BORACAY ISLAND—John Neil Gregorio, 22, had just completed a four-year computer science course when an uncle prodded him to take on the job of a service crew member in an Indian restaurant in Boracay last August.
Despite the meager starting daily wage of P300, with free meals and board, he bit the bullet, seeing a chance to save up enough to allow him to pursue his chosen career and an office desk in an IT outfit.
After 15 days, his wage was raised to P350, but he had to pay half the P2,500 charge for a room he was sharing with three other workers.
Three months later, Gregorio was back at home in Pandan, Antique, a fourth-class municipality about 50 minutes by bus from Caticlan’s jetty port, Boracay’s jump-off point in Malay, Aklan.
His employer had shut down the restaurant due to bankruptcy. A second job in a food market stall paid P50 more but still proved too little to be of use.
“Mai-mai” told a different story. She decided to stay put as a food service attendant in a hotel chain despite a new company policy designed to cut down on operational costs: working only 20 days in a month and spending 10 days idle with no pay.
As a single parent supporting a 2-year-old child that she left in the care of her mother in the family home in Makato, Aklan, Mai-mai felt that she had no choice.
Most poor residents of Aklan and neighboring Antique think of the world-renowned Boracay as a paradise for seekers of employment and leisure, as well as a hub for small-scale entrepreneurs. Widely regarded as the Philippines’ premier tourist draw for its beaches of powdery white sand, glorious sunsets, and fun water recreation activities, it holds out a promise of a convenient, easy life.
But signs of a business drag have appeared over the past several months—to almost everyone’s frustration.
‘Economic yield, not numbers’
Last Nov. 7, the number of tourist arrivals since January came up to some 1.8 million, according to the tourism office of Malay, which has jurisdiction over Boracay. With this figure, it had already met its target for 2023, yet still fell below those of 2022 and the period in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic hit.
“The problem is that we focus on the numbers, not on the economic yield,” said Gil delos Santos, owner of Roy’s Rendezvous, who has embarked on a personal crusade to bring Boracay back to its luster.
“It is being felt on the ground, by the stakeholders and the different sectors,” he said.
In a CoverStory.ph interview last Nov. 25, Delos Santos stressed: “Acknowledging the problem is the initial step toward identifying and implementing remedies that can help restore Boracay’s business sector to its former vibrancy.”
The young businessman appealed for local government policy changes in a presentation to Malay officials on Nov. 13. He cited the low influx of hotel and resort check-ins, few bookings and restaurant customers, and an “alarming level of income than usual.”
These, he said, have resulted in layoffs, forced leaves, reduced business hours, unpaid rentals and business closures—concerns aired similarly by other business leaders, residents and workers.
“We’re struggling through the months, with 40-50% occupancy,” said May Ann Oluwaldare, general manager of the 51-room Microtel by the Wyndham in Barangay Yapak, during the Kapihan sa Boracay Forum hosted by the Boracay Foundation Inc. on Nov. 25.
She, however, said she expected an improvement to 80-90% by December.
Another forum guest, Nilda Serrano, general manager of Le Soleil de Boracay, said: “We’re doing good, except September with 40% occupancy, but we hoped to hit 80% in November and full occupancy in December.”
Workers have aired their own complaints, too, like three days off a week for those doing hotel housekeeping, and more days off than duty days for some fast-food waiters, CoverStory learned.
Felix Gregorio delos Santos, the local tourism officer, was quoted by the state-owned Philippine Information Authority as saying that Malay was “optimistic” that the number of visitors would reach 2 million by December based on the current trend of arrivals.
Of the 1,825,758 visitors recorded lately, 1,433,024 (or nearly 80%) were locals and 357,066 (or 20%) were foreigners, largely Koreans and Chinese. The remaining 35,668 were vacationing overseas Filipinos.
Malay’s tourism office said the figures were still below the prepandemic levels, but noted that inbound tourism markets were showing signs of increasing arrivals, with 5,000 to 6,000 tourists per day.
Gil delos Santos said the local government must look beyond the numbers. “Concentration on numbers rather than on economic yield is an incomplete equation,” he said.
He noted that tourist arrivals were generally low compared to those of previous years and foreigners were few. He observed as well a decrease in “medium to high-paying tourists” and an “upsurge” in budget-conscious travellers.
Moreover, he posted on his Facebook account that 2024 does not look good for Boracay with the Asian market, as economic experts had predicted.
“Direct flights to Caticlan and Kalibo airports from Korea, China, and Taiwan have been limited or cut already. What else can Boracay expect in terms of tourist arrivals?” he said, adding:
“Our Asian neighbors are done and over with Boracay’s bureaucracy—policies that kill convenience for travelers: entry requirements, beach regulations, high cost and extra fees.”
The trend could be an offshoot of a government policy to open and develop other tourist destinations, like Bohol and Palawan, Gil delos Santos said. He raised suspicion that decision-makers intend to direct tourists “to other islands who want to get a share [of] the hospitality pie.”
Under the National Tourism Development Plan (2023-2028), the Department of Tourism will “diversify” the Philippines’ tourism portfolio through “multidimensional tourism.” This means that the national government is pushing other tourism destinations, Delos Santos said.
He mentioned Bohol as a “serious competitor” and a “threat” to Boracay. The island-province has many places to offer tourists, like Chocolate Hills, Alona Beach, Balicasag Island, tarsiers’ sanctuary and the Loboc River, and its airport is near these areas, he pointed out.
“Changes need to happen now. We need to pivot to the rejuvenation path, unless we want to decline further,” Delos Santos said. “Our local leaders should take the first step first—to realize that actions need to be taken now … before it becomes too late.”
For starters, he said, authorities must act on “key issues affecting negative tourist experience,” such as cutting long lines, reducing jetty port transactions to two minutes in a single-step process flow, conducting professional customer-service training for all port personnel and service providers, and improving Caticlan airport operations, and the number, frequency and prices of flights.
On Nov. 15, Aklan Gov. Jose Enrique Miraflores announced the “good news” to local and foreign tourists that hotel booking vouchers will no longer be required from them.
The governor also introduced the following “updates”:
• Allowing beds and umbrellas on the beach.
• Extending time for night swimming to 9 p.m.
• Serving of food and drinks on party boats.
• Suspending the P20,000 fee for foreign tour guides.
After a disappointing three-month stay in Boracay, John Neil Gregorio, the computer science graduate, said he was no longer keen on working on the island. He said he would rather stay in Pandan, where he is now employed as a foundation employee.
On the other hand, Mai-mai, 25, the service attendant and breadwinner, said she felt “a little sad [about the work conditions] but still happy that Boracay is regaining its previous energy, although slowly.”
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