In the middle of our Zoom call, Nenette Graf takes a moment to look out of her window. Her backyard—a stretch of white sand along Bulabog Beach, on the east side of Boracay island—is quiet this morning, save for the tides rolling in and out from the shore. What used to be a beachfront packed with kiteboarders and windsurfers looking to ride the waves is empty; the throngs of beachgoers may as well be a distant memory.
It’s been this way since March.
“We’ve had 710 tourists come in the first two weeks of reopening,” she says. “And that’s to split among 202 establishments that are authorized to operate.”
I quickly do the rest of the math, and it's not good: Boracay, one of the country’s most popular (and most lucrative) tourism spots, received only a tenth of its old visitor count since it "officially" reopened. Scratch that—a tenth of its old daily visitor count over two weeks.
Like other tourist destinations around the world, the Covid-19 pandemic forced Boracay to close its borders, bringing the travel industry that its people rely on to a halt. The island, which had regularly received up to 7,000 visitors daily, has emptied out, leaving Nenette and many other locals to wonder what happens next.
A native of Malay, Aklan, Nenette grew up in the mainland, and spent her summers at her family’s vacation house on the island. In the 1970’s, when news of pristine white sand and clear blue waters drew the first few international travelers to Boracay, they converted their beachfront home into a small resort—one of the island’s first.
“I moved here in 1984 to take over the resort management,” she says. At the time, she was among a growing number of college graduates from the mainland who chose to stay in Boracay. Tourism was on the come up, and locals had set up businesses to meet the growing demand. “Going to Manila was an option, but why would you, when you have something more beautiful here?”
While the rest of the country was wrapping their heads around a total lockdown, Boracay was simply buckling down for round two.
“We saw Boracay grow, and we enjoyed the best of it,” she says as she smiles. From a handful of backpackers in the summers of the late 70’s, Boracay quickly grew into a major tourism destination. And with droves of travelers visiting its shores each year, a new wave of hotels, restaurants, and leisure centers also came to set up shop on the island.
Over time, the strain of overtourism changed the island yet again.
Improper waste management caused Boracay significant environmental problems, including a major coliform outbreak in 1997. Similar issues resurfaced over the next two decades, coming to a head in 2018, when the island faced a six-month closure for “rehabilitation” as the pollution levels were deemed “beyond human activity” by the national government.
“Unthinkable ‘yun sa amin,” Nenette says, shaking her head. “Never in your wildest dreams did you think you’d wake up one morning and there were no people around.”
At the time, Nenette had described the closure in 2018 as “something out of a horror movie”—as did many others. But these days, it seems they’re starting to see it as something of a blessing in disguise—or, at least, a practice run for what was to come.
“Funnily enough, that closure helped us cope with this better, in that we already knew what to do,” explains Nowie Potenciano, co-owner of the Sunny Side Cafe Group. “We got to the acceptance phase faster, while everyone else in the industry was still negotiating. They thought, ‘oh, maybe the pandemic won’t be as bad’ or ‘it won’t last long,’ but we just knew we had to be ready.”
Foodies and entrepreneurs, Nowie and his wife Odette managed food stalls and restaurants in Boracay for nearly 16 years. These days, though, they’re far from the island—they decided to fly back to Manila right before the lockdown and wait out the pandemic in the city.
“We knew that if Manila was placed on lockdown, that's virtually no business for the island,” he says. “We wanted to be ready for that possibility pretty much right away.”
It seemed that while the rest of the country was wrapping their heads around a total lockdown, Boracay was simply buckling down for round two. Their experience of shuttered borders and zero income for half a year, said Nenette, had prepared them for a pandemic closure better than anyone else.
What they weren’t prepared, however, for was how long it would last.
Over in Boracay Newcoast, Atho de la Cruz is taking things one day at a time. As the spa manager of the Belmont and Savoy hotels, this is the second closure he’s experienced in three years, and he’s well aware that business is difficult to predict in times like these.
“We’re nearing eight months since the closure now,” he says. “The island has technically reopened, but we still don’t know when tourists will come back.”
To help restart domestic tourism, the local government and Department of Tourism decided to reopen Boracay to travelers from all areas under GCQ on October 1. While many welcomed the news, business has been much slower than expected: Only 35 tourists came on reopening day. Just over 2,300 in total have visited the island within the first month.
Boracay, one of the country’s most popular tourism spots, received only a tenth of its old visitor count for its big reopening. Scratch that—a tenth of its old daily visitor count over two weeks.
It isn’t difficult to imagine why the numbers are so sparse: aside from the unease of traveling during a pandemic, strict (and expensive) requirements, including a negative Covid-19 test result, cause many to think twice about visiting.
“The swab test is so expensive—sometimes more expensive than the hotel room you’re staying in,” he says. “So many people have canceled their trips because of the difficulty with requirements.”
