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Tourists flock to Boracay Island's white beach to watch its famed sunset. PHOTO: ANTHONY ESGUERRA

Can This World Famous Party Island Survive the Pandemic?

Boracay island in the Philippines hasn’t had international tourists for a year. But it is trying to hold on.
March 19, 2021, 8:37am

BORACAY ISLAND, Philippines — Lively drum music, dancing on the beach and all-night parties: that used to be the norm on Boracay island in the Philippines, one of the world’s most famous beach hotspots and a mainstay of the tourism industry. But a year after the pandemic shut down global travel, Boracay’s future is looking bleak.

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“We’re bleeding,” said Dindo Martin Salazar, an executive from the Henann Group of Resorts, one of the largest chains operating on Boracay. In his nearly two decades of working here, he has never seen it this empty. And despite the staggered rollout of vaccines and hopes that 2021 will be a comeback year, the reality is that bookings remain down.

“We’re used to being fully-booked three years ahead,” he said in an interview in February, as a light breeze blows by the tropical island’s pristine beach. “Now, we have to bring down our prices to 30 percent to attract tourists. Despite these, there’s just too many cancellations.”

With occupancy low, the chain is running four resorts to try and keep business alive and to give jobs to employees they had to let go when the pandemic kicked in.

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Crystal clear water and fine white sand beaches have put the island at the top of the list of global destinations. PHOTO: ANTHONY ESGUERRA

The Philippines has more than 7,107 islands, but Boracay’s 2.5-mile stretch of fine white sandy beach, its magical sunsets, and its crystal clear waters in the central part of the country once attracted millions of visitors from all over the world. Its pre-pandemic tourism revenue totaled $1.28 billion in 2019. 

Ranking second in Conde Nast Traveler’s best island beaches, Boracay is the crown jewel of the Philippine tourism industry and one of the most Instagrammed places on earth. 

Though international tourists have not been able to visit, the island reopened in October last year in hopes of attracting domestic tourists to reboot the island’s economy. But coronavirus fears linger in the country, which has one of the highest caseloads in Southeast Asia. The requirements to get there even for citizens are onerous—confirmed flights, hotel reservations and a negative RT-PCR test result or saliva test, which costs as much as $100.

The island enjoys virtually zero COVID-19 cases, although it recorded an outbreak among staff of one resort which was contained through strict quarantine measures.

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Tour guides compete for few tourists visiting the island. PHOTO: ANTHONY ESGUERRA

“We miss the times when tourists came to us for tour packages, now we have to chase and beg them to try our water activities,” said tour guide Ray Bernardo, who waits outside a five-star hotel to invite travelers for island hopping, sailing and diving activities. “Now, we’re lucky if we can get two or three tourists a day, at least we’ll have some money to bring home.”

Bernardo is one of thousands on the island whose income slumped because of the pandemic. A good day before the outbreak would earn him about $42. Now he’s lucky if he can bring home $7 at the end of a shift.

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“There are more tour guides than tourists,” he quipped, drawing laughter from his colleagues.

“There are more tour guides than tourists.”

The pandemic set in at a time when Boracay was just recovering from a separate crisis.

President Rodrigo Duterte shut down the island for six months in 2018 to pave the way for rehabilitation after decades of unsustainable tourism that resulted in water pollution that the president called a “cesspool.”

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An almost empty bar on Boracay Island. PHOTO: ANTHONY ESGUERRA

The move was unpopular with local businesses, which argue that the government hasn’t done enough for them during the pandemic either. Suggestions included a bailout or even streamlining the travel process to make it easier for local tourists to visit without all the required paperwork. Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Boracay has long been too expensive for many domestic travelers as the island catered to U.S., European and other Asian markets. But with discounts and promotions, it is trying to sell itself as a “mental health break” for Filipinos in a country rocked by pandemic-induced emotional strain and a death toll of 13,000 people. A new wave of infections, little access to vaccines, and a potentially more infectious local strain are all stirring more fear.

Many restaurants, shops and coffee shops remain closed. The parties have stopped, but drinking is still allowed in hotels and bars. The nights are quieter than before. 

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Boracay's night charm. PHOTO: ANTHONY ESGUERRA

For those who can make the trip, it’s worth it.

“It seems like there’s no pandemic here,” said Janice Bisperas, a 25-year-old from Manila told VICE World News. The accountant and her friends took advantage of the opportunity to visit Boracay to escape the lockdown blues brought by the pandemic in the capital. They found discounted hotels and booked the trip.

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“It’s like we have the beach all to ourselves, it’s not crowded unlike before so we took advantage of cheap accommodation and flights,” she said.

From the perspective of businesses, however, it’s no paradise, and the clock is ticking.

As the summer heat engulfs the Philippines, the industry is optimistic they will see more arrivals in the coming months. They are hoping tourists will take advantage of the huge sale on the island which would later translate into just enough revenue to keep businesses afloat for a while.

“We’re just trying to survive, everyone’s just trying to save the industry,” Dionisio Salme, president of the Boracay Foundation, an NGO that represents the business community, told VICE World News. “We can probably survive for three more months.” 

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The best way to watch Boracay's breathtaking sunset is to sail on small wind-powered boats called "paraw." PHOTO: ANTHONY ESGUERRA

Salme said they are hoping to welcome South Korean and Japanese tourists through direct flights and stringent health requirements, while local promoters are exploring more opportunities to attract Filipinos to the island. 

The local government said it requested 40,000 COVID jabs for Boracay workers to help the island open up to international visitors as soon as possible. 

But these plans are in trouble amid a resurgence in cases, particularly in Manila, where health experts are expecting an estimated 11,000 new cases daily due to an increased infection rate in the capital region. The Philippines closed its borders again to foreign travelers due to prevent the entry of new strains.

“I don’t know what will happen to us,” Salme said. 

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