Boracay takes the first step to dealing with overtourism: recognising there is a problem

Boracay beach at sunset. Photo by pulaw

The party may not quite be over on Boracay, but it’s definitely time to turn the music down and put the lights on. As the island reopens to visitors following a six-month ‘tourism detox’, the Philippines joins other destinations suffering from overtourism, such as Thailand’s Maya Bay, in taking stronger measures to regulate the industry. Visitor numbers on Boracay will be limited, and restrictions introduced on construction, watersports and beach parties, as well as single use plastics. It remains to be seen whether this u-turn in policy will be successful, but certainly it’s a change we fully support.

Destinations worldwide need to manage tourism better and ensure that it works for them. Tourism shouldn’t be regarded as a fundamental right, where everyone can go wherever they want, whenever they want and do as they please. It needs to be be planned and regulated effectively so that it’s sustainable.

In Boracay it’s possible to see a microcosm of the tourism industry, where for too long the rights of tourists have trumped those of local residents and the environment; loose or non-existent regulations have led to speculation and overdevelopment, and the overall tourism experience has been degraded for everyone. That’s symptomatic of a kind of ‘Wild West’ atmosphere that has grown up around the tourism industry generally, where a lack of global oversight and control is leading to devastating impacts on many destinations.

Boracay is a small island with a fragile environment. In recent years upwards of two million visitors have arrived on the island annually, which has resulted in around 70 tonnes of waste being produced every single day, while the sea and the coral reefs that surround the island have become terribly polluted by sewage.

So the conversation needs to change. Instead of asking “what can we do for the tourism industry?” governments both national and local need to start thinking “how can we make tourism meet our needs?”

Youths jumping on Boracay beach. Photo by Chen Haohsuan

There will be an inevitable backlash from some Boracay tourism businesses of course, but we think this should be seen as an opportunity. There are many other islands in the Philippines that are larger than Boracay, and with the infrastructure in place to cope with high levels of visitors. By redirecting tourists to these islands, their local economies would benefit while the pressure on Boracay would be eased. But that’s only one part of the solution. Much tighter regulation is needed, and the type of tourism on Boracay needs to change. Beach parties can be hugely damaging for marine environments no matter how big an island is or the state of its facilities. As with many other popular tourism destinations, Boracay has been the victim of its own success. Now it needs to redefine what success actually is.

It’s crucial that this move isn’t seen as elitism or a crackdown on people having a good time. Well-managed tourism should be open to all, but within reason, and never at the expense of the local community and environment. It’s about developing the right kind of tourism and the right level of visitor numbers in the right places. That’s something that places as diverse as Venice, Machu Picchu and Ko Phi Phi Leh in Thailand are beginning to realise and address. There’s a long way to go, but awareness is clearly starting to grow.

The Progressive Era in the United States, which introduced many reforms and effectively brought an end to the lawlessness of the ‘Wild West’, began at a local level before spreading nationally. It’s quite possible that Boracay is a sign that we’re now entering a more progressive era in tourism. Let’s hope so.

Written by Rob Perkins
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