Boracay redux?

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on January 13, 2010

According to the Philippine Department of Tourism (DOT), international visitors to the Philippines increased 2.7% in the first nine months of the year. Because the Philippines has so few visitors compared to its much more popular neighbors-less than 30% of international tourism to Thailand, for instance-that rate of growth while welcome is hugely disappointing. Unfortunately, one of the reasons the Philippines doesn’t make much headway in growing tourism is that tourists who visit leave disappointed.

I asked a well-traveled friend who spent several days on Boracay -the Philippines’ best-known resort destination internationally-to give me a brief on his experience. First, the good news: 1) PAL Express flies direct to Caticlan in new “State of the Art” Bombardier Dash 8 turboprops; 2) The runway is being repaired and Cebu Pacific will soon resume flights with equally modern and reliable aircraft.

My friend was impressed with the small resort hotel he booked-the Sea Wind-calling it “great” for a fair price. “Great room, super service; and a great, wide beach unspoiled by food outlets and jet ski rentals,” he said of the place. “No attempts to exploit guests. And especially no evidence of greed by the owner that will destroy the nature and beauty that was Boracay. There are probably a few other,” similar places to stay, he said, but not many.

Nevertheless, the world-traveler had more good things to say, adding that the beach and water at the Boat Station 1 end of the once pristine beach are clean, well maintained and beautiful. My friend had praise for DOT secretary “Ace” Durano, saying he “has done a very, very good job of attracting Russian tourists to Boracay. They are enthusiastic tourists who have money to spend and are ready for new destinations.”

Now for the bad news: 1) Immediately upon arriving air passengers are subjected to the first of several small scams. Uniformed “personnel” demand passengers’ luggage tickets. “These ‘personnel’ turn out to be porters who once in possession of the luggage tickets demand payment for carrying the luggage. This is fine if they identified themselves as porters and asked the passenger if they wanted assistance. Or if a clear sign was posted that porters are available and there is a fixed price per piece of luggage,” my well-travelled friend explained.

“Instead the passengers’ first impression of Boracay is the chaos of the baggage claim and the dismaying attempt to take advantage of the visitor,” he said. 2) Immediately upon arrival “officials” demand that all passengers “register” as tourists on Boracay as if they were going through customs; 3) Immediately before departure to Boracay tourists are subjected to a P50 environmental fee. In “another 20 meters all tourists are subjected to a P50 peso ‘port terminal’ fee,” increasing the petty harassment factor.

3) On arrival in Boracay the area around boat Stations 2 and 3 is crowded, dirty and the beach is generally commercially overrun with formal and informal vendors; 4) Restaurants are generally of poor quality and understaffed and offer untrained service. “The best of the lot are the ‘chain’ restaurants like Yellow Cab Pizza and Pancake House,” my generally jolly friend explained sardonically.

5) “Music blares out of bars right next to each other so even if you are not offended by the over amped, high volume music you could not appreciate it because it is distorted by the neighboring bar.

6) “And to make sure that the tourist leaves with a bad feeling another P50 ‘port terminal’ fee is collected prior to the return trip and a P20 fee is charged to tourists at the Caticlan airport.

“Anecdotally, the Russian tourists are generally disappointed and said that while they really liked the beach and water, the bad infrastructure and travel difficulties, bad restaurants and lack of interesting activities and excursions all combined to make Boracay and the Philippines a one-time destination,” my friend explained, adding that, “It does not need to be this way.” If it weren’t these tourists and their networks of friends could be a source of recurring income.

“A simple comprehensive fee for terminal, environmental and whatever else could be instituted and collected through a simple and modest per guest fee collected and paid by hotels and guesthouses (Of course that would be auditable and not cash.),” he suggested. “Part of the fees could be directed into effective beach and walkway cleanup and maintenance. Aggressive ‘jawboning’ by local and national officials could encourage better training and staffing levels at restaurants and even the aggressive use of health and safety laws could get the music at bars and other outlets within safe volume levels.”

Sounds simple. But apparently harder than raising Boracay’s visibility among Russians.

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