Boracay and Maya Bay are closing. And we think that’s great news. If you aren’t familiar with these two islands and their closure, here’s the lowdown.
Warning: this isn’t our usual light-hearted, inspirational piece but we think it’s important to recognize that tourism can cause harm and to acknowledge efforts to improve and preserve areas that have suffered as a direct result of mass tourism. If you know us, then you know we love getting people off the beaten track, away from mass-market spots, and into eco friendly resorts (in great comfort, of course, we do love a bit of luxury around here). Yet places became popular for good reasons – in this case, because they are jaw-droppingly gorgeous.
The island of Boracay in the Philippines has been repeatedly voted the most beautiful island in the world. We’ve traveled to countless tropical islands and the powdery white sands of Boracay really are the best. Seriously folks, this place puts Bora Bora, every beach in the Caribbean, Thailand, and all the rest to shame. The water is clear and warm, the sand is superfine, the scenery is gorgeous, the people are friendly: it’s an amazing place for a holiday. Or rather, it was.
Tourism has grown so rapidly that businesses have sprung up with little regard for the environment or the law. An island that’s only 1,000 hectares and can be sailed around in two leisurely wind-powered hours, has more than 500 hotels. The crowds are just what you’d expect for those numbers. While we could moan about how many people are on the beach, overcrowding it and taking away the feel of being in paradise, the real issue is what’s happening to the land and the ocean surrounding the island. Inadequate solid waste management by those avoiding building codes and cutting corners to make a quick Peso; disregard of fishing regulations; the erection of illegal structures on fragile ground: Boracay is no longer the idyllic island it once was. President Duterte summed it up succinctly a few months ago when he referred to Boracay as a cesspool. He may have gone a bit far with that one – many businesses have proper waste management and do take care of the environment, and there are still parts of the island that are lovely – but you get the idea.
Talk of the closure has been circulating for months and yesterday, the details became official. Boracay will close to domestic and foreign tourists on 29 April for six months to allow for remediation of the island. Illegal structures will be removed, sewage systems improved, and businesses will be held to the fire to comply with regulations. It won’t fix all the issues but it’s a step in the right direction. Emergency funds are being released to help workers affected by the closure, airlines are cancelling flights and refunding passengers, and yes, businesses will suffer in the short term. In the long term, those who make the effort will reap the rewards.
Thailand’s Maya Bay in the Phi Phi islands, made famous by the movie, The Beach, is also about to close. The approach here is different to that of Boracay as the bay will be off-limits for four months starting every June and when it is open, daily visitors will be capped at 2,000 and anchorage areas will be restricted. The aim is to allow the coral reef time to recover and grow without hundreds of boats and thousands of people in the water. This is great! Although if you ask me – and I’m no marine biologist – it’s a tiny step in the right direction. Corals aren’t the fastest growers and 2,000 people is still an awful lot of potentially flailing limbs knocking into fragile new growth.
Fifteen years ago, the island of Sipadan in the waters of Malaysian Borneo was facing similar challenges with more businesses, snorkelers, and divers in the water than the tiny island could sustain. So the government banned all overnight stays and subsequently imposed a limit of 120 daily visitors to the island. Today, the waters are rich with life and the beach is pristine. I count myself incredibly fortunate to have visited Sipadan and am so grateful that the reef and the island are as healthy as they are. I’d love to see the number of visitors to Maya Bay and Boracay capped to sustainable numbers, whatever the experts deem those to be.
The people who travel with us are a savvy bunch and we don’t see much interest in visiting Boracay and Maya Bay as they are known for being over-crowded. We recognize that this makes us quite fortunate: we aren’t re-arranging holidays nor will we feel a sting to our bottom line. Our hearts go out to the employees and business owners who have done no harm yet suffer the loss of untold income. Yet at the end of the day, this author and seller of travel to these two wonderful nations supports the closures for the long term benefits they will bring.