I have become predictable. People who know me can guarantee that when the Easter break is practically emptying the city for five days of going on leave, I can be found on the Island.
That is what I call Boracay. I will not even go into that argument about not calling it "Bora" but instead adding that all-so-vital final syllable to identify "Boracay." Any which way, there is only one Boracay ... whether you call it by any other name. The world knows about this spot in our archipelago of seven thousand islands.
Well, why not? Some time or another, it was adjudged the second most beautiful beach in the world. Really now? If I still got my facts right, it has now been demoted to being the fourth most beautiful beach on the planet. OK. I can understand that.
I can completely surmise why there was this supposed demotion from being second best to only the fourth finest.
And that is why I am writing this blog.
Lest I be misunderstood, I love Boracay. Let me rephrase that: I still love Boracay. But the problem is that it is no longer the same Island we used to know ... and its transformation has become saddening. Some say that what has happened to the once pristine paradise is inevitable: it is called evolution. Better yet, it is nothing more but commercialization. Or democratization. There is nothing wrong with that.
We all know that vacations make good business. The Department of Tourism can attest to that: It is more fun in the Philippines --- and any such claim will not be complete without featuring the legendary powdery white sands of Boracay ... together with that iconic grotto located right in front of Willie's Resort and Nigi-Nigi Too in Station One.
We all know that the more tourists you have, the louder the sound of the cash register ... in dollars. The more establishments you have lining that five kilometer stretch from Station 3 all the way to Discovery Shores, the more vibrant the business that can take place.
One of the resort owners even commented that there is technically no off-season in Boracay any more.
Whereas before the 01 June to 15 October is considered the cheapest time to fly to the island because of the change in the direction of the wind. When the Hanging Habagat comes in and the monsoon rains start pouring, enormous windbreakers line the beach to protect the resorts from the onslaught of sands being blown straight into the living quarters.
The waters become choppy but also messy with the debris from the other islands blown onto the shore. Rough waves make it difficult for swimmers even more than the green algae that forms each time the seas get warm enough to spawn these seasonal specimens.
That was before.
Now the off-season is that time of the year when the Koreans and the Taiwanese start flocking in. They come to the Island from their flights straight from nearby Kalibo which is only an hour and a half away from the Port of Caticlan. The influx of tourists has become a year long process --- that is good for the business but is it really beneficial for the island?
With no time to rest and to recover from the injuries of human life plodding down the stretch of the beach, carelessly throwing non-biodegradable waste or even challenging the sewerage and waste disposal system of the island, some imbalance is bound to happen. It is already happening.
The island can only take so much ... and no amount of reasoning or justification in the name of commerce and industry can compensate for the ecological violations taking place. Whether we would like to admit it or not, we all know that, at this point, Boracay is already overpopulated. Worse is the fact that the construction of new establishments --- not only resorts but multi-storey residential condo buildings --- are ceaseless and not merely ongoing.
No one has ever thought or maybe gives a hoot to the sad fact that Boracay can only take in so much.
I will admit that I missed out the real glory days of Boracay when people literally camped on the island's shores. According to some who reminisce with such pained feelings --- there was a time that the stretch of White Beach was bare, except for the coconut trees that have now been pushed back from the shorelines to accommodate resorts, restaurants, diving hubs and the likes. What was even more fascinating were the fireflies.
Yes, there were fireflies that lit the surrounding foliage not to mention the glimmer of the ultra-fine white sand that resembled talcum powder, sparkling under the moonlight.
My best friend Manny Castaneda remembered how it was close to impossible to walk on the beach when the sun was high up in the sky because the whiteness of the sand created such a glare that it was painful to the eyes. "But now," he notes with a sense of loss, "the sand is no longer white. It is the color of pulvoron. And it is no longer as fine as it used to be. Plus the fact that the fireflies have now been replaced by strobe lights and neon signs."
But I guess that was inevitable.
When I adopted Boracay as my home away from home, it was very, very different. That was about ten years ago.
I remember that between the Tirol resort Sea Wind and all the way to Friday's at the very tip of Station One, there was nothing but coconut trees and wild vegetation. Now every available space has been occupied by resorts of various sizes catering to specific kinds of clientele. We still go to that area to spend our Happy Hour outside White House where we can get subzero Pale Pilsens for half the price. That is where most Beach House music is played --- a lovely sight especially during sunset --- but nonetheless so different from the Boracay we knew before.
When I started making Boracay my yearly pilgrimage, bancas from the Port of Caticlan would bring us right to the shoreline of our resorts. We used to laugh when the high tide made it impossible for us to plunge straight to the waters to walk our way to the shore of our resort where our Welcome Drinks wait for us. The boatmen would literally carry us piggy back until the water was ankle deep and therefore easier to walk to the shore without soiling our shorts or pants.
