Can ASEAN safeguard its islands?

Tourists relax along a beach on Boracay island in Malay town, Aklan province, central Philippines. (AFP Photo)

Originally the home of the indigenous Ati people, Boracay was a sleepy agricultural island with a population of 100 that lived on rice cultivation and fishing, supplemented by goat farming. Part of the Aklan province in the Philippines, the island first started to receive intraregional migration from other nearby islands in the 1900s, leading to transformation of more land into farms for coconut and fruit trees. With continued migration, the island's population grew. The introduction of destructive fishing methods like cyanide fishing destroyed much of the coral reefs, which preceded a decline in fishery.

To substitute income from the lost industry, Boracay opened up as a tourism destination in the 1970s. Movies such as The Losers and Too Late the Hero that featured Boracay’s beaches and German writer Jen Peter’s pronouncement of the island as a ‘paradise on earth’ heralded an influx of Western tourists, and later the backpacking crowd. By the mid-1990s, tourist arrivals dropped due to the increase of coliform bacteria as a result of a non-existent sewage system. Despite the instalment of a potable water system, sewage treatment plant and solid waste management system in the late 1990s, environmental issues persisted due to the noncompliance of the island’s business establishments. 20 years later, in April 2018, to halt worsening environmental conditions, the island of Boracay was declared closed to tourists by Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, who described it as a ‘cesspool’. The temporary closure is to allow for rehabilitation and should be lifted after six months in October 2018.

Boracay has successfully transformed itself into a party island. In the mad dash for a ‘revenue-generating cornucopia of delights’, the original people of the island have been forgotten. Discriminated and marginalised, the Ati people face unemployment and poverty, and the less fortunate usually end up begging on the beaches.

On the other side of the ASEAN region, Maya Bay, which is part of the Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park, has been closed to the public since June and will only open after September this year as part of a four-month rejuvenation program. According to the order by Thailand's Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP), boats are not allowed to enter the bay in front of the beach or drop anchor at Loh Samah Bay, both part of the tiny Ko Phi Phi Leh island.

Thailand has instituted closure to tourist destinations before. In 2016, local authorities closed Koh Tachai on the northern most tip of the Similan National Park to allow for the rehabilitation of the environment on the island and in the surrounding sea to avoid irreversible damage.

Temporary closure

For Boracay, the temporary closure will allow the various government agencies to ensure residents as well as businesses providing accommodation, food and beverage, logistics, and other services comply with environmental regulations. This includes the nearly 200 businesses and thousands of local residents that are reportedly not connected to the underground sewer lines, causing leakage of untreated waste into the island's azure waters through its drain network. Prior to the closure, the government there had brought down the hammer of the law on 51 businesses by closing them, while another 300 were fined for violating environmental regulations.

However, if the aim of the closure was to rehabilitate the corals, the move may not have obtained the desired results. The rate of growth for corals is around 0.3 to two centimetres per year for massive corals, and up to 10 centimetres per year for branching corals. A coral reef may take up to 10,000 years to form and an atoll from 100,000 to 30,000,000 years.

“The bottom line is that temporarily closing the beach is probably not the optimal solution to these problems. It takes only a day for a bunch of incompetent snorkellers to trash a small reef,” explained Andrew Baird from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Australia.

Where did we go wrong?

These stories are familiar cautionary tales on how unsustainable development of the tourism industry has obliterated the very reason for its existence in the first place. Tourism is a double-edged sword. When done sustainably, tourism can be a substantial tool for socio-economic development, representing 10 percent of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP), 30 percent of services exports, and providing one out of every 10 jobs globally. However, unplanned tourism development and unchecked operations that are solely driven by opportunistic money-making ambition will lead to overexploitation, overtaxing and degradation of natural resources and the natural ecosystem.

In the case of Boracay, the island has become a casualty of the lack of proper physical planning, a fragmented policy landscape, conflicting mandates at different levels of government, and political interference of parties with vested interest. The environmental issues that are handicapping the resort island now are not new and have been building up for decades. Boracay’s tourism industry failed to learn from history and is now going down a similar path that the island’s fishery industry took when it died at the hand of cyanide fishing. Underpinning both cases is the attitude that favours short-term gains at the expense of long-term sustainability.

Effective implementation

Effective governance, policies and tools are the bedrock of sustainable tourism. The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) in its publication Tourism for Development stressed that strong governance frameworks at the national level are among the most important requirements for sustainable tourism at international, regional, national and local level.

“Governments need to establish and enforce inclusive and integrated policy frameworks for sustainable tourism development; businesses need to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability in core business models and value chains with enhanced action; and individuals and civil society need to advocate for, and adopt, consciously sustainable practices and behaviours.”

In his 2018 State of the Nation (SONA) address earlier this week, Duterte said that the devastation of Boracay’s world-renowned beauty and state of environment represents the government’s negligence, including his. Duterte stressed that environmental protection and ensuring the health of people cannot be overemphasized and the temporary closure of Boracay to enable rehabilitation of the island is only the beginning.

“For the other tourist destinations needing urgent rehabilitation, enforcement of environmental and other laws shall soon follow. I urge our local government units to proactively enforce our laws and not wait for us to swoop down on your areas just to do your duty and work.”

“What has happened to Boracay is just an indication of the long-overdue need to rationalise, in a holistic and sustainable manner, the utilization, management, and development of our lands. I therefore urge the Senate to urgently pass the National Land Use Act (NLUA) to put in place a national land use policy that will address our competing land requirements for food, housing, businesses, and environmental conservation. We need to do this now,” said Duterte.

Of Bali, another tourist destination at risk, someone once wrote: Hardly has a last paradise been discovered than everyone converges on it so fast that it quickly becomes a paradise lost. This rings especially true in the age of Instagram, Pinterest and geotagging that allows for cult-like followers from all over the world to converge on the exact location in a photo that has gone viral. Can ASEAN save its islands? As part of the problem, only humanity can answer that question.