Philippines grapples with surprise shutdown

The Philippines tourism industry has been thrown into turmoil by the shock decision of President Rodrigo Duterte to close the country’s best-known holiday island for six months, putting the future of hundreds of hospitality businesses in doubt.

The island of Boracay — a 7km sliver of land in the Western Visayas region — is often cited on lists of the world’s top beaches, yet controversy around its inadequate sewage systems has led to a sudden shut-down that will affect up to a million visitors.

President Duterte last month described the island as a “cesspool” and accused businesses of dumping raw sewage into the surrounding sea. Tourism operators have complained for months about poor sewage infrastructure, yet none had expected the drastic action ordered by the President, who said the move would allow rehabilitation of Boracay’s environment.

The bone-shaped isle caters to about one sixth of the Philippines’ total international tourists, having welcomed just over one million foreign visitors last year, as well as a million domestic arrivals. Total visitor spending equates to about $1.3 billion.

With the island abruptly closed from 26 April — and guards stationed at piers to prevent tourists landing — the island’s hotels have been forced to cancel thousands of bookings and establish new refund and rebooking policies. The island’s highest profile resort, the Shangri-La Boracay Island Resort & Spa, said it was also working on a plan to care for its employees, but the longer-term fate of the island’s workers is uncertain.

Carriers including Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific have drastically scaled back their services to the gateways of Caticlan and Kalibo, reducing schedules to a handful of flights catering mostly to locals.

While the shut-down is promised to last a maximum of six months, Philippine media have been grappling with the President’s past comments to decipher his long-term goals. Duterte has in the past remarked upon re-designating land on Boracay for agriculture, leading to fears the island’s tourism industry will be caught up in the President’s land reform agenda, aimed at benefitting farmers.