Manila – Is it like shutting down paradise to give way to a nightmare?
President Rodrigo Duterte's directive to close down Boracay, the world-renowned paradise island in the Philippines, for six months in order to clean it up and to teach business owners a lesson for apparently violating environmental laws, sparked doubts about the real reason for its shutdown.
Upon Duterte's instruction, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources ordered the temporary closure of Boracay on the grounds that local businesses have violated certain ecological regulations that worsened the island's sanitary conditions, even citing the president's calling the island a “cesspool” because of its crowded establishments with deteriorated drainage and waste systems.
The closure order that also tasked the Department of Tourism and the Department of Interior and Local Government to share in the responsibility will be for a maximum of six months starting April 26.
As more than 200 businesses, nearly 30,000 workers, hundreds of fisherfolk, boatmen, indigenous peoples and island residents doing business on the island vented their uproar over the decision that would render them without livelihood for six months, calls about the government's alleged "double standards" broke out.
No sooner had Duterte issued his directive to rehabilitate Boracay than the issue of allowing a Chinese-owned casino built in the island emerged. Fernando Hicap, chairman of Pamalakaya Pilipinas, an organization of fishermen, was quoted by media claiming that while the government has started removing Filipino-owned structures and closing small businesses, a bigger and foreign-owned developer was already allowed to take over.
Apparently, the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (PAGCOR) granted Galaxy Entertainment Group (GEC) and its listed local partner Leisure and Resorts World Corp. (LRWC) a gaming license to operate a $500-million world-class integrated casino resort in Boracay. The LRWC is owned and founded by Alfredo Benitez, a congressman from Negros Occidental province and a known Duterte ally in Congress.
The GEG-LRWC project is touted as the biggest casino project in Boracay that will earn gross gaming revenues projected to reach at least $100 million annually. Hicap said, “We do not object to the rehabilitation of Boracay; it must have been done earlier. But we will not let a foreign company enter and plunder our resources and violate our patrimony in the name of profit.” He said this would result in "massive pollution in the sea as foreign-owned corporations would not care to protect our marine resources because they only want profit.”
Before he embarked on an official trip to China on April 9, Duterte said he knew nothing about plans of a Chinese company to build a casino-resort in Boracay. However, photos released by Malacañang, the presidential office, to media showed Duterte meeting with officials of the company on Dec.6, 2017, with Filipino officials present at the meeting, among them PAGCOR chairperson Andrea Domingo, saying the casino was discussed.
In an interview by ABS-CBN News, Domingo said that during the courtesy call that discussed the casino, GEC officials even assured Duterte they would preserve Boracay's environment during the casino's construction. "I don't think they would risk losing that investment by dumping filth in front of their property," she was quoted as saying.
In the Dec. 6, 2017 meeting, Duterte met with Lui Che-woo, chairman of GEC, a Macau-based casino company, with vice chairman Francis Lui Yiu Tung, Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo, and Domingo.
Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, one of Duterte's critics, claimed in a press conference that Duterte's denial that he knew nothing about the Chinese-owned casino is a "blatant lie," adding, "When there is a courtesy call by a big businessman, that means it's a done deal."
"What? Casino? Who owns the casino?" Duterte said during a media briefing. "There are no plans there for casinos. There are too many," he also said. Following this denial, he also said in one of his incoherent rants that "I will give Boracay to farmers" and that he plans to put the entire island under the land reform program.
Boracay, a tiny 23-hectare island in the village of Manoc-Manoc in Malay town, Aklan province 315 km south of Manila, is hardly an agricultural area. Its center of attraction is the dreamy White Beach, a 4-km stretch of white sand lined on both ends with dive shops, restaurants, coffee shops, bars, knick-knack shops, spas and hotels.
The Boracay Foundation, Inc. said tourism in the island generates about 56 million Philippine pesos annually and helps in the economic mobility of its residents and Filipinos doing small businesses. From a pristine island when it was opened to tourism in the early 1990s, it experienced explosive growth as it became the country's top tourist destination for many years.