Bye-Bye Boracay (For Now)

Once rated as an outstanding vacation destination, with its idyllic white-sand beaches and teal-colored seawater, Boracay, a Philippine island, will be closing off its grounds for six months in the wake of environmental degradation from an overflow of tourists. One of many Southeastern Asian islands that has experienced a substantial increase in tourism, Boracay follows a string of other island closures, including that of Thailand’s Maya Bay. This tourist influx is largely spurred by Asian economic growth and subsequent consumer wealth. In the last decade, the Southeast Asian tourism industry has grown significantly and is expected to increase by five to seven percent in the next year. According to data from the World Bank, this growth is primarily led by Chinese tourists; in 2016, there were a total recorded 135 million departures from China for vacation.

Last year, in Boracay alone, there were 1.7 million tourists vacationing at the island over a ten-month period. While Boracay’s tourism-based economy has thrived by these increasing numbers, the small island lacked the necessary infrastructure to prepare. A vast number of local businesses had no sewage permit licenses, consequently dumping waste waters into the sea; even Rodrigo Duterte, the President of the Philippines who finally ordered the clean-up of Boracay, claimed that it was “a cesspool” full of “environmental violations.” The influx of additional tourists has only exacerbated environmental damage from the island’s poor infrastructure, and they are often careless towards the island environment. For instance, snorkeling has caused much damage to the coral reefs surrounding Boracay, and the opening of various restaurants and shops has led to further littering across the beach.

Boracay’s closing is not an isolated example. For islands in the Caribbean and Mexico, which are often saturated with American tourists, environmental damage has been aggravated by similar activities. Like Boracay, islands in the Gulf have economies that are largely reliant on tourism, and these smaller economies are often disproportionately affected by mass tourism due to the lack of established laws and regulations governing environmental protection. Small businesses, though disrupted by the large number of tourists, stick to old habits; such was the case with Boracay and the sewage practices of such establishments.

More importantly, these destinations often act retroactively, setting policies only when the damage is done. This behavior can be explained through the benefits presented by the inflow of tourists. In situations where there is a small, but increasing, subset of tourists visiting the region, as was the initial case with Boracay, nations see an opportunity for gradual economic growth without severe negative externalities affecting the environment. However, with an uncontrollable influx of tourists, if nations excessively seize the opportunity while they can, they fail to recognize its temporality. In other words, passively allowing a great number of tourists without adapting existing practices or policies will force nations to bear the long-term costs of natural degradation and an eventual decrease in tourism.

Does proactive environmental protection offer a solution? These islands rely heavily on the tourism industry to the extent that closing them off retroactively would result in job losses, business exits, among other hits to the economy; recent growth could easily be undermined. In the greater scheme, then, proactive planning certainly cannot hurt. There would be costs, both in finances and in time, but if these nations respect and value their islands’ natural beauty as much as when it is destroyed, taking measures of protection offers a succinct solution. Nations must recognize that global economies cannot be easily predicted; China’s growth over the last several decades was, in part, unprecedented. Furthermore, the bits of paradise these nations possess are truly ephemeral. There is no set guarantee that the number of tourists will ever remain so low, or so high. Boracay’s decisions in moving forward should be carefully considered. For the many other Asian vacation destinations facing a mass inflow of tourists, Boracay will serve an important precedent.