What Boracay Taught Me About Sustainable Tourism

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“Hardly has a lost paradise been discovered that everyone converges on it so fast that it quickly becomes a paradise lost.” – Pico Iyer, Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East

my first time in Boracay
my first time in Boracay

For the last 5 years, I have been traveling to Boracay to visit my Father, who is retired. It is a small resort island known for its beaches, nightlife, and amazing kiteboarding conditions.  Various travel publications, such as Travel + Leisure have awarded Boracay as a “top island destination” with “the best beaches in Asia.”

Tourism on the island started as an idyllic backpackers paradise in the 1970s. Over the years, it has become an increasingly popular travel destination.  In the 1980s, there were 14,000 tourists annually.  By 1996, the number had increased to 163,000.  Then, it jumped to 1.47 million visitors in 2014.  These are extraordinary numbers for an island of only 10 sq. kilometers.

On my first visit to the island, I happily discovered that some of the rarest and beautiful seashells are found in the Philippines. I loved to go to Puka Beach and would collect a whole treasure trove for souvenirs.  As a traveler, I had felt the need to “keep” my memories.

conservation, boracay, hermit crab
a hermit crab’s home

Since then, I have learned about the environmental impact of such behavior. Marine debris, such as seashells and algae, are an important food source and breeding ground for fish and other aquatic species.  Hermit crabs use them as homes and fish hide from predators with them. Moreover, as the shells break down slowly over time, they recycle back into the ocean, and create sand.  The powdery, crystalline white sand beach that Boracay is so famous for, consists partially of crushed puka shells and coral.  Imagine the impact if each of Boracay’s millions of tourists took just one seashell.

My education in sustainable tourism did not stop with the collection of seashells.  Years ago, sections of Boracay’s mangrove forests were razed down to make way for hotels, restaurants, bars, and condos.  So when these mangroves were destroyed, the relationship between mangroves and corals was affected.  Mangroves hold sediment in place and reduce wave height.  Coral, in turn, absorbs wave energy, which allows calm waters to grow. Without the mangroves, sediment flows back into the ocean and blocks the light that coral feeds on. It’s a vicious cycle that causes entire ecosystems to disappear.

palm trees, conservation, boracay
palm trees with heavily exposed roots

Coastal erosion is a result of those processes.  Another contributor is the lack of vegetation on Boracay’s beaches, such as palm trees, which stabilize the sand from washing away.  Most of Boracay’s palm trees are the same age and have heavily exposed roots. The businesses would prefer to make space for tables, chairs, and lounges than plants.

Over time, problems concerning infrastructure in Boracay arose, particularly concerning the island’s waste management system.  If you take a walk along Bulabog Beach, which is famous for its excellent kiteboarding conditions, you’ll notice a huge sewer pipe dumping human feces into the sea.  Just a few weeks ago, Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Ramon Paje expressed alarm over the poor water quality in Boracay, reporting that coliform bacteria levels at Bulabog Beach exceed safety standards.  The safety level for swimming and other human activities is just 1,000 mpn/100ml. (Manila Times)

Bulabog Beach, Boracay
Bulabog Beach is famous for its excellent kiteboarding and windsurfing conditions

The Philippines has recently had some of the highest growths in international tourism arrivals in the last couple of years.  While these visitors generate billions in tourism revenue, they also put an immense pressure on the island’s environment.  With tourism in Boracay only expecting to grow, sustainability is a major challenge. However, it can present significant opportunities if the community is able to foster meaningful partnerships between businesses, nonprofits, tourists, locals, and governments.

Boracay Sunset
a Boracay sunset

For all Boracay’s faults, there’s one thing that really strikes me about the island.  Of all the locals who came to the island 20, 30 years ago, they all say the same thing.  Yes, Boracay used to be idyllic. Even though a lot’s changed, they’re still just as in love with the island as the day they first arrived. And people protect what they love.