Manila Bay is renowned for breath-taking sunsets despite being at the edges of a densely populated city more famous for its traffic than its vistas. So when a new artificial white sand beach opened there last month within days of construction, Filipinos flocked to what some dubbed the “poor man’s Boracay,” a reference to the country’s world-renowned island destination.
Though “Manila Bay Sands” quickly closed for additional touch-ups that hasn’t stopped people from visiting the area to catch a glimpse or stretch their legs amid ongoing pandemic restrictions.
“It’s a stress relief,” Rogelyn Ocampo, who came with three other friends, told VICE News. “I took my family here several years ago and it was all trash. It’s a good project.”
But the $7.1 million beautification effort has also proved divisive at a time of budget shortfalls and when the Philippines is still battling one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, with nearly 330,000 cases. The controversy first erupted on Filipino social media in early September with reports and images of tons of white sand being delivered after being reportedly sourced from crushed dolomite boulders.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration has defended the project, saying it will help people in the metropolis of nearly 14 million people cope with worsening anxiety over job loss and other economic problems triggered by the global pandemic. But critics say the project is a symbol of the Duterte government’s cosmetic and superficial approach to an array of social issues.
“This is an old strategy. This is a circus at the time of crisis,” Dr. Nestor Castro, an anthropologist with the University of the Philippines, told VICE News. He added that this kind of project was reminiscent of developments under Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who employed construction and beautification schemes to defer criticism during his 21 years in power.
Environmentalists have also joined the chorus of critics, pointing out the harmful effects of dolomite, used for manufacturing cement and other construction material, on aquatic life. Philippine environment and public works departments drew flak for importing the crushed dolomite sand from a mining site in the central island province of Cebu.
"There are no shortcuts to a cleaner environment,” scientists at the UP Marine Science Institute said in a recent statement. “At most, it is a beautification effort that is costly and temporary. The task of cleaning and restoring Manila Bay may be daunting, but it needs to be done for future generations of Filipinos to benefit from its many uses."
Mahar Lagmay, a geologist and director of the UP Philippine Resilience Institute, warned that storms and high tide will easily wash away the dolomite beach as the Philippines enters rainy season.
“It’s really going to be expensive if you want to continuously replenish the white sand there…that’s not sustainable,” he said in an interview with local media.
But the widespread concerns may be overridden by the need for novelty and distraction at a difficult time when many Filipinos have spent most of the last six months at home.
When visited by VICE News on Monday, the fake white beach was still closed but people gathered to take in the view from a nearby footbridge. A local vendor also praised the development for potentially bringing in more revenue to the area.
“It will help us a lot. When there’s a lot of people, we sell more,” an ice cream seller named Angelo said.