagca-cancel sila, eh di papa-cancel namin nang walang charges, ganun na lang sa hotels. Madali namang kausapin yung hotels eh," she said. "Yung airline ang hindi namin ma-control."
No big parties for LaBoracay
On Wednesday, the municipal government of Malay announced that it will stop granting special permits for big events for LaBoracay, arguably Boracay’s biggest event that attracts around 14,000 tourists and partygoers each year.
The move not to hold big parties from April 27 to May 2 is in “support of the rehabilitation of Boracay since big events for Labor Day generates a significant increase in both solid and water waste,” the municipality of Malay said in a statement.
Small organized events that are compliant with local ordinances, however, will still be allowed.
Who will help the workers?
Some workers in Boracay have accepted the possibility that they may lose their jobs in a few weeks.
Bonnie Tapiru, who has been a tour guide in Boracay for 15 years, is one of them.
Bonnie has seen a lot of changes in the island over the years, and he doesn't resent the president for wanting to rehabilitate it.
"Gusto rin namin kasi maayos ang Boracay so lucky rin kami na may presidente tayong ganyan," he said. "Meron ding risk sa amin pero kaya naming tanggapin yung katotohanan na maghirap muna bago maginhawaan din bandang huli."
For the onslaught of tourists this Holy Week—the local government is expecting around 58,000 tourists to come in—Bonnie said he will work doubly hard to convince them to take tour packages in order to save enough money in case the island closes temporarily.
"Tatlo yung estudyante ko, may kolehiyo pong dalawa tapos yung isa high school," he said of the children he has to take care of.
"Agresibo po kami ngayon para makaipon-ipon po ng pera kahit pano siguro, pang-invest din namin, halimbawa pupunta kami ng ibang lugar, halimbawa mag buy and sell ganun, depende sa plano ng bawat mamamayan dito kung pano umasenso sa buhay," he said.
Tapiru has only one request: that the local government also help them find alternative sources of livelihood with decent pay in case the island won’t take tourists for 6 months.
DSWD, LGU still working on options
Malay Mayor Ceciron Cawaling declined to be interviewed. His executive assistant Rowen Aguirre said they have yet to determine how to assist workers who may be displaced by rehabilitation measures.
"Yun ang hindi din natin alam. Pwedeng cash assistance yun o subsidy o yun nga, sinasabi nila bibigyan ng alternative na trabaho," he said. "Pagdating sa employment hindi natin masisiguro yan eh. Wala din naman tayong mao-offer kasi wala na nga tayong economic activity dito eh pag sinara mo, so anong options nila?"
Aguirre was interviewed earlier this week after attending a stakeholders' meeting with various government agencies about Boracay’s rehabilitation.
Environment chief Roy Cimatu, who also attended the meeting, said the DSWD is in charge of providing assistance for the workers who may be displaced.
Aguirre, however, said he had qualms about some of the ideas raised by the DSWD.
"May sinasabi yung taga-DSWD na tuturuan sila ng candle-making, mga soap-making. Ang sagot ko naman, ma'am kung sarado ang Boracay saan yung market natin diba? So the whole region magkakaproblema 'to dito," he said.
"San natin sila ipapasa? Kasi I'm sure in other places dito sa region o sa province of Aklan wala ring trabaho dun kasi apektado din sila ng planong pagsasara," he added.
There were suggestions to get laid off workers to help with reconstruction. It is an option that some tour guides like Tapiru are open to, but for Aguirre it's not a viable option for everyone.
"Yung mga masahista hindi pwede yun," said Aguirre. "Iba iba yung profile so kelangan sigurong pag-aralang mabuti kung paano."
'Don’t punish the compliant'
President Duterte has yet to issue an official order about Boracay's closure despite saying earlier that he will follow the recommendation, so Graf of Boracay Foundation has not given up hope that he will change his mind.
"Kung pwede, hindi maparusahan yung hindi nagkamali," she said. "Maraming sumunod. Yun nga lang nadamay dun sa kasalanan ng ilan."
After the stakeholders' meeting wherein they discussed who will be in charge of resolving the island's various problems, Graf said she believes Boracay can be rehabilitated without shutting down the whole island.
"Umaasa pa rin kami lalo na ngayong Holy Week, sana may divine intervention at maguide tayo lahat, ma-enlighten tayo lahat kung san natin dadalhin ang Boracay." — RSJ, GMA News