By Mel Fernandez, www.travelgalore.nz

“This shoreline, the beachfront that we are seeing now, this is the Boracay we fell in love with 30 years ago.” – Philippine Tourism Chief, Bernadette Romulo-Puyat

BORACAY ISLAND, Philippines – After a massive clean-up and new regulations the crown jewel in the Philippines’ treasure trove of tourism hotspots – Boracay Island – is back in business, albeit in gradual stages.

Although Boracay is now good to go, there is a twist. The days of partying hard on the beach and damaging the environment without a care are out – once and for all. Stringent laws and ordinances are in force and the local police are ready to enforce these, especially those with punitive provisions.

“For my part I want to see a change in behaviour and a change in culture for those coming here,” said Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu. “Because what they think is that they can do anything here. That should not be tolerated.”

The Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) Officer-In-Charge Secretary Eduardo M. Año seconded this sentiment. “There will be a lot of laws and ordinances that will be implemented in Boracay under our supervision to make sure that there will be no repeat of what happened before.”

Earlier this year, on April 26th, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered a six-month temporary closure of the island so that a makeover costing one billion pesos could go ahead. He did not mince words when he said Boracay was in a ‘cesspool’ state.

Overtourism had ruined the pristine condition of this destination which was named as one of the world’s top three islands in the ‘Best Island in the World’ category of Condé Nast Traveler Reader’s Choice Awards 2017. According to one estimate, in 2014 alone Boracay welcomed 1.4 million tourists.

Similarly, the boom in tourism is gradually degrading other popular tourism assets around the world and authorities there are also trying to put the brakes on visitor numbers. Venice in Italy and Maya Bay in Thailand are prime examples of this which made headlines recently. In the case of Maya Bay an indefinite shutdown is in place to resurrect that cherished asset.

According to the latest media reports the repair and restoration of Boracay has left the beach immaculate and the waters crystal clear and a lot of the rubbish has gone. However, significant work has to be done to get the road system up to speed before the large numbers of tourists are allowed back.

Despite facing numerous challenges, the widening of the roads on Boracay Island is almost 80 percent done, reported Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) Secretary Mark Villar.

He added that most of the work sites are almost 80 percent complete, particularly the installation of drainage pipes.

In a survey of the island’s sewerage facility prior to the closure, the vast majority – 716 of 834 – of residential and business properties were found to have no discharge permit and were presumed to be draining waste directly into the sea, according to a report by officials, the Philippine News Agency reported.

“Despite the soft opening on October 26th, the government’s efforts to rehabilitate (Boracay) shall continue as we rehabilitate the island in stages,” said Philippine Tourism Chief, Bernadette Romulo-Puyat, during her keynote address at this year’s Philippine Travel Exchange. Puyat said that completion of the first phase of rehabilitation will be in October, the second phase by the middle of next year and the third phase by the end of 2019.

Eduardo M. Año of DILG said that while local and foreign tourists will be welcome again to visit Boracay during the soft re-opening on Oct. 26, it will take about two years to complete the island’s rehabilitation.

“As we welcome a Better Boracay, the Department of Tourism urges everyone to be responsible tourists. It is the key to the preservation of this national treasure,” said Tourism Chief Puyat.

According to her, under the new regime a raft of restrictions is in place. Visitor numbers to the island have been capped at 19,215 guests per day. And the Department of Tourism (DOT) will accredit compliant accommodation establishments that pass the standards of the agency. Only those found compliant with Boracay’s environmental laws will be allowed to open on October 26th.

It is reported that there are 1,000 establishments on the island. “About two months away from the reopening, only 30 percent of the establishments in the island were compliant,” Puyat said. “We strongly advise guests to check if their chosen hotel or resort has been certified compliant and is permitted to operate,” DOT advised.

“There will be a strict enforcement of existing guidelines and policies such as the ordinance prohibiting the drinking of alcohol and smoking in public places, no partying within the no-build zone easement, regulation of sand castle making and prohibition of open fires and use of kerosene gas/fuel lamps,” said Puyat.

The casinos will remain closed and the beach vendors have been cleared out. Single use plastics are banned on the island. And all water sports – scuba diving, jet skiing and kite-boarding – are banned.

“The government wants the rehabilitated Boracay to be known as a ‘peaceful’ and ‘sustainable’ tourist site, deviating from its usual party island image,” stressed Puyat.

“The Boracay experience is the ultimate lesson in balancing development and protecting the environment. The lessons learned here are not for Boracay alone, but also for the other island destinations around our beautiful country,” added the tourism chief.

After conducting inspections in Boracay just before the re-opening, the DILG said that it wants to make the world-famous island the gold standard for all resorts in the country.

Despite Boracay’s temporary closure, Tourism Chief Puyat is optimistic that the upward trend of tourist arrivals in the Philippines would continue. She said that tourist arrivals in June this year increased by 11.35 percent. “That was a surprise for me, because I thought that it would dip because of the closure of Boracay.”

She noted that the closure had become a “blessing in disguise”, since visitors were diverted to other destinations. “Now the tourists know that aside from Boracay we have all these other beautiful beaches in the country.”