If, in the 1980s when I was travelling around the world, there was a yet-to-be-found idyll to match Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach’, it was surely Boracay, off the northern tip of Panay Island, Aklan, central Philippines.
Paradise. A tiny 10 km2 sandbar island, ringed by deserted, achingly beautiful virgin white-sand beaches. Sandwiched between the crystal clear turquoise South China Sea and a never-ending wall of palms, sweeping into the distance for as far as the eye could see.
When I visited in 1985 Boracay Island was only accessible by fishing boat. It left very sporadically from Caticlan on the northern tip of Panay Island – which itself was one of the less-visited central Philippine islands.
In those days international visitor numbers to the Philippines, like everywhere else in the world, were a fraction of today’s. Counting foreigners in the hundreds in those days, the island was well and truly a traveller’s nirvana. Remote, super-slow and hugely under-visited. I was fortunate to spend many weeks decamped on Boracay, soaking up all that you can imagine a paradise island to be. It was a privilege, and one of my fondest travel memories.
The pace of life was as slow as the tropical breeze. Long days and balmy nights were marked off by a metronome of gentle surf, differing moon-shapes and ever-present thumping of ripe coconuts as they smacked into the sand below. The isolation was magical, with no more than a handful of guesthouses tucked under swaying palms. Indeed, as these photos from 1985 show, even Boracay’s main west coast beach, stretching from one end of the island to the other, was as good as continuously deserted.
Food was simple fresh fish, with limited beer supplies brought in on a rowing boat at high tide, after the low-tide football pitch. With so few people around, getting more than five-a-side was a job, made harder when the local fishermen headed out to the coral reefs and open sea.
Boracay’s even remoter beaches – such as Balinghai, Punta Bunga, Puka, Lapuz and Tambisaan – were only accessible by foot, taking your own food and water. It was possible to spend whole days in blissful isolation. Naked and undisturbed from the rest of mankind.
Sadly, this is all a far cry from today. The secret of Boracay’s beauty has well and truly got out. Official Aklan Provincial Tourism figures report that this tiny island received yet another increase in visitors to over 1.6 million between the 10 month period from January to October, 2017.
It’s a figure, which, given my memories of the place, I simply cannot comprehend.
Boracay is now so over-visited that the island’s unplanned infrastructure has simply collapsed, leaving dangerous levels of pollution, sewage and rubbish. It has turned the island into an environmental disaster and health hazard, thereby instigating a national debate on how best to address such a situation.
With serious questions being asked as to how such a jewel in the county’s tourism crown could have been so badly managed, the eccentric President of The Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, who now describes the island as a ‘cesspool’, has announced this month that he plans to close Boracay to all visitors for the foreseeable future, allowing for a belts and braces overhaul and rehabilitation.
Having also spent time on Thailand’s Kho Phi Phi Island, in the early 1980s – where Danny Boyle filmed Leonardo DiCaprio et al in 2000 – I can honestly say Boracay was, in those days, a lost paradise to match anywhere else in the world.
It’s a lesson to us all on how important an advanced sustainable tourism plan is. While playing with paradise, one hopes that the custodians of such a destination can plan, action and safeguard its future for generations to come.