BORACAY • Philippine police preparing to shut down the Boracay resort island staged drills in riot gear yesterday, startling the laid-back beach community as workers mounted a last-ditch legal effort to halt the six-month closure.
President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the tiny island off-limits to tourists from today, saying that it has become a "cesspool" tainted by dumped sewage.
As part of police drills, officers in full riot gear clashed with bottle-throwing people playing the part of protesters on the white sand beach. In another exercise, screaming women in the role of tourists were held at gunpoint by hooded men.
"I was alarmed there were so many soldiers and police," said resident Dory Gaitano.
Politics expert Francisco Ashley Acedillo said the disproportionate display of force reflects Mr Duterte's harsh style of leadership.
"If he wants something, he does not care what people think and he is going to reinforce that with the use of military forces," said Mr Acedillo of the Institute for Policy Strategy and Developmental Studies think-tank in Manila.
Almost no resistance has been shown to the closure plans apart from at least one small, peaceful protest in recent weeks.
Most residents agree that the island has suffered from over-development and needs cleaning up. The majority of the criticism has been over the sudden and haphazardly organised nature of the shutdown.
The most evident sign of conflict yesterday came at the Philippine Supreme Court, with Boracay residents and workers asking to halt the closure. "It is, mainly, a constitutional challenge to the powers of the executive to arbitrary decision making," their lawyers said in a statement. "If Boracay is closed to tourists, they will lose their source of income, and they would not be able to feed their families."
Boracay was known as the crown jewel of Philippine tourism with its famous powdery white sand but unchecked tourism and environmental degradation made it far from the paradise it was decades ago. The authorities say some of the hundreds of hotels and restaurants use the island's drainage system to send untreated sewage into its surrounding turquoise waters.
The closure threatens the livelihoods of 17,000 hotel, restaurant and other tourism workers, plus about 11,000 construction workers.
The island saw some two million visitors last year, pumping roughly US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) in revenue into the Philippine economy.
Mr Duterte has said he will release two billion pesos (S$51 million) to help the workers, but they say they have not seen a penny yet.
Ahead of the shutdown, vendors slashed 50 per cent off sunglasses and selfie sticks while tourists scrambled to get hold of Boracay souvenir shirts sold at half price.
"We used to sell key chains in a buy one, get one promo. But now we sell 'Buy one, get 10'," said vendor Jenie Dagunan. "We can't eat these bracelets, might as well turn them into money."