There was also a time when Boracay was the summer capital of the party people.
The entire stretch of Station One --- with its most popular seaside clubs namely Cocomanggas and Club Paraw -- would be the venue of the big summer events mounted by major sponsors that included cable channels, cigarette brands, liquor labels and other lifestyle products. Starting Holy Wednesday and culminating on the big event on the eve of Easter Sunday, the shoreline was blasting with House, Electronica or Trance music. The big event was Slinky Night (usually staged at the beach front of Hey Jude right beside D'Mall) where everybody danced the night away and would refuse to go home until about 7 or 9 of the following morning.
I used to tell people that while taking that short boat ride from Caticlan to Boracay, one would suspect that the island was owned by the two largest telecommunication companies in the country. All the sailboats and paraws literally screamed the names of Smart and Globe. As if this were not enough, small planes would fly across the island with enormous streamers announcing the latest promos ... or helicopters would fly over swimmers, people riding banana boats, playing beach volleyball or just usurping the beauty of seas and sands during the late afternoons.
Broadcast networks and publications would send platoons of reporters and cameramen to capture the private lives of celebrities as they would spend their Easter break frolicking on the island. The greater the exposure and excitement generated by the people and activities on the Island, the greater the market value has been upped in Boracay.
But all that has changed now.
Popularity ... and accessibility have their consequences. The moment the RORO transport allowed an even larger number of people to be towed into the island ... or as soon as more airlines gained access to Caticlan and Kalibo, the greater the number of tourists who were able to spend time (but not necessarily as much money) on the Island. Now there is a ferry from the Port of Batangas that can bring in people all the way to Caticlan for a little less than P700.00 or P1400 roundtrip compared to a non-promo ticket in any of the major airlines servicing the Ramos Airport costing more than P12,000.00 to and from Manila.
Indeed democratization has its effects: exclusivity of Boracay as a vacation hub has been lost.
Oh, yes: there are only a few who can afford the high-end hotels and resorts (with the cheapest rates per night at around P18T during the peak season) but the going daily rate is at least P4,000 if one chooses a seaside residence. In that sense, a certain degree of selectivity still remains --- not unless a room is rented by fifteen people who all decide to live the life of a can of sardines for the Holy Week Penance.
But offshore hostels can go as low as P2000 a night for a relatively large room, shared by as many as five to six people. And this makes Boracay suddenly not only accessible but also available.
One thing is already very evident last Holy Week: the beautiful crowd are no longer there. They have been replaced by throngs of Koreans, Taiwanese, token Europeans (now definitely outnumbered) and a lot of locals flying in, boating in or even swimming straight to the island. The presence of the telecommunication companies is no longer significant ... and the events have been so ho-hum and predictable compared to those mounted in the past.
Undeniably, with an even larger number of people going to the island compared to the past, the mounting of impressive concerts, dance parties and events has diminished, turning the big nights pale by comparison to what can be remembered from the immediate past. When I asked another Boracay devotee why this was so --- why the events ended up more tame and lame as more people came in --- he replied with resignation, "Yes, there are more people on the island now ... but they are not the same people who partied here before."
I looked around and realized that it was true. The people who used to give insanity and therefore sparkle to Boracay have moved elsewhere.
"Pretty soon," my friend added, "Boracay will be the next Puerto Galera."
I also did my own little exercise in Mathematics. I couldn't figure out why with the mushrooming of so many hotels and resorts, how could the cost of hotel or resort accommodations escalate? Does it now follow that the greater the supply, the cheaper the cost? Or has that got to do with a much larger demand from an entirely different group of people who are now dominating the island tourist population?
Unless my calculator is malfunctioning, my computations proved that a weekend in Bangkok is much cheaper than three nights in Boracay. I tried to figure out how this happened --- and I guess my Braun calculator is pretty much correct. Food is cheaper in Bangkok ... and, believe it or not, a four hour air travel to Thailand is much cheaper than an hour plane ride to Caticlan. Go figure out that one.
Maybe I will stop going to Boracay soon. I and my friends are already thinking of possible alternatives: Coron, Panglao, CamSur, Bantayan Island... Pagudpud. I mean, hey ... this is the Philippines, right? But then I think of Juice Bar, Epic, Real Cafe (with darling Nadine and her mother), Del and Tita Loi of Nigi-Nigi, and the bulalo soup at Smokes ... then I realize that I can never really leave Boracay. Or even forget the happiest moments of my life spent there.