The Boracay syndrome

Boracay — that tiny island at the northern tip of Panay, a destination renowned for its fine white sand beaches, shallow gentle waters, and all-day partying — recently reopened to tourists after being abruptly shut down six months ago to enable it to recover from its shameful deterioration into a “cesspool,” to borrow President Duterte’s graphic description of what this paradise has become.

It took but 30 years to turn it into a septic tank. Six months might be enough to mask the extent of its degradation and morbidity. But, surely, it would take much longer than that to return it to some semblance of ecological health.

What happened to Boracay is not unique. It was observed much earlier in older destinations like Puerto Galera. It is also now happening in El Nido town, which is experiencing a kind of tourist boom, riding largely on the reputation gained by the high-priced resorts built on some of its islands. I’m sure it is already being noted in other island destinations like Coron in Palawan, where huge expensive resorts have been built specifically to draw the colossal Chinese tourist market.

Places like these typically start as quiet coastal fishing communities that live barely above the poverty line. They begin their entry into the cash economy with the arrival of local weekend “excursionists” from nearby towns. Then come the young backpackers who travel the world with little money and no fixed itinerary, but with a lot of time in their hands. Locals earn needed cash by offering them a place to stay and simple meals.

By word of mouth, these pristine places peopled by simple folk become known to other international travelers who expressly avoid the circuits of commercial tourism. Locals see the limited demand for cheap accommodation they represent, and they start building nipa huts for young backpackers in search of a Third World experience.

A lot of these young people come back later as successful and wealthy professionals, hoping to relive a romantic phase of their youth. Partnering with locals they have known, they acquire land on which they build and run pension houses, souvenir shops, restaurants, and rent out equipment for surfboarding and scuba diving. Before long, the place attracts entrepreneurs from the big city and from abroad. With unlimited capital at their disposal, they begin buying up all the available land, with little regard for whether these are alienable or not. They entice government to build roads to make the place more accessible. Then they start putting up hotels, tying up with tour operators who bring in hordes of tourists with absolutely no regard for the ecological carrying capacity of the hitherto hidden paradise they have opened to the world. Thus begins its transformation from paradise to cesspool.

I call it the “Boracay syndrome.” Webster’s New World Dictionary defines a syndrome as “a number of symptoms occurring together and characterizing a specific disease or condition.” In Boracay as elsewhere, its primary driver is unmitigated greed, compounded by the need to recoup investments in the shortest possible time.

These investors are the worst type that any community can possibly host. They have no affection or attachment to the place or its people. Most of them don’t live there, and care little for what happens to it in the long term. Ecological sustainability and carrying capacity are concepts that are alien to their business model. They saw the stunning potential of the place, and they have come to monetize it. It’s no different from irresponsible mining and logging.

The primitive accumulation that characterizes their relation to Nature clashes sharply with the vision of the diminishing breed of planners and architects who have a clear notion of what it takes to benefit from Nature’s magnificence while preserving it for future generations. As is typically the case, the latter inevitably lose out to the business side, unable to make a case that is compelling enough to check the greed.

The key lies in challenging the autonomy of greed through the early adoption and strict enforcement of a binding regulatory system. This has to be integrated into the business model from the start, to a point where even medium-term profitability practically hinges around it. This is already happening to a limited extent in big companies with diversified investments, where a position is created for what is called a “sustainability officer.” The role of this officer is to articulate a perspective that exposes the blind spots of plain profit maximization.

At first blush, this may amount to no more than the tokenism associated with corporate social responsibility. But, it’s a good start.

Only a “meta-perspective” like sustainability can free us from the tunnel visions in which much of the modern world is trapped, says the cognitive biologist Humberto Maturana. “We gain a form of distance that we lack when we are completely immersed in our activities and situations. If we accept this and consider it adequate, an action may then be described as ‘responsible’ or as ‘irresponsible.’”

As I write this, hundreds of other newly discovered places in our beautiful archipelago are already being “developed” into tourist destinations. In the face of the opportunities opened up by the globalization of tourism, we may not have the luxury of choosing whether this is the kind of economic activity we want for our people. But, awareness of the Boracay syndrome will, it is hoped, lead the communities that have an enduring stake in the integrity of these places to defend them in the name of sustainability.