Boracay and tourism promotion

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on January 19, 2011

On Monday, we arrived home from a long weekend in Hong Kong, a long-planned family weekend before our children head out searching for their place in the world. This was an opportunity to have our youngest children together for several days stringed together, and to share multiple meals—exotic, sensory festivals punctuated with fine wines and excited conversations—for what might be one of the last times in quite some time.

Hong Kong is a default destination for short, family trips. It’s close, it’s exciting, and it’s world-class. While it’s not inexpensive, shops are crowded this time of year because of dramatic clearance sales in preparation for warmer weather. The weather is still cold and the air is dry. The city hums along with its usual efficiency, and clerks, waiters, and other service personnel are polite, smiling, and welcoming.

During our short stay, the papers were largely unconcerned with the Philippines. Instead, local issues such as the retrial of accused expatriate milkshake murderer Nancy Kissel, the development of neighboring Shenzhen, and attempts by property developers to reverse new rules on flats meant to cool speculation dominated the papers. Except for one item I spotted by Manila-based South China Morning Post correspondent Raissa Robles.

Headlined, “Sun, sea but no sex, please, on Boracay,” the report suggested that “nothing goes” on the island paradise known for “everything goes” around the world. According to Ms. Robles, Malay town councilor Jonathan Cabrera has filed a proposal to ban “indecent acts” on “the beach, shores, in vegetation, roads, forests, rivers, caves, public buildings, public utility vehicles, sea craft and other places where intercourse would be seen by the public.”

Mr. Cabrera’s proposal was prompted by broadcast footage clandestinely filmed by a television crew of two foreign couples “being intimate in public on New Year’s Day.” From what I understand, the couples had sought out remote stretches of beach in the hours after midnight and were followed by the television crew, apparently because they suspected the couples would provide some spicy material.

A separate clip “showed a bare-breasted woman embracing her male partner atop a rock formation that had been turned into a Catholic grotto with a Virgin Mary statue.” Although Boracay depends on foreign tourists for its livelihood—more than half a million a year according to Ms. Robles—the clips and the sensational reporting that accompanied them raised the ire of conservative local residents who want Boracay to be branded as a family destination.

That will be quite a transition. Boracay was “discovered” by European backpackers 30 years ago who routinely spent time on the island’s magnificent white-sand beach au natural. A senior police officer interviewed by Ms. Robles told her that when officers come across couples engaged in indecent acts or sunbathing nude, “We just warn them that it’s not allowed, tell them to stop, and cover themselves up,” noting that, “only foreigners do it.” These incidents go unreported unless a complaint is made, which apparently isn’t often.

A determined television crew can change all that, apparently, threatening the Philippines’ world-famous party destination. According to residents and resort owners, foreigners aren’t the only ones doing the partying. An Australian resort owner told Ms. Robles that “even businessmen he saw in Manila behaving with proper decorum ‘went wild’” in Boracay “where everything goes.”

Ms. Robles noted that despite sensitivities to “indecent acts” in public, “sex is openly available at many nightclubs, bars and resorts” although prostitution is illegal in the Philippines. If that law isn’t enforced tightly, one has to wonder if a ban on couples “being intimate” on darkened but public beaches is going to be any more effective. Unless television crews continue to covertly follow amorous foreign tourists around, the answer to that question is probably, “No.”

A more important question is, “Are you serious?” about transforming Boracay into a family resort. If so, have local residents and resort owners considered the tradeoffs? After all, such a move is akin to shifting Las Vegas’ reputation from “sin city” to “sun city.” But wait, developers and local officials tried that a decade ago with dismal results. The inner adolescent that lives in adults wants a place to go where he or she can be himself or herself without reservations.

I can’t imagine anyone describing Boracay as a family destination, although families are seen there (Although Lonely Planet recently ranked Boracay among the top 10 value destinations in the world, the Philippines’ Department of Tourism envisions transforming the island into a high-end, heritage destination. How about that for staring a gift horse in the mouth?). The majority of tourists are hormone-buzzing young people, newlyweds, and those dapper Manila businessmen—or should I say businesspeople? All are looking for something different, even if that something different isn’t sex on the beach. And I dare say very few of these individuals are looking for a family resort for their party.

My sense is that the television crew sneaking up on foreign tourists was not only a rude thing to do, it was a stupid thing to do for Boracay.

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand. Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com and follow him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.). Copyright © 2010 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)

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