Philippines shuts down Boracay island: all for a casino?

A commentary on Boracay Island’s enforced closure from a resident.
Albert Lozada/CC BY 2.0/ Flickr

On the 9th of February 2018, during a conference held in Davao City, the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte threatened to close the country’s most sought out destination island of Boracay due to environmental concerns.

Whilst it’s inhabitants we’re kept in limbo – a spokesman of the President, Harry Roque, finally shed light on Boracay’s future on April 5th 2018: closure to tourists for 6 months starting from the 26th of April was the final and unarguable decision.

Why close the Island?

The island epitomizes precisely this gold rush to modernization that inflicts all of Asia – where the development of businesses does not go in par with the development of according infrastructure to host that very modernization.

Proper infrastructure would be able to support crowding, environmental deterioration, sanitation and other services that would sustain rather than deter productivity.

Yet these are the very services that the island of Boracay is lagging in and the very reasons why the President is issuing closure.  Thus, we are left to experience a beautiful island without an adequate sewerage system, proper paved roads, average communication and electrical services.

Protecting the Island or Building a casino?

Seemingly, the concern of the government of the Philippines to rehabilitate and clean up the island of Boracay is definitely a noble cause.

To close the island down to appropriately design and implement proper infrastructure would play an enormous role in maintaining and furthering Boracay’s competitiveness as a major island destination.

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However, as weeks passed after the President’s announcement, various news portals as ABS-CBN, Rappler, Inquirer started leaking information about how a Macau casino operator group, Galaxy Entertainment Ltd., alongside partners, Leisure and Resorts World Corp, planned to invest as much as 500$ million to build an integrated casino-resort on Boracay island.

This pushed Senator Antonio Trillanes IV to file for an investigation on the government’s plan for Boracay’s closure last week.

In it for the game?

According to the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR) data, the gaming industry generated roughly 57 billion Philippine Pesos in 2017 – 25% higher than it’s target with a 7.6% increase in revenue than the previous year.

An industry that is intrinsically related to the country’s tourism industry as well as a key component to the Philippine economy.

Not to mention that it is a market which is mostly driven by gamblers and high-end tourists from China and South Korea, two groups of tourists who comprised the biggest number of foreign visitors in Boracay 2017 .

President denies knowledge

Although the President denied any knowledge about Galaxy Entertainment’s plan of investing on a casino in Boracay, photos dated 4 months ago show him  meeting with Lui Che-woo (chairman of Galaxy Entertainment), Francis Lui Yiu Tung (vice-chairman of Galaxy Entertainment), Wanda Teo (Tourism Secretary of the Philippines) and Andrea Doming (Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp) in Malacañang.

What is even more ambiguous is that two days after Senator Trillanes filed for a probe in the government’s plan for closure, Harry Roque, in a news conference held in Hong Kong on the 13th of April, 2018, declared that whilst Galaxy holds a provisional license from the gaming corporation, the President Duterte did not issue any ordinance for the construction of a casino.

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Curiously, PAGCOR is 100% owned by the Philippine government, founded in 1976; as a controlled corporation under the Office of the President of the Republic of the Philippines that has the responsibility for governing the gaming industry.

In the meantime, the news of Boracay’s closure to tourists is going to largely enforce migration and displacement to its 50,000 inhabitants or so – targeting predominantly the working force of the island.  

The negligence of the local government

Residents of Boracay we’re never against the idea of rehabilitation as they were the first ones to underline the need to improve Boracay’s infrastructure, or lack of, to the LGU (Local Government of the Philippines).  

In a video aired by Esquire Magazine Philippines interviewing locals of the Island, residents and stakeholders of Boracay confirm the government’s neglect to address and ameliorate the infrastructural issues that the Island has been going through for over a decade.

A corrupt process?

Although infrastructure development may be conditioned by a number of practical reasons and its implementation may vary from country to country – part of it’s investment is always publicly financed from taxation or borrowing on financial markets.

Following this suit, for more than a decade, each tourist entering Boracay needed to pay an environmental tax of a total amount of 75 PHP (approximately 1.2 Euro). Last year alone Boracay surpassed the 2 million target of tourists so if you savvy readers could kindly do the math of approximately 1.2 EUR x 2 million tourists x 10 years then you’d definitely see that the LGU could have easily repaired all the infrastructural issues that the Island has been facing.

The elephant in the room – which not surprisingly at all, despite the saturated media coverage on Boracay’s Closure – is the corruption that allegedly took place within the LGU and other governmental agencies.

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But these stories are best kept untold for when things fall apart – it’s best to blame the people but never the ones who governed them.

Faces of the Community

It is sad to watch the Philippines and its government backlash the community of Boracay.  These are the people who strived to make their home as sustainable as possible. These are the people who are profoundly committed to wildlife preservation and protection of their communities and who through their conservationism founded organisations as the Boracay Foundation Inc.

The BFI is a non profit organization, established in 1996 by a group of locals with the aim of sustaining the Island’s environmental, business and social needs. It has countlessly organised weekly beach clean ups, trash segregation, coastal resource management , tree-planting and ban on plastic.

BFI volunteers also teach children in public schools how to fish properly, how to stop throwing trash and how to be more eco-conscious so that they in turn would teach their parents – paving a road to re-education without hierarchy but community.

The Ati Living Heritage and Learning Center, another non profit organisation that donated land for the natives and organizes activities to empower them by earning a sustainable living through arts and crafts.

It is thanks to the global community who with their ideas, time, effort nurtured Boracay into a cosmopolitan island who keeps on inspiring travellers to come back –  year after year after year – for if it wasn’t for them, Boracay would have just been another island.

What’s next?

With just 1 week before closure, the government has yet to present a blueprint on how to rehabilitate the Island and reduce the impact of closure.

Giving residents, workers, establishments only a three week notice prior to the closure date shows the government’s lack of of management skills and is exemplary of a style of governance that resembles totalitarian regimes – where decisions taken are impulsive, abrupt and often lacks compassion.

Today, the national government confirms that Boracay will be closed only four months rather than six to mitigate the impact of closure to its residents – whilst this is definitely good news for its inhabitants, it is sadly another example on the lack of adept administration from the government.

The future of Boracay folds unpredictably, and whilst it is too early to draw a conclusion on what seems like one big hot political mess, let’s hope that the national government keeps its promises of rehabilitating the Island’s infrastructure to help maintain the Island’s productivity as well as reinvigorate it’s deterring environmental situation.

Jessica Magbuana

Jessica has been a resident of Boracay for 20 years. This is a pseudonym created to protect her identity.     
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