At what used to be known as the Philippines’ party island, dozens of tourists seem to pay little attention to the ongoing coronavirus or COVID-19 crisis. Colorful mandala cloth, beach towels, and yoga mats line the shore, with its owners either getting a tan or bathing in still one of the clearest waters in the country. In the afternoons, patches of the island’s powder-like sand are covered by visitors aiming their cellphones at the setting sun—among the best sunset views in the world, many say.
It’s the first weekend of March. By Boracay island standards, the number of people on the beach is unremarkable. There are people, but it’s not crowded. There is minimal noise, though one could hear the men in neon green shirts who randomly blurt out invitations for paddleboarding, kite surfing, island hopping, or scuba diving. The former party scene has become a good option for tourists who want to do away with whatever form of crowded revelry that marked the old Boracay.
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There is also one striking detail within this early summer furlough: there are scarcely any Chinese and Korean visitors. This is due to the ongoing travel ban to and from China, where the COVID-19 originated, and a partial travel ban to and from South Korea, which has recorded one of the highest number of COVID-19 cases outside of mainland China (more than 7,500 cases as of this writing).
This kind of serenity is a welcome surprise for some of the island’s guests. But for businesses it’s another hurdle they have to face, following Boracay’s government-mandated closure in April to October of 2018. The Chinese and the Koreans, the business managers and locals agree, are some of the island’s biggest spenders.
Peter Tay, president of Boracay Adventures Inc. and vice president of Boracay Island Travel Agencies Tour Operators Assocation, tells ANCX that Koreans and Chinese make up 60 percent of the tourist arrivals in Boracay. The influx, he says, began sometime in 2010.
The small businesses are the ones more gravely affected by this epidemic that has already more than 105,000 confirmed cases in the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Elvin, 21, a stand-up paddleboarding instructor has been feeling the effect of the decline in Chinese and Korean tourists. He belongs to an association of paddleboarding instructors that have been strictly regulating the beach activities in the island after its closure. The association, he says, requires them to stick to regulated fees. “Kung wala ang association, kalahati ibibigay kong presyo, magka-customer lang,” he says. “Madami pa din namang tao, mga Pinoy at puti. Namamahalan kasi ang mga Pinoy sa presyo namin.”
He gives a sigh of frustration when we ask him what he knows about the travel ban concerning the virus. “Wala naman sa Boracay no’ng virus,” he says with certainty. As of March 10, there have been 33 cases confirmed cases of the COVID-19 in the Philippines, and none of them are/were in Boracay.
The small vendors that stand between the popular restaurants and bars—those doing henna tattoos, selling souvenirs, and offering dreadlocks and hair-braid services—are doing their best to stay afloat, also by slashing their prices by a considerable margin, some by half.
“Eto, o, hindi na nabebenta. Hilig ng mga Koreana dito,” a woman vendor says as she points to a pile of embellished wide brimmed hats.
The main road shares a similar atmosphere. Debris, broken wood, and exposed metal still make up a huge clutter in some parts of the strip, demonstrating how a few establishments have yet to begin recuperating from their losses during the closure. On this side of the island, many restaurants, specially those that cater specifically to the Chinese and Korean guests, have closed down for the meantime.
“The business sectors were caught by surprise,” Tay says. “Many Filipinos are out of jobs. On the other hand, we are glad the Municipal Health Office [MHO] is doing a good job in containing the virus with close coordination with the Provincial Government. We are virus free.”
For now, they are relying on preventive measures, such as educating people on the importance of cleanliness. “We also advise people to keep fit and stay healthy; go under the sun and swim; and do not be confined in a small space,” he says. “We can’t really plan. This is different from the Boracay closure because for that, we could look forward to the opening in October. But for this, we don’t know when it will be contained. And even if it is contained, it will still take a couple of months to recover.”
A world weighed down
The coronavirus has been putting a lot of stress in the economy all over the world. In a United Nations report posted on March 9, the virus could cost the economy USD 1 trillion in 2020. In the Philippine tourism industry alone, flag carrier Philippine Airlines has laid off 300 employees as the effects of the virus kept adding tension to their already declining sales.
In Boracay, one of the hotels that lay along the terra cotta bricks on the main road is offering a 35 percent discount for walk-ins, and a 32 percent discount for non-walk-ins. The hotel’s spa is also offering 15 percent discount on all its services.
A budget hotel a few feet away is somehow spared by this conundrum. They’re doing okay, but they still have vacancies for March and April, an uncommon situation for hotels in Boracay at this time of the year. “Mga Pinoy naman na magbabarkada halos nag-bo-book,” the receptionist tells us.
At night, the less blaring party scene is inundated by Caucasians and Filipinos, which gives bars and clubs a much higher leverage. It’s the restaurants that have to deal with a diminished dining market, majority of whom are South Koreans and Chinese. The latter book hotels and restaurants in massive groups, assuring the establishments of sales even before summer starts.
This Saturday, a short line forms outside one of the most popular party places in Boracay. In fact, at this hour, it’s the bars that seem to give the island a semblance of what it’s supposed to look like during summer season.
Nowie Potenciano, proprietor of The Sunny Side Group, tells ANCX that his team has been seeing a significant drop in sales since the first week of February. “Due to the lack of visitors, we have already closed one of our restaurants,” he says. “We couldn’t support the overheads anymore. Another one of our shops is down by 80 percent compared to the previous month.”
Fortunately, Potenciano was able to move his staff to his other restaurants, and all of them are still employed. However, since the rate of sales has been going down continuously, he may soon have to take more drastic measures. “We’re coping by asking for the help of our staff. We ask them to be understanding about the situation, and they have agreed to just work five days a week, instead of their usual six days. We are also appealing to friends and family to visit the island if they feel it is safe enough because the whole industry can use the boost.”
When the island reopened in October 2018, Potenciano noticed that it took a few months for travelers to put together their plans and visit Boracay, and for his company to start making profit again. “Less than a year later, we’re finding ourselves in a difficult situation again because of the virus,” he laments.
At dusk, as one walks away from the crowd and into the line of five-star hotels, the music fades, and what’s left is the sound of the waves. Sometimes in the lobbies, one can hear whispers from the sporadic guests who decide to stay in for the night. It’s rather tranquil for a Boracay summer.
On Sunday, on the first weekend of March, the Department of Health (DOH) announced three new cases of COVID-19 in the Philippines. There were only three cases since February. On March 8, President Rodrigo Duterte declared a State of Public Health Emergency in the country. As of press time, the number has jumped to 49.
With the rapid spread of this disease, and with talks about the possibility of declaring a localized lockdown, Boracay is on unsteady ground. The island has survived a six-month long stillness—no businesses, no tourists, no jobs. The question is, even if some businesses don’t observe a decline in profit now, the immediate future doesn’t seem to hold a comforting promise.