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Stepping through the Boracay facade

I regret never even wanting to go with my mom to Boracay back in the early 1990’s, when it was still in pristine condition, hardly touched by development. It had become a very different place by the time I finally made the trip in 2009. Still, even though it was crowded and loud with all the parties happening around the clock, I could still appreciate the beauty and appeal of one of the hottest tourist spots in the Philippines. 

However, little did I know that the same beauty and appeal would diminish in my eyes within the relatively short period of time (or so, I believe) between visits. A conference gave me the chance to return to the island along with my co-faculty from the UP Open University. My jadedness prevented me from being too excited about the whole trip. Still, I certainly did not expect the little adventure I unknowingly embarked upon with my colleagues.

The trepidation began when me and my colleagues opted to avail of a Cash Cash Pinoy travel promo for a 3D/2N stay in Boracay. As I myself did not have a lot of money to spare, I went along with it. Besides, PHP3,699 for each of us, inclusive of air fare and accommodations really did look very attractive. Too bad the promo made no mention of the fuel surcharge, environmental and terminal fees. The low price probably also meant a compromise on the travel agency’s competence. They claimed to have reserved slots for the dates we originally booked, only to be told the following day that the dates had been booked for someone else. Fortunately, the departure worked out in the end, as we flew early enough to avoid the impending bad weather. Now, if only that was the last catch we’d have to deal with, that would be awesome.

We made it to the place we were supposed to stay. It sucked. Hard. Stepping into one of our rooms immediately triggered memories of my stay in an isolation ward while half delirous with Dengue Fever. Yes, it had the ambiance of a half-derelict hospital. This prompted the group to discuss other options.

The good news was that, conference participants were each given $50 vouchers that can be used on any airbnb.com member in the area. We managed to book ourselves to another pair of rooms good for two nights in a different place. The rooms themselves were ok. The problem was that walk from the BnB to the beach.

The interesting, if not depressing thing here is that many of these airbnb.com registered accommodations are scattered across the area beyond the glitz of Stations 1 and 2. These are the parts where the workers of Boracay actually live and us tourists normally don’t see much of. The living conditions aren’t horrendous or anything, but it was very reminiscent of the squatter area near my house. It was a network of eskenitas and semi permanent houses. The whole damn beach is cluttered. But it actually gets more cramped inland. These parts do seem safe enough. Or maybe it’s just me being a bit used to such an environment and being bothered too much by the 2-day marathon drinking session outside the resort. But I can perfectly understand if tourists would want no part of these. As if that weren’t already a handful, people have to deal with the flood-prone eskenitas — the price paid for having no decent drainage system to speak of. I’m not even sure all the toilet and kitchen drains lead to an honest to goodness sewage system. We had to wade through stagnant water to and from the BnB. I can deal with that, but it does take a bit of fun out of the whole thing. While I joked about leptospirosis and dengue, the puddles were only a nuisance to me. But the same did not go for everyone else. One of my colleagues, Diego, brought her mother along. And for our senior companion, it was a legitimate health hazard and a huge turn off for someone on her first real vacation since god knows when.

Not wanting these conditions to define her vacation, our tita in the group set out to look for yet another place to stay and, unlike us, was willing to pay for it if the price was right. And sure enough, she found one for her and her son — a pretty apartelle by the beach front behind a quaint bar. She was kind enough to add in a spare bed for me, which I gladly accepted. The other half of our group stayed in a posh hotel at Station 1, which another colleague booked for himself for his extended stay. In the end, we finally did the proper tourist thing, so to speak.

It was an interesting little adventure. In those two nights we had six rooms in four different establishments to our name. We made it to areas even the most frequent Boracay visitor in the group had never really seen before. And of course, we learned our lesson that things are not quite what they seem with these ridiculously cheap travel promos. I will always look upon them with great suspicion from now on.

I also can’t help but wonder what lies ahead for this supposed beach paradise, 8-10 years down the road. The owner of one of the places we stayed in had a positive outlook amidst the sprawl and the flooded eskenitas outside his property. He likes how there’s opportunity for anybody willing to invest the time and effort to make a living there. I respect that and can’t blame anybody wanting to make an honest living. But I find it hard to abide by the short-sightedness of it all. I fear that they regard the beach as little more than a resource to make money from. That is why I was glad to hear the stories of concerned workers regarding the future of their livelihoods. They want to keep the beach alive, hoping that new initiatives, like prohibiting smoking and eating at the beach and increasing the clearance between shoreline and built environment by another five meters will help their cause. Then again, rules and policies are not the problem. It’s the difficulty of enforcing them. They need a better way to force tourists to be aware of their responsibilities during their visit. A 100 Peso environmental fee receipt does not give tourists the license to do whatever the hell they please in the beach. On the other end, a more sustainable infrastructure needs to be put in place and maintained. Locals can’t just ignore ordinances and put up whatever the hell they want behind the facade of the beach front. It’s no wonder a lot of tourists are scared to pass through certain areas.

I wonder why I don’t see more people concerned about this. Then again, most people visit Boracay to have fun. I currently have a number of friends posting a bunch of pictures from their own recent trip there and obviously had a nice time. Hell, I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog had I fulfilled my intention of keeping to the pretty parts of the beach. But looking back, I’m glad to have experienced this little adventure. I am also suddenly interested to read more about the environmental conditions in the island. Maybe I can dig some stuff up somewhere.

The time of untouched pristine beauty is long gone, but I think it is still possible to improve the present conditions within a relatively short span of time. With the right general attitude among both tourists and locals, I am hopeful that all is not lost.

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