After being shuttered for half a year, the famed island resort of Boracay began welcoming boatloads of tourists yesterday with promises of clearer waters and beaches, but with a slew of tougher rules meant to undo the impact of years of unbridled capitalism.
Hundreds of excited holidaymakers trooped to a jetty to board boats that took them to the tiny island, consistently rated by travel magazines as among the world's best beaches, but which in April was shut down after President Rodrigo Duterte labelled it a "cesspool".
They are, however, finding a very different Boracay from the one they had been used to. The beachfront is wider now, and the shoreline spotless, without a tinge of algae that used to blanket it. The government is determined to keep it that way. Tourists will no longer find vendors, masseuses, fire dancers and even the builders of its famous photo-op sandcastles on the beachfront.
All water sports, except for swimming, are banned for the time being, while Boracay's three casinos have been closed for good, in line with Mr Duterte's wishes. Beach parties, as are smoking and drinking, are also prohibited. The huge multi-day beach parties dubbed "LaBoracay", which drew tens of thousands of tourists on May 1 Labour Day weekends, will be a thing of the past.
"It feels different. It's quieter. There are fewer people," Ms Marilyn Sonob, 54, told ABS-CBN News. "It wasn't like this before, but it's still beautiful."
Boracay measures just 1,000ha. Yet it was seeing up to 40,000 sun worshippers at peak times, with tourists spending US$1 billion (S$1.38 billion) a year but also leaving mountains of garbage and an overflowing sewer system.
Over the past six months, a government-appointed task force undertook a massive clean-up of the island. Illegal pipes that dumped untreated sewage straight into the sea were removed. More sewage plants were built, and sewage treatment plants were refurbished. Buildings were bulldozed, and businesses pushed back from the waterline to create a 30m-wide buffer.
The new rules say 19,200 tourists will be allowed on the island at any given time. To achieve that limit, the government is controlling the number of available hotel rooms, and has asked airlines and ferries to cut back their services to Boracay. Just under 160 tourism-related businesses have been approved to reopen.
The makeover is not yet over. Away from the water, the sound of machinery and hammering echoed in the air as resorts made improvements to meet new requirements and crews toiled away on a widened main road. Tourists were greeted by excavators and partially knocked down buildings flanking roads.
But businesses are cautiously optimistic, and workers are hoping that despite the new restrictions, Boracay will draw even more tourists in the months ahead. "Life will go back to normal. We will have money and work again," hotel worker Jorge Flores, 45, told Agence France-Presse.