BORACAY, Philippines (Reuters) - The Philippines reopened its top holiday island on Friday, promising sustainable tourism and a greener environment as it welcomed back visitors after a six-month cleanup ordered by a president who had described it as a “cesspool”.
Hundreds of excited tourists barred from Boracay since April trooped to a jetty that is the gateway of the 10-sq-km (4-sq-mile) island, famed for its powdery white sands, turquoise waters, lively nightlife and abundant water sports.
“We are lucky today to be here, so we have to enjoy and see what it’s like. Party, swim and eat and everything,” French tourist Chris Balloug told Reuters upon disembarking.
Filipino tourist Kat Ruiz said she was looking forward to a better island with a home-like atmosphere.
Cabinet and local government officials unveiled a billboard-size image of Boracay’s Puka Beach, before declaring the island “officially open to all”.
In April, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered Boracay’s closure after seeing a video of dirty water being piped to sea, a side-effect of decades of unregulated construction that overwhelmed a tiny sewerage system.
“We have already done the first phase, this is the rehabilitation,” Environment Minister Roy Cimatu told a news conference. “There is no more cesspool.”
Boracay attracted 2 million visitors last year and raked in $1 billion in revenue, but its environment suffered, with garbage pile-ups, rampant land encroachment, and narrow roads clogged with traffic emitting fumes.
Now the island is reforming.
Beach parties are banned, as is smoking and drinking. Its shoreline is free of vendors, masseuses, fire dancers and watersports, while the scores of moored boats on the beach, a fixture in former years, must anchor elsewhere.
Just 19,000 tourists are to be allowed on the island each day, with worker numbers also capped at 15,000.
“When we think about it, our problem is everybody wants to go to Boracay,” Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat told reporters.
The government plans to extend its restoration beyond Boracay to tourist spots elsewhere in the archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, she said.
GRAPHIC: Boracay Island to shut down IMG - tmsnrt.rs/2uThVRw
Prior to the closure, authorities found about a third of the island’s 600 to 700 resorts had no permits to operate. About 157 hotels offering 7,308 rooms were allowed to operate from Friday.
The six-month closure saw authorities remove illegal sewage pipes, close or demolish unregistered hotels and widen roads, some of which work continues.
Tourists were greeted by rubble, excavators and partially-knocked down buildings flanking roads, but caught some glimpses of Boracay’s idyllic past.
“Manage your expectations,” Romulo-Puyat added. “The front is beautiful, the water is pristine and clear, but of course the roads are still being built.”
Reporting by Ronn Bautista; Writing and additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Michael Perry and Clarence Fernandez