BOracay is one of 7641 islands in the Philippines. Although it’s among the top, four-square mile area was a secret for many years. Sequestered in the center of the archipelago, the island’s pristine beaches and gin-clear waters were the refuge of the handful of native Ati inhabitants—until the rest of the world caught on.
Too late, the HeroBoracay was the setting for the famous 1970 American war movie, with stars Henry Fonda (Michael Caine) and Michael Caine (Henry Fonda). In 1979, a German travel writer, Jens Peters released his definitive Guide to Boracay. The result was a steady stream of backpackers interested in the area. Philippines Travel Guide and proclaimed Boracay a “paradise.” Just over a decade later, the Tropical Beach Handbook—a Michelin-style compendium sponsored by automaker BMW—hailed Boracay beach as the best in the world.
However, this recognition had a cost. From a community that didn’t even have electricity until 1992, Boracay rapidly turned into an international party hub, its shoreline crammed with dusk-till-dawn bars and clubs.
Two million people visited Boracay in 2019, just a year before the Pandemic that brought down travel. This was a record amount of tourists, bringing $1 billion to the small island. However, over time, the tourism industry has caused enormous problems in terms of garbage collection and disposal. It was being dumped into the ocean, along with broken bottles and cups and raw sewage. Things got so bad that President Rodrigo Duterte called the island a “cesspool” and banned tourists for six months in 2018 so that a cleanup could take place.
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Today the island is almost completely free of foreigners due to the pandemic. Local government statistics show that less than 5,000 foreigners visited Boracay last May, out of 200,000 total visitors. They have completely changed the character of the island. Bars close as early as 9 p.m. and money changers don’t even bother to open—because almost everyone you see on Boracay these days is from the Philippines.
Some, like Cedrick Ungab, are enjoying their country’s most popular island for the first time. The tourist from Manila had heard all about Boracay’s infamous nightlife before he visited six months ago. He discovered that the calm was what he preferred upon his arrival. “It had more of a family vacation vibe,” Ungab tells TIME.
On Wednesday, March 23rd, 2022, customers ate at a Boracay restaurant, Aklan in the Philippines.
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Boracay, Boracay locals
Boracay’s success is being repeated in other Asian tourist hotspots that are still recovering from the pandemic. Although long-haul inbound travel is slowly returning to normal, it can be difficult. It involves multiple PCR testing, different degrees of quarantine and more expensive flights with reduced schedules. There are also complex regulations and paperwork that must all be followed. Boracay requires that vacationers submit proof of their COVID-19 vaccination, as well as a booking for a hotel three days prior to departure. A QR code will then be assigned to the vacationers, who can not enter without it.
COVID-19 ravaged the island, leaving it in desperate need of visitors. The island was left without international tourism companies, restaurants, or other services. Many residents had to find alternative jobs and rely on the government’s pandemic assistance. According to one travel assistant, he started working in construction and fishermanship as a way of making ends meet. Mary Grace Malolos has a wholesale business in seafood and claims that it hasn’t made any money over the last year.
It was only October 2013 that visitors returned to the island due to COVID restrictions. A lack of foreign party-goers created a gap which domestic vacationmakers were keen to fill.
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Philippine vacationer Natalia Chan tells TIME she was reluctant to take an overseas holiday because of the risks and hassles associated with cross-border travel during the pandemic—so she went to Boracay in March. The island was peaceful and relaxing, she said. It was quiet and peaceful, with all the main attractions easily accessible from within walking distance. It was easy to find shops and restaurants in the narrow streets. You’d find the typical beach-side vendors offering services such as hair braiding and kayak rides. But they advertise their services in the local language.
Many of the island’s 4,000 licensed businesses have nimbly adjusted to the change in customers. Cris Cahilig is the manager of Two Brown Boys, an old-fashioned burger place that caters to tourists from around the world. Her clientele now comprises over 95%. “We had to pivot to stay in business,” she says. “We added rice bowls to the menu and started offering breakfast.” She also put on a Filipino DJ, who knew what tunes the new customers wanted to hear.
Chan fell in love with the island and stayed for one month. She wishes Boracay would remain exactly as it is now. While acknowledging the economic necessity of bringing foreign visitors back, she says “Honestly, I’d really like it to be our [island] because it is ours.”
Bulabog is a town of kiteboarding in Boracay (Aklan), Philippines on Wednesday 23 March 2022.
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Philippine tourism to foreigners
Foreign tourists were only permitted in Boracay from February this year, and they have been returning in slowly increasing numbers, but visitors from the two biggest markets—South Korea and China—are thin on the ground, especially the latter. China’s zero-COVID policy deters residents from traveling overseas because of the onerous re-entry requirements they face on their return.
Prior to the pandemic the island attempted to attract the approximately 1.9million South Koreans and the roughly 1.7 million Chinese visitors who came annually. The menus and signs for hotels are often written in Korean or Chinese. There are hopes for a revival of the South Korean market with the resumption this month of direct flights from Seoul’s Incheon Airport to Kalibo Airport, the main transportation hub for Boracay, about 75 kilometers from the island. The main alleys and streets are empty of Korean restaurants serving Chinese seafood and Korean barbecue.
Janice Bindolo, the owner of a backpacker’s hostel, tells TIME the only Chinese and Koreans she sees are restaurant proprietors or fellow hotel and hostel owners. Her guests tend to be Europeans and locals.
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M.J. Salme, marketing manager of the family-owned Pig Out Bistro, says that although international tourists are still scarce, the few who do visit the restaurant keep her “inspired and hopeful” for the island’s full comeback. “We are optimistic that after a few months, we will be expecting more international tourists to fly in,” she tells TIME. “We can’t afford another lockdown since we all have endured so much already during the pandemic.”
It’s clear, though, that many domestic vacationers would be happy if Boracay did not return to being the overcrowded, rubbish-strewn, rampantly commercial tourist trap it once was.
Says Chan, the holidaymaker who stayed a month: “I’m happy that Filipinos can enjoy it more [and] can travel there and enjoy the island as Filipinos.”
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