HE said — SHE said

102

Creating Elysium

It did not come without a warning.

But with less emphasis compared with President Rodrigo Duterte’s threat and eventual closure of Boracay, owners of business establishments in Coron and El Nido in Palawan welcomed news of the rehabilitation of the islands considered as the country’s last frontier.

Boracay was an overkill.

The military had to be deployed during the initial stages of the Boracay rehab, surprising if not baffling not a few who never saw such number of battle-ready soldiers storming the island paradise’s white beach like the allied forces did in Normandy.

It was a sight my generation saw only in Vic Morrow’s and Rick Jason’s Combat or to the younger set maybe in Band of Brothers. We’ve never seen that number of soldiers deployed to oversee the plugging of sewage pipes. Philippine Army Brig. Gen. Pio Diñoso said then about 200 from the Army, Navy and the Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit (CAFGU) were tapped to maintain peace and order and provide support to police assigned to handle the island’s security.

There could have been more soldiers deployed for that operation. They had their days in the sun for sure. There were boats and choppers and sticks and helmets. Violent dispersal of protests was also been simulated.

None of these feared events happened, though. There seemed to be a wide approval of the Boracay rehab.

Boracay was not the cesspool as described by the President. It could have been exaggerated by Mr. Duterte.

But it was in the stages of early decay. Its waters had long been contaminated and showed high levels of fecal coliform bacteria. Its local government, both past and present, allowed that to happen in exchange for high tourism revenues.

Thankfully, tourism areas in Coron and Palawan have yet to reach that stage. However, intervention is needed now before they turn into what Boracay experienced when its popularity grew and grew.

Government seemed to have learned, too, that no drama of the Normandy kind was needed to emphasize the need for the rehabilitation of the Palawan islands.

Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Roy Cimatu had seen and later administered Boracay’s rehabilitation. Now, he declares there is no need for the closure of Palawan’s tourist spots for their recovery.

Instead of soldiers and the CAFGU, Cimatu said DENR men will be present during the rehabilitation of Coron and El Nido.

“We’ll dedicate a large portion of the DENR presence in Palawan. We have to maintain Palawan as the last ecological frontier of the country,” he said.

Only those with building, business and easement violations will be closed down, according to the DENR chief, giving owners and proprietors of the other business establishments a reason to heave a sigh of relief.

“There is no need for the closure of Palawan’s tourist spots for their recovery.

He also revealed the DENR’s Environmental Management Bureau will check the water quality in El Nido, like it did in Boracay.

El Nido’s carrying capacity is being checked.

Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat also assured control of tourist inflow on both groups of islands.

In an exclusive Daily Tribune interview of Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) Deputy Governor Diwa Guinigundo last week, he said these islands in Palawan filled the slack left by the six-month closure of Boracay from July to October.

His statement also held true for the other tourist beach destinations scattered all over the country.

In charge of the Monetary Stability Sector of the BSP, Guinigundo said tourism money also helped keep the Philippine peso in strong fighting form somehow. This was despite Boracay’s half-year closure.

The Tourism Congress of the Philippines (TCP) also now sees an influx of foreign tourists next year. It based its projection from the positive feedback received by the country during the recent World Travel Market in London.

TCP president Jose Clemente revealed the group pushed the previously less-visited tourist attractions in the Philippines. The recently reopened Boracay is still the top attraction among foreign travelers.

This is a boon to Philippine tourism seeking to rebound from the ugly images of kidnappings and terrorism in the South, top reasons for the negative travel warnings issued by several countries against the Philippines in the past.

Other than Palawan, Panglao Island in Bohol and Siargao in Surigao del Norte are also next on the DENR list for possible rehabilitation.

They may no longer create much noise like Boracay did, but we should continue glancing at these projects with critical eyes.

Keeping paradise

On the hullabaloo that was the Boracay closure, three things arise out of the cesspool, to borrow that much-maligned description used by President Rodrigo Duterte.

First, the strong words, the perceived overreaction (both on government authorities side and that of concerned parties) and “extreme” measure taken of closing the whole island were just what we needed.

Duterte’s move was a kick in the behind, if we are to be crass about it. If he hadn’t gotten things going, who knows what Boracay would be like now?

The last time I was there, which was just a few weeks before its closure, conditions were already deplorable in my view. Having seen the island before it became a tourism magnet, I knew it had become so abused and taken for granted.

The beach had receded, no longer the vast (and I mean vast!) powdery, white paradise where one could loll around all day long. The roots of the few coconut trees lining the beach were woefully exposed. At high tide, the waters reached the lounge areas of resorts, which had never happened before. During rainy season, the island would get flooded. At any time of day, it felt like there were always too many people.

Many Boracay residents would talk about how the island had become so ugly. Most times, I thought so, too, when I would have to watch my step each time we took a walk because the ground had become lumpy and sometimes muddy, a sure sign of neglect.

The Boracay situation shows us on a micro level how things are in the Philippines.

We have bountiful natural treasures. In that realm, we are blessedly rich. What happened, then, that we got so poor?

This brings me to the second point: reminders and warnings about keeping our natural treasures alive have been given since we can all remember. Did we listen?

Was it poor management on the part of local leaderships? Plain ignorance of what should be done to preserve our resources and let it flourish? Or greed — ignoring or circumventing laws to line one’s pockets by giving in to capitalists eager to cash in on opportunities?

This is how we lost mangroves and forestlands. This is how our mountains became bald or hollow and why we are distressed by floods and landslides.

This is why Boracay was ordered closed for six months and probably why government forces expected a great resistance to the move. It seems we, Filipinos, know too well how we tend to resent being told how to do things.

I can imagine the inter-agency task force led by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) trying to investigate the root of Boracay’s degradation. An investigative show on television managed to get interviews with some of the controversial figures in the Boracay mess. The province’s leaders were defensive and, in my opinion, downright disgusting, while one of the businessmen whose resort was torn down on national TV blustered and puffed about how he only went ahead with it because he had gained permission to do so.

If I were a great white shark and if I could swim in tropical waters, I would go straight for these fattened cows!

This, then, brings me to the third point.

“The Boracay situation shows us on a micro level how things are in the Philippines.

For all the drama and sighs of relief, this Boracay situation has been a stark reminder to all our local governments to be careful and more mindful of their responsibilities.

DENR’s plan to replicate the so-called Boracay model of rehabilitation in Palawan province and other top tourist destinations in the country is getting a thumbs-up from many of us Filipinos.

Perhaps the departments of environment, tourism and local government working together can also serve as a model for our country’s leaders who tend to want to go solo on matters that in reality affect all of us anyway.

If government can help keep our beautiful islands in tip-top shape — and our local leaders, too, in the process — we salute it.

It can start with the popular ones — El Nido and Coron in Palawan, then Panglao Island in Bohol and Siargao in Surigao del Norte. They have about 7,101 reasons to keep going, if we want to go full blast.

Is this an overreaction? I don’t think so. The Philippine islands had been abused and neglected long enough.

“Since we have already started in Boracay, let’s continue these rehabilitation efforts for the sake of the Philippines and the Filipino people, so that they can have something to be proud of,” DENR chief Roy Cimatu said.

Beyond the tourism bragging rights and the economic gains that these measures will bring, I feel that developing a strong and effective system that ensures we take care of our natural resources is more important.

The most sustainable thing our leaders today can do is to teach the Filipino people to truly love their own.

What are your thoughts?

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