The accommodations industry is one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. While the Savoy hotel is remaining closed at least until the end of the year, the Belmont has chosen to reopen a cluster of 200 hotel rooms. An average of ten are occupied each week. And with costs for rent and utilities piling up, many establishments—like Nenette’s—have decided to close for good.
“You’re losing money, everyday, for months,” she says. “At wala pang kasiguraduhan na babalik ang tourism in at least the next year. Hindi ko kaya.”
With the tourism industry in bad shape, Nenette and many others have chosen to focus on other ventures. Still others, like Nowie and Odette, have had to find ways to earn a living outside the island. They had planned to simply wait things out, until they realized it would take a while before business in Boracay would normalize. So while their shops remain closed, they’ve opened their piri-piri grill Spicebird at the Grid Food Market in Makati.
They hope to reopen business on the island soon, but they’re taking a much more realistic approach. “The number of people going to the island right now can’t even sustain one restaurant,” Nowie says. “The only way we’ll survive now is to wait until there are really people coming to Boracay, and [in the meantime] try to make money here in Manila first.”
Still, there is hope on the island—thanks, almost exclusively, to the spirit of the local community. From supporting each other’s small businesses to buying groceries for elderly neighbors, the Boracaynons are doing their best to take care of each other, in whatever ways they can.
“From the outside, people don’t see how strong the community is on the island,” Nenette says. “Nung 2018 closure, yung community ay naging stronger. Yung resiliency namin, na-prove na namin doon, kaya ngayon hindi madali ma-break yung spirit namin ng Covid-19.”
After deciding to close her business, Nenette has been working with the local government to run different relief programs within the community. As mental health becomes a central concern for many residents, Atho, who has a background in psychology, helps as a lifeline volunteer with the local Red Cross.
Nowie and Odette have also lent a hand from their home in Manila, running different feeding programs on the island and using their social media channels to help boost donation drives. As Spicebird opened in Makati, they’ve also flown in their original staff from Boracay to help them earn a living in the city.
“Some of our staff have been with us since the beginning,” Nowie says. ”It was a huge expense on our part, but at the end of the day, we’re happy to be able to help our own.”
There have been many reasons to believe things are looking up: visitor rates are on an upward trend, more establishments are reopening, and plans to welcome foreign tourists later this year are underway. A recent survey by the DOT also places Boracay as the country’s top destination for post-Covid leisure travel. But with everything that the island has been through, one thing is clear: recovery won’t be as simple as bringing more tourists in.
“I think the reality has set in that yes, we’ve reopened, but there has to be some change for things to actually work,” says Nowie. Beyond protecting the health and safety of locals and visitors, small businesses will also need a serious boost from the government as the island begins to move forward. “Kaming small and medium enterprises na partner ng tourism, walang natanggap na tulong in the six months na nag-close,” says Nenette.
“There has to be an infusion of funding… something like total cancellation of business fees, or maybe taxes for the next few years, for the sector to recover,” Nowie adds. “There has to be big leaps, not just little steps like what we’ve been doing [so far].”
Big leaps have to be made to make Boracay more environmentally sustainable, as well. With pollution and waste management still pressing concerns, public projects have to be fast-tracked and completed before tourists flock to the island again. “Nag-close na nga for six months, after two years na-Covid pa,” Nenette says. “Tapos hindi pa rin ayos yung isla?"
Locals are also imploring that future visitors do their part, through means as simple as following the island’s rules and packing a few extra things to the beach. “Bring your own toiletries, your own shopping bags, your own straw… anything para hindi na kailangan bumili ng single-use,” she adds. “Malaking tulong ito sa amin because then we can reduce our trash.”
I ask Nenette if she would ever leave Boracay—with the island’s future so uncertain, and now that the business has closed, wouldn’t it be much easier to cut your losses and find something different?
She laughs before I can finish asking the question.
“Hindi ko ‘yan naisip,” she says. “I’m happier here than anywhere else in the world.”
After growing up in—and with—the island, and seeing it through all of its ups and downs, giving up life in Boracay was never an option for Nenette. The scenic views, simple lifestyle, and friendly local faces that drew her in as a college graduate are still there, and she echoes the same thought she had in 1984: “Why would you, when you have something more beautiful here?”
Life in Boracay looks a little different these days: the beachfront is quieter, and much less packed. Staple shops and restaurants remain shuttered, curfew hours come earlier, and the smiles ready to greet visitors are hidden by regulation face masks. But through it all, just as they did in 2018, the Boracaynons remain. And like Nenette, they’re staying grounded, but cautiously optimistic for better days ahead.
The locals know that it will take a while before things on the island go back to normal, and that achieving the ideal Boracay—a vibrant and sustainable tourism hotspot—will be a long uphill battle. But their love for the island, and their belief in all that Boracay can offer, is helping them get through the uncertainty of the pandemic, and whatever lies ahead on the other side.
“I’ve experienced everything on this island—closures, typhoons, and now a pandemic,” Atho tells me. “But I don’t want to leave. They’ll have to kick me out.”
NOTE: Images of Boracay were taken before 2020.