One island paradise, five worlds

Boracay: Tourists’ paradise. —PHOTOS BY JUN BANDAYREL

To try to run across the length and breadth of Boracay is to catch a glimpse of at least five very different worlds.

There is the world of White Beach and Bulabog Beach, of course. The world of low-budget and mid-range hotels; a world that looks increasingly more like Greenbelt or BGC but transplanted beside what is possibly the world’s longest stretch of extra-fine, blindingly white, flour-like beach; the world of P120-coconuts and P2,000-lunch buffets; the world of the tired, overworked professionals and others from the middle-class who saved up for weeks to flee to this island for a quick escape from the madness of Manila, or Seoul, or Shanghai.

Then there is the world of those quiet, all-but-fenced-up coves up north, literally set above and apart from the rest of the island by its higher elevation and its walls; the world of Shangri-la, Crimson, and Newcoast; the world of those who can afford to pay P30k per night to stay away from the masa crowding White Beach; the world of the world’s top 10%.

But on the southern end of the island (and in various other pockets scattered across it) is an entirely different world altogether: the world without grand views, farthest from the best beaches; the world of wooden huts or workers’ dormitories, 5-10 boarders to a room; the world where many of the construction workers, waiters, kitchen staff, janitors, security guards—and everyone else who make it possible for the first and second worlds to exist at all—sleep for the night and try to build a life; the source of cheap labor on this island; the world of the working class.

Souvenir stalls along the beach.

In one tiny corner of the island, there’s also the steadily shrinking world of the indigenous Ati people; a world that looks more like a forgotten refugee camp, now housing all those who once freely roamed across these hills and valleys; the world of the dispossessed. 

And then there’s a world that’s not physically here but whose presence can be felt nearly everywhere here: the world of the proprietors of such corporations as the Hennan group which has been steadily gobbling up many of the smaller family-run resorts here; the world of the biggest landowners and stockholders of all these big developers constructing all these concrete edifices sprouting like giant weeds slowly devouring the entire island; the world to which much of the wealth brought here by all these middle-class refugees from the city—as well as by all these underpaid workers residing on this island—are wired to regularly; the world that ultimately corners much of the profits produced by the cheap labor from this island’s hinterlands; the world of those who carry out the dispossession. 

While there is traffic between these worlds, the movement seems anything but two-way: Those workers from Manoc Manoc must report to White Beach or the five-star hotels up the hills daily, of course—but who among those staying in these hotels even know that shanties exist down the Boracay Central Highway?

On paper at least, those from the world of workers’ dorms are free to hang out at Discovery Shores to watch the sunset or to swim at Shangri-La’s exclusive cove, but who among them are willing to pay for a meal worth several days’ wage—or who can surmount the invisible walls keeping them away? 

I talked to one waiter—a student from a low-income family taking up a course in “hospitality management” in Misamis. He said he had to pay P15k for the chance to do an OJT at one beachfront hotel here, and he works nine hours daily manning the buffet table but is not paid a single centavo. He likes to hang out at White Beach on his days off, but how can he afford to pay for the P200 fruit shake being sold here? How many others like him live here?

Even in—or especially in—what, despite everything, still remains one of earth’s most spectacularly beautiful islands, there is no escape from the separation, aggression, and exploitation that comes with capitalism.

Herbie Docena, PhD, is an independent researcher who teaches part-time at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

Read more: The dimensions of inequality in the Philippines, by the numbers

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