BORACAY, Philippines (Reuters) - Volunteers combed near-empty beaches and workers boarded up shops on the island of Boracay on Thursday, as the Philippines’ top tourist spot closed for a six-month makeover aimed at rescuing it from ruin.
For the first time in years, Boracay’s most famous beach was almost deserted. Gone were the lines of umbrellas and sun loungers, as well as hordes of tourists and vendors, that characterized the explosive, unchecked growth of what was once a quiet paradise island.
Boracay was officially closed to non-residents as of midnight on Wednesday to undergo rehabilitation ordered three weeks ago by President Rodrigo Duterte, angered by a video he had seen of black sewage pouring into the sea at a Boracay beach.
The closure is likely to affect the livelihoods of an estimated 30,000 people reliant on Boracay’s 2 million annual visitors, but many residents feel Duterte’s intervention was necessary.
“Local government officials have been so negligent. They don’t know how to manage and protect this island,” said a tour boat owner, Varril Santa, 51.
“It would be better if the national government can run this island. It’s better for Boracay, it’s better for our tomorrow.”
A few remaining tourists posed for rare, crowd-free selfies in front of blue waters that have been for years cluttered with an armada of neon-sailed boats.
On Thursday, the boats had gone, replaced by a coastguard ship lingering on the horizon and small navy boats policing a 3-kilometre no-go zone. A day earlier, army helicopters ran regular sorties just meters above people playing in the sea.
A sewage system on the brink of collapse put Boracay on the government’s radar two months ago. Further inspection revealed a catalogue of environmental breaches across an island just 10-square-kilometres (4-square-miles) in size.
The interior ministry this week said it would seek charges against 10 unidentified officials for negligence.
The Philippine tourism minister, Wanda Teo, urged authorities and those opposed to the closure to put aside their grievances and work with the government.
“This is for the good of Boracay,” she told the news channel ANC. “They have to help us because Boracay will be back to the way it was years ago.”
The legality of the closure has been questioned by some critics and political opponents, who argue it is too drastic and say it denies citizens their right to free movement.
Duterte declared a state of calamity on the island and surrounding areas on Thursday, putting the environment, interior and tourism ministries in charge and freeing up funds to compensate those who have lost jobs.
The government wasted no time getting started on the rehabilitation.
Volunteers cleared seaweed and trash along the coast, while diggers, trucks and heavy-duty machinery were moved in across the island, slowing the departure of the last trickle of tourists.
Workers in orange vests and hard hats dug up pipes and smashed down walls with sledge hammers, part of efforts to widen a slender spine road and demolish illegal buildings that capitalized on decades of lax regulation.
Teddy Macabeo, a Filipino-American who runs a small hotel and spends six months a year in Boracay, said he was shocked how quiet the beach was during his morning stroll.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen Boracay like this,” said Macabeo, 76, from Seattle. But, he said, “if we don’t take care of this now it will be totally destroyed.”
“The ocean, the over-development, the waste - Boracay just can’t handle it.”
(GRAPHIC: Boracay Island to shut down - tmsnrt.rs/2uThVRw)
Editing by Philip McClellan, Robert Birsel