Travel hot spots: From paradise to hell?

BORACAY, Philippines – White Beach, a 2.8 mile stretch of paradise an hour south of Manila by plane, has long been one of Asia’s worst kept secrets. Conde Nast Traveler has called it one the best beaches in the world and The New York Times listed the island on which it lies one of the 44 places to see in 2009. In an unfortunate bit of foreshadowing, the paper anointed Boracay “the new Phuket.”

But at one of Asia’s most beautiful beach destinations, things are getting ugly. Years of frenzied tourism growth has transformed Boracay from an island getaway of family-run hotels and cozy beach bars to a place where luxury resorts are as ubiquitous as bikinis. White Beach is now home to a Starbucks, Yellow Cab Pizza and several nightclubs with thumping techno and strobe lights that crisscross the starry sky.

That in itself doesn’t spell doom, but the largely unchecked development has put Boracay’s spectacular natural environment in jeopardy. Inadequate waste treatment has in recent years contaminated crowded waters with sewage, which has contributed to outbreaks of ear infections, skin infections, stomach ailments and more. The sewage, combined with illegal fishing, has decimated reef life. The owner of a local snorkeling outfit, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, says 90 percent of Boracay’s reefs have died in the last decade.

“In a few years, simple, it will all be gone,” he says.

Environmental woes tell only half the story. The scramble for some of the country’s most valuable real estate has resulted in sporadic turf wars. In one case last year, a family-owned warren of shops and restaurants was burnt to the ground; police found Molotov cocktails and other “unknown flammable substances” in the ruin.

As if exemplifying Boracay’s troubles, White Beach itself, by far the island’s biggest draw, has seen better days. High tide is higher than it used to be, the beach is blanketed with dead coral, and even its name has become a slight misnomer.

“They don’t call it White Beach anymore,” says Dennis Smith, a New Zealander who operates Isla Gecko Resort with his Filipino wife. “The locals call it Gray Beach. It’s a piece of shit. It’s all pollution. An ecological disaster.”

Every year, about 500,000 people visit Boracay, generating over $275 million in tourist receipts, a big number in a country where roughly 30 percent of people live below the poverty line. One-fifth of the Philippines’ tourist traffic passes through the island. Kitesurfers, sailboats, banana boats and scuba diving groups jostle for space in Boracay’s turquoise waters. Despite a nearly year-long moratorium on building, dozens of construction projects break the calm of the palm lined beach. Boracay is home to an 18-hole golf course and condominium complex that takes up about 10 percent of the island, and a 219-room, 61,000 square foot Shangri-la hotel and spa was recently opened in a private bay on the north side.

Many of the new developments have ignored environmental ordinances and building laws, according to an assessment by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, resulting in flooding and beach erosion.

“The biggest concern for people living here and who care about the island is not that it’s getting busier. It’s that they seem to be building on every possible square inch,” says Glen Parsons, a Briton who runs Ocean Republic, a kitesurfing shop at Bulabog Bay on the island’s east side. “This hill,” he says, pointing to a cliffside covered in white villas, “only had one hotel when I moved here six years ago. Now they’re hanging off the cliffs.”

In a bid to slow development and the resulting property disputes, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s government in 2006 reserved 40 percent of the island as agricultural and forest land. Last year the Supreme Court upheld the edict and dismissed private claims to secure legal title over property featuring luxury developments. (Currently, only 10 percent of property owners have land title, with the rest essentially leasing space by paying real estate taxes.)

The move caused a panic among many resort owners, who feared the notoriously corrupt government was trying to lay claim to already developed land. Many also worry that once an ongoing land title assessment is completed, they will be forced to bid for land where they’ve made multi-million dollar investments.

The government has assured resort owners that none of their properties will be seized. Virgie Sarabia, executive director of the Boracay Foundation, a group of resort stakeholders that liaises with the government, is confident the government will stick to its word. “Nobody’s being kicked off their land,” she said.

Meanwhile, authorities are working on cleaning up Boracay’s waters. The waste treatment system has been improved, Sarabia said, and this year the water off Bulabog beach, where the bulk of the sewage is pumped, isn’t as foul as recent years.