BORACAY -- Clear, lukewarm waters and quiet stretches of white sand welcomed the first batch of tourists here Friday as the Philippines reopened its tourism gem.
The island has a slew of new rules that restrict boozing on the beach and limit the number of tourists and hotels, all while a renovation spree is ongoing.
One of the early tourists, 54-year-old Marilyn Sonob, saw a beach that was devoid of colorful sailboats, sunbathing stations and hawkers, familiar sights when she last visited Boracay last year.
"Nakakapanibago talaga kasi walang naglalako, tahimik, ang konti ng tao, hindi ganito dati. Ang ganda," Sonob, who is visiting from the US, told ABS-CBN News.
(It's different because there are no vendors walking. It's quiet with few people. It was not like this before. It's beautiful.)
The white sand idyll was closed to visitors in April after President Rodrigo Duterte called it a "cesspool" tainted by raw sewage flowing from hotels and restaurants straight into the sea.
The environment, tourism and interior departments accredited at least 157 resorts and hotels to accept tourists. Flights are fully booked and the new maximum tourist capacity of 19,000 may be met by the weekend, said Environment Undersecretary Benny Antiporda.
Boracay, which major tourist magazines consistently rate as among the world's best beaches, measures a mere 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres).
Yet it was seeing up to 40,000 sun worshippers at peak times, with tourists spending $1 billion a year but also leaving mountains of garbage and an overflowing sewer system.
The cost of the six-month shutdown was not immediately known, but the island earned some P56 million in 2017 from 2 million foreign and local tourists.
New rules that ban beachfront dining may affect sales but local entrepreneurs are "innovating," Elena Tioso Brugger, president of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce Boracay, told ABS-CBN News.
Some restaurants are offering drinks with sunset views on their second floor, instead of on the beach, she said.
Unable to sell his chori-burger or grilled sandwiches by the beach under the new rules, businessman Junrey Tampos said he was looking for an alternative site.
Tampos earns roughly P300 a day as a beach cleaner, from P10,000 a day before when he still had his beachfront kiosk.
Tricycle driver Jessey Tamolin said his daily earnings were halved to P1,000 to P1,500 from P3,000 before the closure, as the road works forced him to take longer routes, adding to fuel costs.
"Dati maka-ulam kami ng karne, ngayon gulay gulay muna dahil wala, mahirap ang kita," he told ABS-CBN News.
(Before, we could still eat meat, now we make do with vegetables because it's hard to earn money.)
Under the new regime, the beachfront is cleared of the masseuses, vendors, bonfires and even the builders of its famous photo-op sandcastles it was once crowded with.
Buildings were bulldozed and businesses pushed back to create a 30-meter buffer zone from the waterline.
END OF GHOST TOWN
The new rules say 19,200 tourists will be allowed on the island at any one time, with the government aiming to enforce that by controlling the number of available hotel rooms.
Nearly 400 hotels and restaurants deemed to violate local environmental laws were ordered closed and airlines as well as ferries were told to restrict service to the area.
Drinking and smoking are banned on the beach and the huge multi-day beach parties dubbed "LaBoracay" that drew tens of thousands of tourists during the May 1 Labor Day weekend will be a thing of the past.
Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat said last week she hoped the new Boracay would be the start of a "culture of sustainable tourism" in the Philippines, adding other tourist destinations will be next.
The Boracay Foundation, the main business industry group on the island, has not commented on the restrictions but welcomed the return of tourists.
"Everyone, big and small, has sacrificed a lot during the six-month (closure)," its executive director Pia Miraflores told AFP.
Tens of thousands of workers were left unemployed when the island's tourism machine was deprived of visitors.
"Life will go back to normal. We will have money and work again," said Jorge Flores, 45, a hotel worker. "In the past 6 months, hotels here were like... a ghost town."
Other places in the region strained by mass tourism have also used closures as a tactic to protect the sites from destruction.
Thai authorities announced in October that the glittering bay immortalized in the movie "The Beach" will be closed indefinitely to allow it to recover from the impact of hordes of tourists.
-- with reports from Ayee Macaraig, Agence France-Presse
Boracay, Boracay reopening, Boracay closure, economy, tourism, jobs, Boracay island