STAND where the warm sea laps the gleaming white sand of the 4km-long beach on the resort island of Boracay and whip out your selfie stick. You can capture an image of yourself against the impossibly beautiful backdrop of an orange sun dropping from a pink sky into a deep blue sea. Or you could, if the parasailors and banana-boat riders would only get out of the way. And then there is the local feature that your camera cannot capture: the peculiar whiff wafting up from the water at your feet.
“Boracay is a cesspool,” President Rodrigo Duterte declared, with customary frankness, in a speech last month. “You go into the water, it’s smelly. Smells of what? Shit.” Look down, and your toes curl up in the green algae washed ashore from the shallows where it grows, fed by sewage that seeps untreated into the sea from the resorts and ancillary businesses that cram the island. Look up, and you see the start of the evening parade of tourists up and down the beach-front. They are Chinese or Koreans, mostly, a horde in search of the perfect place to drink, eat and be merry after a day of fun in the water. They appear unperturbed.
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Resort-owners, in contrast, are alarmed. “I will close Boracay,” the president has threatened. He claims to have told his environment secretary, Roy Cimatu, “I’ll give you six months. Clean the goddamn thing.”
Boracay’s beach has earned the island world renown. Over 2m tourists visited in 2017, spending 56bn pesos ($1.1bn). Yet businesses here seem reluctant to invest in disposing of their sewage in the way required by law. Mr Cimatu’s inspectors found that only 383 of the 578 places they had checked by late February were connected to the sewage system and that, anyway, the system needed repairs.
The legend among backpackers is that two Swiss discovered Boracay in the age of the Hippie Trail. The ensuing trickle of escapees from suburbia were delighted to have to wade straight onto the beach from an outrigger boat, dine on the barbecued catch of local fishermen and sleep in thatched huts. These days planeloads of visitors step ashore on a concrete jetty, from which motor-tricycles whisk them to concrete hotels complete with air conditioning, cable and Wi-Fi.
By threatening to close this flawed paradise, the president is perhaps just trying to scare resort-owners into spending some money to preserve their main asset, the beach. But as his bloody campaign against drug-dealers proves, not all Mr Duterte’s threats are hollow.