It’s official. On April 5, 2018, the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte approved a motion to shut down the popular island of Boracay for the next six months effective April 26.

When it comes to talking up the Philippines, the idyllic island getaway, billed as the "jewel of Philippine tourism" by Boracay’s local government, is as inescapable a conversation topic as the boxer Manny Pacquaio and the national dish adobo. Yet the suspension of all tourism operations, supposedly to rehabilitate the island's environment, is being poorly handled and puts corporate interests before local businesses and indigenous rights.


Credit: Reuters/TPG

Tourists walk along the beach at Boracay in the Philippines, April 8, 2018.

Saving tourists but not the industry

Boracay makes up about 20 percent of the national tourist industry's revenue and the shutdown will incur a loss of some 56 billion pesos (US$1.08 billion). Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque has said that “Boracay is known as paradise and this temporary closure is meant to ensure that the next generations will also experience that.”

This much is true and safeguarding the island's environment should spark no qualms. In future, tourists could very possibly enjoy the "new and improved" tropical experience that is being peddled as the desired result of the shutdown.

But tourists do not control, inhabit or draw income from the island. Up to 40,000 workers are set to lose their jobs. Those who work as tour guides or in resorts, hostels and other parts of this recreational economy are at severe risk.

What is the Philippine government doing to compensate the affected workers? The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) has said it will only be able to provide 5,000 individuals with emergency employment assistance. That’s roughly 13 percent of the workforce under threat. DOLE’s tone seems frustratingly defeatist about the entire affair, with Labor Secretary Bello declaring, “That is the only number we could afford.”


Credit: Reuters/TPG

Philippine Secretary of Labour Silvestre Bello says the country can only afford to compensate 5,000 workers.

Guidelines for the assistance from DOLE have yet to be released. This means the public, most importantly the workers in Boracay, have no idea what kind of assistance they may have to compete for. The local government has also said it will have limited capacity to deal with the interruption to economic life that its constituents will have to deal with.

This inadequate response speaks to just how unprepared the government is to implement the island’s closure. However, the Duterte government and its partners are basically telling the locals to tighten their belts and stomachs for the next six months.

Gambling with land and life

Meanwhile, Chinese developers will begin construction of a 23 hectare casino resort.

The Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp (PAGCOR) has issued Galaxy Entertainment Group, a casino conglomerate based in Hong Kong, a gaming license for a US$500 million dollar operation on the island. Gross gaming revenues are projected to reach US$100 million annually.

Galaxy Entertainment has already tested the waters by erecting Resorts World Manila in the capital, and has now set its sights on the country’s most tourist-friendly island.

Duterte's affection for China is well known, and the casino is far from the only Chinese investment invited by the president in the last six months. He recently backtracked on his campaign position that he will fight any attempt to encroach upon Philippine territory. In a speech that triggered synchronized national jaw dropping, he remarked, “Why not make the Philippines a province of China?”, drawing purrs of approval from the Chinese ambassador.

In keeping with this open attitude to the world's largest authoritarian government, state-owned Chinese car company JAC is also keen to set up shop in the Philippines. Their spokesman recently said that as of “this year, our governments’ relationship has been warming up and we’re enjoying some benefits [related to] tariff [cuts].” Duterte has also commented that he wants a new telecommunications company from China to compete with homegrown players as early as possible. Moreover, a Beijing-based equity firm has announced plans for a US$3 billion steel manufacturing facility in the country, in yet another side of encroaching Chinese corporate interests.

In this light, Boracay just happens to be ground zero in a wider battle to impose a villainous neoliberal agenda of cutting tariffs on imports to the Philippines, disenfranchising Filipinos, and creating an open environment for Chinese companies to profit from cheap labor.

More woes for indigenous people

The Boracay closure has also sparked ire among indigenous peoples rights groups and environmental organizations such as Katribu and Nilad. They criticized Duterte for hiding behind a veil of environmental protection, pointing out that he has stood idle during mining firms’ unabated destruction of land and indigenous territories in more than 7,000 other islands.

Katribu activist Piya Malayao has also expressed fears that this brand of "development" will generate conflict with the indigenous population. She cited the case of Ati tribe leader Dexter Condez, who was assassinated in 2013 over disputes with tourism developers.

The Ati are indigenous to Boracay, but in 2012 the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples awarded the tribe just two hectares of land amid attempts by other claimants to commercialize their ancestral homeland. As it stands, the Ati do not receive any government services and their land rights have not been respected by government authorities who are more interested in commercial ventures than cultural heritage.

Malayao asks: “Who stands to gain from the rehabilitation project? Rehabilitation for the island is a good thing, but it seems the rights of the indigenous people will be set aside in favor of large corporations.”

Boracay and its people seem more like targets in the crosshairs than beneficiaries of environmental protection. The shutdown is already causing panic on the island, a feeling that can easily escalate into anger and resistance. Here's to hoping the casino loses its wager against the welfare of Boracay locals.

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Editor: David Green